The Ultimate Guide To Exfoliation For Men
Illustration by Mr Michal Benardski
Get it right and exfoliation can be your most dependable friend in your skincare regimen. It can help to dramatically improve a host of skin concerns – texture, pigmentation, acne, scarring, dullness, fine lines, you name it. Get it wrong, however, and you could run the risk of doing far more harm than good – think red, raw and angry skin. But how do you know which exfoliator to use? And how often should you be using it? Is applying acid to your face really as terrifying as it sounds? Fret not, as below we’ve compiled some of the best expert advice and guidance so that you can master the art of skin-sloughing.
Know the difference
As you’ll likely already know, exfoliating products fall into two key categories: physical (ie, scrubs) and chemical. “[Physical exfoliants] tend to be more abrasive as they remove dead skin cells mechanically,” says Ms Ridah Syed, senior medical aesthetician at Skinfluencer in London.
On the other hand, chemical exfoliators, formulated as toners, serums or masks, are more effective in tackling dead skin cells. “They essentially work by dissolving the intercellular bonding, which is the glue that holds skin cells together,” Syed says. “By doing this, they remove dead skin cells from the surface.”
Is one better than other? “I prefer to recommend chemical exfoliants,” says London-based dermatologist Dr Amiee Vyas. “They are more effective as they are often multi-tasking ingredients that work to treat specific skin concerns, including texture, acne and pigmentation,” If however, you do prefer to use a physical scrub, just be sure to use gentle motions.
Find your acid
Exfoliating acids may sound intense, but they’re naturally occurring ingredients, usually derived from plants (eg, sugar cane). They are typically split into two main types: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs).
AHAs are the most efficient at cell turnover and removing dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. Glycolic acid is considered the gold standard here – it is one of the most effective resurfacing ingredients.
“It’s an excellent all-rounder that can help stimulate collagen,” Syed says of glycolic acid. “It can also improve skin texture and dullness and impart a nice glow to the skin. That said, used incorrectly with darker skin types, it can cause irritation and lead to hyperpigmentation.”
Dr Vyas advises pairing with along a gentle moisturiser and opting for gentler low-strength formulations – percentages vary depending on the formula, but generally below six per cent. But if you’re still wary of using glycolic acid, she recommends mandelic acid instead, which is an excellent alternative for darker skin tones and great for tackling pigmentation.
As for BHAs? These typically take the form of salicylic acid and can penetrate deeper into the skin to break down oil and grime. In short, they’re a great option for people who suffer from acne, blackheads and generally oilier skin. If you’re a newbie, try 111SKIN’s Microbiome Blemish Mask, which only sits on the skin for a few minutes, so it reduces any chance of irritation.
On the super-sensitive side? Syed suggests fruit acid-based products, which can even work for those with rosacea and acne rosacea. Dr. Barbara Sturm’s enzyme cleanser, formulated with vitamin C and enzymes, specifically for darker skin tones, will provide a gentle exfoliation without aggravating your skin. “And remember to avoid using acids on freshly shaven skin,” says Dr Vyas, as this is its own form of exfoliation and could cause oversensitivity.
Set the frequency
So, how often should you be sloughing off your skin cells? “It really depends on the strength of product and a person’s skin type,” Syed says. “If it is a gentle product, then you can use it every day. For stronger products, limit usage to once or twice a week.”
It’s generally advised to save exfoliating for evening, as acids can make your skin sensitive to the sun – and to always use SPF in the morning. If you’re looking to introduce a new acid in your routine, always start slow with a low strength (below six per cent) and then build up as tolerated, Dr Vyas advises.
If, however, your skin looks dull and you can see the build-up of dead skin cells, presenting as a dry, textured and flaky complexion, you should up the exfoliation in your routine, Syed says. For the more advanced users who want to tackle multiple concerns at once, a product with a cocktail of different acids, such as Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare’s Alpha Beta Serum, might be for you.
On the other hand, overdoing your exfoliation can manifest in breakouts, dehydration and dry spots, as your skin barrier is over-stripped. If your skin looks red and feels sore and more sensitive, it’s advised to limit your exfoliation to no more than twice a week, or look for a gentler product that your skin can endure.
Call in the pros
Dealing with noticeable texture, scarring or fine lines or simply looking for smoother, more youthful skin in a shorter space of time? Then an in-clinic exfoliating treatment – or chemical peel – might be what you’re after.
“PRX T33 is one of our most popular peels at Skinfluencer,” Syed says. “It’s based on 33 per cent TCA [trichloroacetic acid], which penetrates the deeper layers of the skin and promotes the development of collagen and elastin.”
TCA is a pain-free treatment, Syed reassures – although you may experience a mild-tingling sensation during – but there is almost minimal down-time afterwards, as it doesn’t cause inflammation or damage to the skin. It’s suitable for all skin tones, too. However, with melanin-rich types, it’s always worth making sure their practitioners are experienced in administering peels to darker complexions.
Meanwhile, if you’re prone to acne, there are peels out there for you. Which you opt for all depends on the type of acne you have, but Syed generally recommends a series of in-clinic salicylic acid peel treatments, which will help manage oil production and minimise breakouts.
Protect and repair
If you’ve stripped your skin from exfoliating too much, or your skin is recovering from an in-office chemical peel, you need to take it back to the basics. “Stop all strong and exfoliating products,” Dr Vyas says – this includes retinols. “Simplify your routine to a hydrating cleanser, a gentle moisturiser that contains ceramides and hyaluronic acid and protect the skin daily with sunscreen. “You should do this for a few days or weeks as needed, once the skin feels better, you can reintroduce a very gentle exfoliant. “When you want to go back to stronger acids, build your tolerance slowly.”
If your skin is inflamed, avoid perfumed products and using very hot water on your skin, Dr Vyas says. You should look for nourishing and fragrance-free skincare. Dr. Barbara Sturm’s line is a great option as her products are designed for sensitive types formulated with deeply hydrating and anti-inflammatory ingredients such as panthenol, purslane extract and skullcap.
For post-treatment care, Syed adds: “Because you are revealing fresh new skin, it’s vital to use a broad-spectrum SPF50+, which will help preserve your brand-new baby skin.” And no matter how much you’re tempted to touch your skin to admire its smooth texture, resist. “It will be prone to breakouts,” she says.