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Exfoliation involves the removal of the oldest dead skin cells on the skin's outermost surface, and has been used for many years to help maintain healthy skin. Exfoliation is involved in the process of all facials, during microdermabrasion or chemical peels at medical spas. Exfoliation can be achieved through mechanical or chemical means.
Credit is given to the ancient Egyptians for the practice of exfoliation. In the Middle Ages, wine was used as a chemical exfoliant, with tartaric acid as the active agent. In Asia, the practice of exfoliation started hundreds of years ago. The etymology of the word exfoliate comes from the Latin exfoliare (to strip off leaves).
New skin cells are created in the skin's lower layer, the dermis. Over time, cells migrate to the surface of the skin and become more acidic. During their 30-day journey, they die and become saturated with keratin. Keratin is important because it protects the skin from outside elements. Through the ageing process, and after menopause for women, the natural process of skin erosion becomes uneven, which gives skin a dry and rough character. Exfoliation removes the outer layer to reveal the newer skin beneath. This shedding of the outer layer unclogs pores, keeps skin clean, and helps reduce acne outbreaks. Exfoliation should always be done after cleansing the skin. Exfoliation is important for men as it exposes the hair follicles, allowing a better shave. It is possible to over exfoliate, which dries and irritates the skin. The face is the part of the body most sensitive to exfoliation. Hence, provided that exfoliating causes the skin to dry out, it is very important to moisturize it, because dry skin can lead to wrinkle development.
Exfoliation is achieved through either mechanical or chemical means.
This process involves physically scrubbing the skin with an abrasive. Mechanical exfoliants include microfiber cloths, adhesive exfoliation sheets, micro-bead facial scrubs, crepe paper, crushed apricot kernel or almond shells, sugar or salt crystals, pumice, and abrasive materials such as sponges, loofahs, brushes, and simply fingernails. Facial scrubs are available in over-the-counter products for application by the user. People with dry skin should avoid exfoliants which include a significant portion of pumice, or crushed volcanic rock. Pumice is considered a good material to exfoliate the skin of the feet.  Microdermabrasion is another mechanical method of exfoliation.
Chemical exfoliants include scrubs containing salicylic acid, glycolic acid, fruit enzymes, citric acid, or malic acid which may be applied in high concentrations by a medical professional, or in lower concentrations in over-the-counter products. Chemical exfoliation may involve the use of products that contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), or enzymes that act to loosen the glue-like substance that holds the cells together, allowing them to ease away. This type of exfoliation is recommended for people treating acne. In beauty spa treatment on continental Europe, the chemical properties of wine producing grapes are exploited in the practice of vinotherapy which is becoming increasingly popular.
Some methods of hair removal also exfoliate the skin.
In popular media, exfoliants are advertised as treatments which promote beauty, youthful appearance, or health.
One disadvantage to exfoliation is the high price of some of the products and methods used to achieve it. Exfoliation will lead to some initial redness to the skin. Near the end of chemical peels, the skin will frost, with colors varying from a bright white to grey on the skin surface.