Exfoliating Soap Basics

Lavendar bath salts.
Unusual Skin Care Ingredients Image Gallery Exfoliating removes dead skin cells from your skin's surface. See more pictures of unusual skin care ingredients.
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If rough, scaly patches of skin make you feel like a desert lizard, it might be time to introduce exfoliating soap into your skin care arsenal. Forget the extra gels and creams -- with exfoliating soap, you can buff your way to a silky smooth exterior.

When you exfoliate, you remove dead skin cells from your uppermost layer of skin. This allows moisturizers to get into the skin instead of sitting on top of it. Some people use an exfoliating soap with harsher ingredients a couple of times a week, and others opt to use an all-in-one gentle exfoliating soap every day.


Exfoliating isn't just for dry skin. If an uneven skin tone leaves you looking blotchy, exfoliating soap can help even out the problem areas. Even better, exfoliating soaps can work with any skin type, so whether you have oily, dry, normal or combination skin, there's a product for you.

If you prefer things "au naturel," some exfoliating soaps are made with natural ingredients like oatmeal, sea salt, brown sugar and peach pits. Other formulas have synthetic beads called microbeads, which are made of plastic and perform a gentler sloughing action. Stronger exfoliating soaps contain glycolic acid and other chemicals.

To get the most out of your exfoliating soap, choose one with ingredients that match your skin's needs. Be aware that the wrong product can cause irritation, breakouts or chemical burns. To prevent these unfortunate side effects, it's also important to understand the skin's natural ability to exfoliate so you don't overdo the buffing and cause more harm than good, especially to the oh-so-sensitive skin on your face.

Each time you scrub in the tub, you're accelerating your skin's natural daily replenishment process. If you're wondering about the science behind the soap, keep reading for a little exfoliating soap chemistry lesson.


Chemistry of Exfoliating Soaps

You might not see it or feel it, but your skin naturally replenishes itself every day. You can give your skin a massaging hand with this tough job by using exfoliating soap to accelerate the reconstruction process.

Think of your skin as a paper-thin brick wall. Visibly delicate but surprisingly strong, the upper layer of your skin, or stratum corneum, grows in a pattern like bricks and mortar. Each layer of cells, or bricks, is protected by a blanket, or cement, of oily lipids. The lipids holding your skin together and keeping it supple are your first line of defense against outside invaders. This oily cement also helps keep moisture from escaping so your skin doesn't dry out and crack.


Any soap claiming to be exfoliating contains a combination of natural or synthetic ingredients that remove skin cells while buffing the skin. Swipes of chemicals from the alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), salicylic acid and beta hydroxy acid families can break through the skin's brick wall and dissolve the dead cells. Biological particles then dig in as you massage to smooth out the rough patches.

The goal of chemical exfoliating ingredients is to deconstruct the skin's layers and release many hours, days and, in some cases, years of debris and dirt. This leaves your skin cleaner than it would be with a nonexfoliating cleanser. AHAs like glycolic acid from sugar, fruit acids or lactic acid (derived from milk) can help build a new layer of smooth hydrated skin cells, which can give the appearance of healthier skin.

The coarse ingredients in exfoliating soap are the physical particles that buff your skin after you remove the dead cells. These natural additives provide a sanding effect that leaves your skin feeling polished. However, if you have sensitive skin, you'll want to avoid coarse particles and opt for microbeads or chemical exfoliating soap instead.

Though you may want to see results right away, less is more when you're exfoliating. To avoid symptoms of overexfoliating, like irritation and redness, watch your chemical use and read on to find out which grainy particles you'll want to give special attention.


Exfoliating Particles

For years, women have used everyday ingredients like oatmeal and sand to achieve smooth, radiant skin. These remedies might seem rough, but exfoliating soaps rely on coarse particles to bring results. If your skin is sensitive, synthetic particles do the same work in a gentler way.

It makes sense that harsh particles exfoliate skin. Sand and pumice scour away dirt and grime in their natural surroundings. When they're added to soap, they get rid of dirt and lift away dead skin cells. Depending on what body part you're exfoliating, the type of particle in your soap will make a difference.


If you're looking for something to smooth out your heels or elbows, natural ingredients like ground nut shells, peach pits and coarse salt work well on the roughest skin. When it comes to your face, though, gentle is better. Think of what your feet experience when you're walking through a layer of shells on the beach. Although the pieces found in soap are ground to fine particles, imagine rubbing crushed shells on your face. Ouch! Very fine sugar, oatmeal and rice bran are better suited for the delicate skin of your face.

Synthetic particles in exfoliating soaps are just as effective as pumice and sand but don't have irritating sharp edges. Look for microbeads made of plastic or polyethylene. These exfoliants are designed to be gentle for sensitive skin. They also strip away fewer cells during the cleaning process because they're less abrasive. So, they can be gentle enough to use every day [source: Wyar].

Exfoliating ingredients can do wonders for your skin. But using more soap than suggested or in the wrong area could create less-than-smooth results. Keep reading to discover the pros and cons of exfoliating.


Pros and Cons of Exfoliating Soaps

If you've been maximizing your exfoliating time, you know your skin is a living, breathing and easily irritated part of your body. If you're not careful, your sloughing regime could backfire and cause redness, an annoying case of acne or a bad sunburn.

The coarse particles in exfoliating soap can be too abrasive, and the tingling feeling from acidic ingredients can turn into a burning sensation if you leave the soap on longer than the recommended one to two minutes. Exfoliating can also have long-lasting effects on the deeper layers of your skin.


Acids like AHAs can strip away the skin's natural protective cover, and new cells exposed to the sun need more sunscreen in a higher SPF than you may normally use. If you're planning to bask in the sun, make sure you don't exfoliate on the same day.

Microbeads may do wonders for your skin, but if they're made with plastic, those beads may also harm the environment. Sure, the mini-particles help you scrub away pollutants and leave your skin buffed, invigorated and refreshed, but after the tiny beads do their job they go down the drain with the day's dirt. Research shows these particles bypass purification plants and end up in the world's waterways, ultimately landing on the ocean floor, where they become a most unfortunate form of fish food [source: Rosner].

The good news is that all exfoliating soaps are not created equal. If you know you want smoother skin but you're concerned about the environment, pick a product made with ground-up seeds, sea salt or other natural ingredients.

Now that you've gotten the nitty-gritty on exfoliating soaps, you can decide whether or not to buff. For even more information, check on the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Bruno, Karen. "Women's Skin Care for Your Face." WebMD. (Accessed 9/2/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/advances-skin-care-9/women-face-skin-care
  • DeGersdorff, Sascha. "Beauty Basics: Scrubs." WebMD. (Accessed 9/2/09http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/features/beauty-basics-scrubs
  • Goins, Liesa. "Make Yourself Beautiful on a Budget." WebMD. (Accessed 9/2/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/features/make-yourself-beautiful-on-a-budget
  • Rosner, Hillary. "Scrubbing Out Sea Life." Slate. 6/16/08. (Accessed 8/23/09)http://www.slate.com/?id=2193693
  • Suzman, Leesa. "Look 7 Years Younger." WebMD. (Accessed 8/23/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/features/seven-years-younger
  • The Skin Sciences Institute. "Skin Care: A Practical Guide to Skin Care Products and Ingredients." 1999 (Accessed 8/23/09)http://www.netwellness.org/healthtopics/skincare/brochure.pdf
  • WebMD. "Choosing Skin Care Products: Know Your Ingredients." 2/17/09 (Accessed 8/22/09)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/cosmetic-procedures-products-2?page=2
  • Wyar, Leah. "Do You Have Type E Skin?" Self. September 2005 (Accessed 8/22/09) http://www.self.com/beauty/2008/07/exfoliation-skin-care