Exfoliating Soap Basics

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.