The largest organ in the body is also the most dynamic: Our skin is never exactly the same from day to day. The skin's surface -- all 2 square yards (1.7 square meters) of it -- is constantly sloughing off dead cells so new, living cells can move up from the lower layer and make us look younger, smoother and more glowing [source: Your Total Health].
This skin cycle is ideal in infancy, when the outer layer of skin is replaced about every few days, accounting at least in part for that bright, baby-soft skin (lack of sun exposure helps, too) [source: CGPS]. Skin-cell turnover slows as we age, to about weekly as children and every three weeks in our 20s [source: Paula's Choice]. After that, it's closer to once a month [source: DERMAdoctor]. The result of slower skin-cell replacement is duller, less even-looking skin, blemishes and more fine lines.
That's where exfoliation comes in. To exfoliate simply means to shed off the outer layer of dead skin cells so fresher ones can take their place. This makes skin look healthier and also makes it better at absorbing treatments like moisturizers.
There are lots of different ways to accomplish this. The method most people know about is the "scrub" -- the rough, creamy substance you massage into your skin and then rinse away. Scrubs can incorporate any number of substances to achieve the rough consistency that sloughs off cells, from ground-up fruit pits to sugar to oatmeal to plastic "microbeads." These are called physical exfoliants. You can also use chemical exfoliants, which take a different approach to removing skin cells.
In this article, we'll take a look at five of the best exfoliants out there for face and body. We'll find out what makes these exfoliants safe and effective, which skin types they're best suited to, and why some popular exfoliants are less than ideal.
We'll begin with what's probably the simplest method of physical exfoliation: the time-tested loofah sponge.
The easiest way to incorporate exfoliation into a skin-care routine is to make it part of a cleansing ritual. Loofah sponges and facial cloths can be used with your favorite cleanser once or twice a week (daily exfoliating is too harsh for most skin types) to kill two birds -- cleaning and exfoliating -- with one stone.
A loofah is a natural, fibrous sponge that comes from the fruit of the loofah plant.
This type of exfoliant comes in a wide variety of textures (and you can find synthetic varieties, too). Harsher loofahs are best for tough areas like feet and elbows; softer, more flexible loofahs can be used all over the body, and the softest loofahs are better for delicate facial skin.
For sensitive skin types, a facial cloth can provide gentler exfoliating. A facial cloth is a synthetic, softer, washclothlike product with rougher fibers interspersed throughout. It's a lighter form of exfoliation that's less likely to irritate sensitive or dry skin.
While these exfoliants can turn cleansing into an extra-beneficial process, a separate exfoliant can offer even more positive effects. Up next: An exfoliant you probably have in your kitchen right now.
4: Baking Soda
It's cheap, abundant and all-natural. We use it for baking, cleaning and deodorizing. It has been called upon in the battle against global warming (see Can baking soda save the environment?) And apparently, it can also improve the complexion.
Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3), is a white, powdery substance. What makes it such a good exfoliant is the nature of its particles: They're hard enough to slough off dead cells, but fine enough to do it without irritating the skin. In this way, baking soda can be especially good for dry or sensitive skin, which does better with smaller exfoliating particles (oily skin can better handle harsher exfoliating methods).
To exfoliate sensitive skin with baking soda, add a teaspoon to your cleanser and massage it into your skin as usual. For more resilient skin, you can simply pour some baking soda into a container and add enough water to make a thick paste. Then gently massage it into your skin and rinse off. Baking soda is safe for both facial and body exfoliation.
Up next: a higher-tech method.
Both baking soda and loofahs are physical exfoliants. They remove dead skin cells by friction. Chemical exfoliants take a different approach. They penetrate the skin and chemically dissolve the bonds holding skin cells together, allowing the older, dead cells to be washed away. It's a less abrasive method of exfoliation that can benefit most skin types.
One popular chemical exfoliant is BHA, or beta-hydroxy acid. BHA, in the form of salicylic acid, is ideal for acne-prone, blackhead-prone, or otherwise oily, blemished skin. Unlike other chemical exfoliants, salicylic acid is oil-soluble. Since it can dissolve into the oil inside pores, it can remove the dead skin cells that are helping to clog the pores and cause blackheads or "breakouts." BHA can be better for acne-prone skin than a scrub, since friction can make acne worse.
Up next, a chemical exfoliant with wider range.
For oily, breakout-prone skin, BHA is a great choice. But for dry, sun-damaged or lined skin, AHA, or alpha-hydroxy acid, is an ideal exfoliant.
AHA is a water-soluble exfoliant, and it comes in several different forms, including lactic acid, malic acid, citric aced and glycolic acid. Glycolic acid, extracted from sugarcane, and lactic acid, extracted from milk, are the most popular AHAs [source: Paula's Choice]. These ingredients are sometimes used in "chemical peels" performed in spas and dermatologist offices (but chemical peels are a step up from basic exfoliation; they're harsher and should not be performed at home).
You'll find AHAs in lotions, cleansers and toners. They penetrate the skin to chemically free dead skin cells and allow the skin to renew itself, and they do it without risking the loss of too much skin to over-zealous physical exfoliation.
Up next: breakfast on your face.
Oatmeal is known for its gentle, skin-healthy effects -- you may have taken oatmeal baths when you had chicken pox as a kid. But oatmeal's benefits go beyond soothing; it can also help you achieve younger-looking, more beautiful skin.
Ground-up oatmeal can be a great exfoliant -- it's harsh enough to produce some friction, but soft enough to safely exfoliate any skin type, even dry, acne-prone or sensitive. It doesn't have any jagged edges (like you'll find in ground fruit pits or sea salt) to tear or irritate skin, and you can use it from head to toe.
It also comes with a couple of added bonuses: vitamins B and E, both essential for healthy skin.
To exfoliate with oatmeal, grind it up finely in a food processor. Place it in a container and add enough warm water to form a paste. Apply to skin, massage and rinse. Follow with a moisturizer while the skin is still damp and extra open to absorption.
For more information on skin exfoliants and related topics, look over the links on the next page.
Lots More Information
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Top 5 Foods for Beautiful Skin
- Top 5 Things Your Nails Say About Your Health
- Top 5 Tips for Choosing a Daily Facial Cleanser
- Top 5 Sunscreens for Sensitive Skin
- 12 Ways to Get Rid of Acne
- Health and Beauty: 10 Questions for Dr. Oz
More Great Links
- The New York Times: Face It, Princess, Your Skin Is Probably Quite Common -- Oct. 13, 2005
- Paula's Choice: Understanding Exfoliants
- Planet Green: Would You Exfoliate with All Natural Animal Excrement? -- July 16, 2009
- Exfoliants. Consumer Guide to Plastic Surgery.http://www.yourplasticsurgeryguide.com/facial-rejuvenation/exfoliants.htm
- Exfoliation. DERMAdoctor.http://www.dermadoctor.com/article_Exfoliation_344.html
- Understanding Exfoliants. Paula's Choice.http://www.cosmeticscop.com/skin-care-facts-understanding-bha-aha-exfoliants.aspx
- Your Total Health. "Skin Basics." NBC and iVillage.http://yourtotalhealth.ivillage.com/skin-basics.print.html