Skincare SOS - The Hazards of Over-Exfoliation
In the quest for perfect skin, many people fall into the trap of trying to erase their dermal irregularities and imperfections by aggressive exfoliation. You may ask, “But I thought that exfoliation should be part of a regular skincare routine, what can go wrong?” Turns out, plenty. You’ve probably either experienced this yourself, or seen someone with the telltale signs of a stripped and traumatised skin: redness, breakouts, flaky patches, sensitivity, itching, shiny appearance, tight sensation. Clear signs of a skin that is compromised both structurally and functionally!
In order to understand the dangers of over-exfoliation, let’s first look at the anatomy and physiology of the epidermis. The outermost layer of your skin (stratum corneum) is made up of multiple layers of cells (corneocytes), which are constantly undergoing a process of sloughing off and shedding, this process is referred to as desquamation. Deeper down in the epidermis, in a layer known as the stratum germinativum, epidermal stem cells are constantly undergoing cellular renewal in order to replace what is lost by this natural process. By the time epidermal cells reach the outer layers of the skin, they’ve essentially died and are jam-packed full of keratin (a water proof protein), this process is referred to as keratinization. As the cells reach the outer layers, the adhesive “glue” which holds them together starts breaking down, which allows for the desquamation of dead skin cells.
Surely exfoliation is simply lending a helping hand to this natural process? The answers is not so clearcut. If you consider that one of the primary functions of the skin is to provide both physical and chemical protection, we start to realise that over enthusiastic exfoliation can be disastrous. The first point to consider is that desquamation is a natural process that occurs from the inside out, assuming it is happening in a balanced fashion, the integrity of the skin is maintained, and it can happily achieve its aim of functioning as a protective barrier. Exfoliation, on the other hand, is an external intervention, that either physically or chemically speeds up the process of desquamation, which can in turn compromise the skin’s integrity if performed incorrectly.
There are two main classes of exfoliants, mechanical and chemical. Mechanical exfoliants physically abrade the superficial layers of the stratum corneum e.g. granular scrubs, facial mittens and brushes, microdermabrasion, and dermaplaning. Abrasive and rough granules or fabrics, paired with overuse and aggressive techniques, can result in micro trauma to the surface of the skin, which can reduce the effectiveness of the skin’s acid mantle, encourage inflammation and infection, which can in turn lead to post inflammatory hyper pigmentation. Yes, the same pigmentation that many of us try to scrub away! Besides the damage that buffing away at your skin can create, certain granular scrubs wreak havoc on an environmental level. Plastic microbeads have been found to cause serious harm to marine life, and as result many countries and cosmetic houses have initiated a ban on their use.
Chemical exfoliation entails the use of cosmeceutical ingredients which assist with loosening the adhesive “glue” that holds corneocytes together, and in turn facilitating cellular renewal, e.g., vitamins such as Retinol, acids such as AHAs/BHAs/PHAs, and fruit enzymes such as papain and bromelain. Deeper or more intensive forms of chemical exfoliation are generally performed by qualified professionals, and are commonly known as peels. Jennifer Rock aka the “Skin Nerd” provides a great analogy describing the difference between mechanical and chemical exfoliants, “Mechanical exfoliation is like chipping the tiles off the roof, whereas chemical exfoliation drips through the gaps in the tiles, leaving the tiles themselves intact.”
OK, so chemical exfoliation is obviously way better than mechanical - let’s keep on peeling. Not quite, whilst home-use chemical exfoliation is certainly less aggressive on the skin, too much of a good thing is exactly that, too darn much. The ubiquitousness of chemical exfoliant ingredients is where the problem lies. Let’s say you use a cleanser, toner, serum, and moisturiser that all contain chemical exfoliants on a daily basis; you begin to see how ingredient pile up and frequency of use can negatively impact the skin. Another factor is the regular use of products with high concentrations of chemical exfoliants in home-care routines, these have the potential to effect not only dead skin cells, but living cells as well - thereby actually producing trauma and promoting an inflammatory response. Additionally, it is imperative to protect skin that has undergone chemical exfoliation from UV light; omitting an SPF from one’s skincare routine can result in angry, inflamed skin.
Out of the litany of chemical exfoliant ingredients utilised in skincare, fruit enzymes are considered to be the mildest and gentlest acting on the skin - let’s hear it for our fruity favourite - papain! Papain is classified as a proteolytic enzyme, which means that it functions by breaking down the bonds between proteins (remember the “glue” that adheres corneocytes to one another). In terms of activity, papain can only penetrate and act on the superficial layers of the epidermis, this greatly reduces the potential for irritation as only dead skin cells are targeted. Another perk is the slow action of papain in comparison to acids, as a result, enzyme based products can be incorporated into a regular skincare routine without the risk of promoting inflammation. By gently supporting your skin’s natural desquamation process, papain can give your skin a luminous appearance, without moving into fifty shades of vermilion territory.
So what is our AYA recommendation for over-exfoliated skin? Instead of stripping the skin in the quest to achieve the perfect complexion, the answer lies with hydration. Keeping the skin well hydrated can facilitate efficient desquamation. This will in turn maintain the integrity of your skin’s acid mantle, resulting in reduced skin infections and inflammation. The skin will effectively function better, in turn giving you a natural glow versus a Madame Tussauds' wax figurine look. Truthfully, your skin should not feel squeaky clean after cleansing/exfoliating; you do not need to aggressively scrub your face every day; avoid the use of harsh exfoliating ingredients and rather opt for gentle ingredients such as papain; wear an SPF daily; support your skin structurally and functionally instead of adding further stress. Let it do what it does best, protect you, with a little AYA assistance of course. Our SOS serum, coupled with our moisturiser are the ideal panacea for over-exfoliated skin in need of R&R.
AYA…From Papaya with Love