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Beauty experts generally agree that exfoliating the skin is the quickest and most effective way to give our complexion a healthy glow.
Skin exfoliation is a time-honoured beauty ritual in cultures across the globe. It could be argued that we haven’t come very far in exfoliation technology since Cleopatra bathed in milk to make her skin feel soft. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), found in foods such as milk, are now a popular choice for use in exfoliant products, as are finely ground beans, which have been used in Japan for centuries.
The key to successful exfoliation is to not overdo it. The skin does a pretty good job of looking after itself, with its natural rejuvenation cycle, if we support it with a balanced diet and stress-free environment. How quickly our skin’s cells replace themselves – known as cell turnover – is dependent on the condition and the age of the skin. When we are young and in good health, this process takes about four weeks, but as we age, or if our skin is stressed, it can take up to 75 days. By using an exfoliation product, we speed up the process while stimulating the production of new cells to promote radiant skin.
Rough it up
Mechanical (grainy) exfoliants include jojoba beads and ground nuts, seeds, beans, grains, pulses and bamboo shoots. These work by physically removing dead skin cells. At the same time, this mechanical action stimulates blood flow, making the skin more toned and radiant. This can also be achieved with facial massage or acupressure.
Grainy exfoliants do a great job, but go easy. Opt for finely ground particles or spherical beads as these won’t scratch the skin, cause inflammation or rob the skin of its precious oils and protective melanin. Mechanical scrubs are not ideal if you have very sensitive skin or rosacea, unless you use fine oatmeal soaked in milk or something equally soft. Harsher granules such as salt and sugar should only be used on areas that don’t have delicate skin, such as thighs.
Mechanical exfoliants also extend to materials including loofahs and face cloths. Loofahs can be scratchy and too harsh for the face, but they make for a good body application on less delicate areas. Face washes work well on face and body, enhancing the action of your cleanser; once the cleanser has helped lift dirt off the skin, the cloth not only gently wipes it away, but acts as its own gentle exfoliant. Dry body brushes also make for an effective method of exfoliation. They slough off flaky skin and at the same time kickstart the lymphatic system; helping to get rid of unwanted toxins.
Some foods and plants contain chemical (smooth) exfoliants, such as the AHAs in milk, yoghurt, wine, tomatoes, citrus fruit and sugarcane, and beta hydroxy acid in willow bark. These dissolve the intercellular glue that holds dead skins cells together. Salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid, is oil soluble so it’s especially good for cleansing and exfoliating oily skin. Enzymes such as papain, found in papaya, are useful for dissolving dead skin cells.
AHAs come in many forms: lactic acid, citric acid, glycolic acid, malice acid and tartaric acid. Over-the-counter products usually contain safe levels of these acids, but be careful as high concentrations can shed layers of skin. While some people require this to treat scarring, products with an AHA concentration above 10 per cent or a pH of less than three are best used under the supervision of a dermatologist to avoid damaging the skin.
You can make your own mechanical exfoliant by mixing fine grains with a wet substance such as milk, yoghurt or vegetable oil. Also, AHAs in their natural form are gentle and work well. For a fresh-food mask, use some yoghurt, tomato, crushed grapes or lemon juice. And while papain in skincare products is effective, there is nothing like putting fresh papaya on your face, mixed with a bit of yoghurt, for rejuvenating the skin. This is suitable for all skin types.
Flick through the images on the right to see our pick of some great exfoliants you can purchase.