PHOTO: Imaxtree

I just went two weeks completely makeup-free. Yes, that’s right, not a scrap of mascara or foundation for a full 14 days. My experience taught me many things, but one was the importance of skincare. When my skin is clear, even, and smooth, I don’t feel the need to wear makeup at all. Exfoliation is one aspect of skincare that is so paramount to the clarity of your complexion, but (in my opinion), it’s also one of the most confusing. There’s the chemical versus physical debate, the age-old question of AHA or BHA, not to mention frequency—how often is too often? 

To help, I enlisted the help of three top skin experts to break down exactly how and when to exfoliate, and what to do it with. The panel consists of author and skin researcher Desiree Stordahl, and two of Sydney’s finest facialists—Melanie Grant and Jocelyn Petroni—so you know they’re going to deliver some world class advice. So, without further adieu, keep scrolling for the answers to every exfoliation question you’ve ever had (and some ace recommendations to go with it). 

WHAT IS EXFOLIATION?

“Exfoliation is the removal of dry, dead skin cells from the skin surface”—Jocelyn Petroni.

“Exfoliation involves the removal of the uppermost surface of the skin. Sloughing away these keratanised (dry) dead skin cells gives a fresh, radiant appearance. Exfoliation also enhances the penetration of serums, oils and hydrators, so it’s a no-brainer”—Melanie Grant.

“Our skin naturally sheds dead cells every day, but over time, this natural exfoliating process slows or malfunctions due to age and sun damage. That’s where exfoliants come into play to help remove built-up layers of dead skin. Without this removal process, we can be faced with dullness, flaking, dryness, pronounced wrinkles, congestion, and clogged pores”—Desiree Stordahl. 

WHAT ARE ITS BENEFITS? 

“Exfoliation has many benefits including stimulating cell turnover, revealing smoother, hydrated skin cells, increased absorption of daily moisturisers and serums, unclogging pores and congestion, stimulation of lymphatic drainage for internal cleansing, and stimulation of oxygen-rich blood to feed and nourish the skin’s surface”—Jocelyn Petroni.

“Our skin naturally sheds dead cells every day. Over time as a result of age, unprotected sun exposure, a cold, or dry climate, this cell turnover process starts to slow down. This can result in dull, sallow, flaky, congested, or blemish-prone skin. So along with giving the skin a fresh appearance and enhancing product penetration, the removal of dead cells and debris makes pores look smaller, prevents blemishes and blackheads, and allows your makeup to sit better. It’s also the fastest, easiest way to give your skin a real visible boost”—Melanie Grant. 

“Gently exfoliating the built-up layer of dead skin reveals the fresher, younger-looking skin hiding beneath. It helps soften the appearance of wrinkles, while evening out the skin’s tone and texture”—Desiree Stordahl. 

What is the difference between chemical and physical exfoliation? 

“Physical exfoliation involves using a granular scrub that manually abraises the skin to physically remove dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliators are liquid fruit acids which dissolve dead skin cells. They may contain oil-based fruit acids (like salicylic acid) which dissolves hard oil built up in the pores”—Jocelyn Petroni.

“A chemical exfoliant is applied and left on the skin to dissolve the glue that holds the dead cells together. When the glue is dissolved, the cells come away. These exfoliants include ingredients such as lactic acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and plant or fruit enzymes. A physical exfoliant includes both scrubs with fine granules or brushes (such as the Clarisonic) to gently lift and scrub the dead surface cells away”—Melanie Grant. 

“Most scrubs have rough, coarse textures, which can be harsh and abrasive, causing micro-tears in skin. Gentle scrubs and soft cleansing brushes are the exception. I do think though that they should only be used when skin really needs it. Leave-on AHA and BHA liquids are the most effective way to exfoliate. They’re gentler on skin, go deeper for more dramatic results, and there’s research showing that they’re simultaneously hydrating”—Desiree Stordahl. 

IS ONE BETTER THAN THE OTHER?

“Chemical exfoliators are better for most skin types because they are more efficient. They also can have added benefits like hydrating the skin and decreasing pigmentation. Chemical exfoliators are less abrasive and are preferred by sensitive and mature skins. They actually target breakouts too”—Jocelyn Petroni. 

“It’s completely dependent on skin type. Ideally you would use both, so an exfoliating water or cleanser in the evening, and a physical scrub twice per week in the morning for example. However if you have a sensitive skin, then using an enzyme mask a few times per week would be ideal. Or for those of us with oily and congested skin, a scrub many be used three or four times per week in the morning, and an liquid exfoliant at night”—Melanie Grant. 

“Generally speaking, chemical exfoliation is more effective than physical”—Desiree Stordahl.

Words by EMILY ALGAR for Byrdie