A proper exfoliating cleanse is the first and most important step in your skincare routine. In fact, a cleanse that also exfoliates the dead skin cell layer on the surface of the epidermis can be a standalone treatment in itself.
There are three main reasons an exfoliating cleanse is so important:
Firstly, when the superficial keratin layer of dead skin cells is thin, it enables better absorption of any active ingredients you may apply after cleansing. Active ingredients need to penetrate through this surface layer in order to be effective.
Secondly, exfoliation prevents the entrapment of oils and build-up of dead cells that cause congestion, pigmentation and general cellular debris.
Thirdly, when you remove congestion, you allow the more superficial layers of the epidermal cells to perform their natural metabolic functions, such as producing hyaluronic acid, mitochondrial energy, and DNA and RNA production to help synthesise collagen and prevent free radical damage.
If we may focus on the importance of absorption for a moment, your skincare can only penetrate so deeply, so the epidermis is really the only layer we can improve with good effective daily skincare.
The epidermal layer of skin makes up the surface complexion. It is surprisingly thin and translucent, between 0.1 and 0.2 mm thick, and it consists of a tightly packed layer of cells that grow from a basal or stem cell layer.
Our blood supply brings dietary nutrition up through the skin to the basal layer, and new cells are produced every day. As new cells are produced, cells from previous days and even weeks are pushed toward the surface layer of the skin, away from their nutritional supply of blood.
After 3 to 4 weeks of being pushed forward, the cells are dead, or close to it. At this stage, they form part of the transitional zone and dead cell zone, or the surface keratin layer in the epidermis.
This dead cell area should naturally exfoliate to prevent occlusion and hyperkeratinisation (when an excess of dead cells stick together and block the pores).
However, with the common use of thick occlusive make up, poor quality sunscreens, moisturisers with mineral oils and skincare with synthetic occlusive fillers, this dead cell layer can build up and become more compressed and more occlusive than it should be. It then has an undesirable blocking effect on the skin.
Dead cell build-up can also damage the skin’s natural barrier. It affects the permeability of the surface layer and causes evaporation of water, which in turn dries out the surface layer of the skin.
As mentioned above in the three main reasons to exfoliate, dead cell build-up can prevent penetration of nourishing serums, entrap oils and other debris, and affect the healthy function of the living cells beneath it.
The simplest answer to problematic build-up of dead cells? Use an exfoliating cleanser twice daily. Then, after drying off from cleansing, apply a leave-on gentle exfoliating serum to maintain constant exfoliation of this developing dead cell layer.
You should also try to avoid using any creams or makeup with occlusive ingredients such as mineral oils, silicones or synthetic fillers.
Exfoliating cleansers can be very gentle and hydrating for your skin if you use one with naturally derived plant extracts such as fruit enzymes or AHAs (Alpha Hydroxy Acids). AHAs are gentle acids derived from fruit (such as Malic Acid, which comes from apples) or Lactic Acid (which can be created by fermentation of plant or dairy products).
It’s better to use AHAs rather than physical exfoliating scrubs because the granular particles in scrubs can be too aggressive for the sensitive surface of the epidermal skin. They can also create little micro tears and lead to tiny amounts of scar tissue.
AHAs, alternatively, safely dissolve the glue that holds dead skin cells together so they can be washed away easily without using anything abrasive.
For a more oily skin type, you can use a stronger AHA such as Glycolic Acid (derived from sugar) and a combination of AHAs and oil-absorbing ingredients such as Activated Charcoal to decongest pores.
When your skin is cleansed and exfoliated, it tends to look smoother, and also brighter, as the dull dehydrated layer of dead cells becomes thinner.
Should you also use a toner?
Toners are astringents, which mean that they constrict the skin tissues. If you’re using an exfoliating cleanser, you likely won’t need a toner. Toners can be too astringent and even irritating for freshly exfoliated skin.
What about cleansing brushes?
Gentle soft brushes, such as the Clarisonic, can still be used once a week or so, but they aren’t really necessary if you’re using a good exfoliating cleanser, the cleanser should be effective on its own.
A proper cleanse with a good exfoliating cleanser is like having a facial treatment at home every day.