Skincare, Two Ways is our new series exploring skincare routines in-depth, from the perspective of two humans who have very different skin types. In this third installment, our resident skincare enthusiasts, Courtney and Becca, are taking on exfoliating for different skin types, at different price points, and beyond.
But first, what’s exfoliation?
“A TLDR; so we’re all on the same page: exfoliation is the removal of the top layer of skin cells, either by physical or chemical exfoliants. Although this process happens naturally, it slows down as you get older. Physical can mean a scrub or a tool (like a Clarisonic), and is generally thought to be harsher on your skin — particularly scrubs because the particles, like the walnut shells in the famed St. Ives Apricot Scrubs, can be irregularly shaped, and actually cause micro-tears in your skin. (Not what we want!)
Chemical exfoliants can come in a few different categories, but the most common are AHA and BHA. AHAs (like lactic or glycolic acid) are water-soluble, and work by undoing the “glue” around dead skin cells. BHAs (like salicylic acid) are oil-soluble, meaning they can penetrate into the pores. If you take one thing away from this, know that exfoliation (especially AHAs) makes your skin more photosensitive as you’re removing the top layer of your skin, so please please please make sure you’re wearing sunscreen daily while you’re exfoliating and for a week after. For a much more in-depth overview, check out Labmuffin’s guide.” - Becca
Skin type: Oily and sensitive
“My skin is oily with visible pores and it’s moderately sensitive. I’m always combating cystic hormonal acne under my chin, and will get small whiteheads if I’m not careful about cleansing after sweating. Over the last couple of years, my cheeks and forehead become slightly tighter when I’m traveling to cold, dry climates.”
What I look for in an exfoliator:
“I, too, was scrubbing the heck out of my face with harsh ingredients when it-that-will-not-be-named was on all of our bathroom counters. I used to think ALL physical exfoliants were bad, but it turns out that for many folks with sensitive skin, BHAs like salicylic acid will irritate your skin if you don’t apply them with a conditioning agent. BHA molecules are super small, move fast and can sting a bit; added moisturizers help to slow that down. AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid have larger molecules and absorb much slower, so they’re typically more comfortable for sensitive skin on their own.
TL;DR my skin likes gentle physical exfoliants that do not have BHAs, and chemical exfoliants with BHAs + a moisturizing ingredient. Patch test your products if you have sensitivities and always use sunscreen after exfoliating.”
Neogen Dermalogy Bio-Gauze Peeling Pads
“If you’ve never used chemical exfoliants before, this as a great stepping stone because it’s a nice balance of both worlds. You can control how much physical exfoliation you’re getting since one side is very soft while the other is slightly grittier. They combine Vitamin C with AHAs that noticeably brighten your complexion and make you look more awake than you really are.
I started using these at the beginning of the summer, and they’ve REALLY reduced the duration of my breakouts because they gently lift dead skin cells from my pores, allowing my other products to get in there easier and do their thing. Sometimes I use them at night but they’re great after a morning cleanse to ~smooth the canvas~ for your makeup (after sunscreen of course).
The pads are pretty large, and as someone recommended in the Sephora reviews, you could definitely cut them in half. If you’re working out and don’t have time to shower right away, these are easy to throw in your bag, swipe on your face first and then use the other side to remove dirt and oil from your chest / back that could cause a breakout from sitting on your skin too long.”
$27 at Sephora
Moon Juice Beauty Shroom Exfoliating Acid Potion
“If the Neogen peeling pads are like a glowy bath for your pores, this stuff is a high pressure shower. It’s similar to P50 because it has AHAs and BHAs, but for $9 more you get about double the product and a special ingredient: Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma Lucidum). Reishi helps with skin cell regeneration, reducing inflammation and protecting it from free radical or “oxidative” damage (aka pollution, stress, alcohol, and smoking). So if you live in the modern world but you want your skin to look like you’ve never even seen a cigarette and you take a lot of naps, consider bringing this stuff into your routine.
My dermatologist recommended this to me because while it has salicylic acid (BHA), it’s balanced with a lesser known ingredient called Allantoin that reduces inflammation, soothes and moisturizes the skin. Like I mentioned earlier, this combo is great for us sensitive people! I can handle the potency of the product alone, but if you’re unsure, get a sample and mix it with a moisturizer before you dump it straight onto your face. Don’t forget your sunscreen.
$39 at Sephora
Sunday Riley Good Genes
$105 at Ulta
“I promise I will never recommend a product this expensive to you again. Honest to goodness, it works INCREDIBLY well, but I also recommend getting as many samples as possible before purchasing and then wait until it’s on sale (I got mine during Dermstore’s holiday sale for ~$70).
That said, it does exactly what it says it will. My acne scars and hyperpigmentation are stubborn and this is the ONLY product I’ve ever used that noticeably fades it all to a much more even complexion. The high percentage of lactic acid and licorice root in this product help break up melanin to fade dark spots and fine lines quickly. The licorice does double duty with aloe to calm redness and inflammation. Because there aren’t any BHAs, I can use this several times per week to manage cystic breakouts without any irritation. If you decide to splurge on this one, keep in mind that a little goes a long way and even if you use it 3-4 times a week at 1.5 pumps/use, you won’t even be halfway through a 1.7oz bottle within 6 months. Since the PAO is only one year, get the 1-oz. bottle if you’re like me and tend to “save” these fancy products for fewer uses.
P.S. if you’re unsure how to spot the expiration or Period After Opening dates on your products, here’s a handy guide from Cosmo.
Skin type: Normal/Dry
“My skin trends (and I say this with enormous quotes) “normal”, but tends to get dehydrated fairly easily. While I don’t get breakouts often, I am extremely prone to clogged pores (talk to me about how I once shocked my derm by getting milia all over my face!).”
What I look for in an exfoliator:
“I started, like I think most people do, by going HARD into exfoliation (daily! sometimes twice daily! Who would stop me!). The allure of fresh, soft celebrity-esque skin was hard to ignore, and quite frankly I thought I could play god. If you’re not immediately getting a Samantha-esque chemical burn, it can be tough to tell that you’ve overdone it. And so I was exfoliating daily until I realized I was making my skin dryer, more sensitive, and generally worse than before. I have since calmed down. I generally tend to prefer chemical exfoliants because they’re less irritating, and I use much weaker percentages, about 1-2 times a week depending on how my skin feels. As it turns out, your skin is actually pretty good at taking care of itself, but a little (read: really, just a little) exfoliation helps, too.” - Becca
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50
“This is the exfoliator you might have heard about from, oh, I don’t know, absolutely everywhere. If you haven’t, here’s what you need to know: this was formulated back in the 1970s, it smells like trash juice, but celebrities and regular people alike swear by it. It is genuinely one of the best exfoliators you can buy. There are about 6 different versions, but don’t be intimidated: anything with 1970 has phenol, a numbing agent, and there’s some divide between whether that’s bad long term for your face or not (personally, I don’t care and will use either). The non-1970 is formulated without phenol. Within each phenol and non-phenol group, there are three more groups: regular, w (for sensitive skin), and v (for mature skin, but also more hydrating).
When I started using this, I was dealing with some weird acne on my chin, and with regular use, after about 3 months it had completely changed my skin. It gave a glow I didn’t have before and generally made my skin more resilient than it was before. It has both AHAs and BHAs, so it will take care of it all. Also, you might hear people tell you to use it once or even twice a day. Please learn from my mistakes, relax, use it a couple of times a week, and build up as necessary from there.”
$28 on Shop Rescue Spa
Krave Beauty Kale-lalu-yAHA
“I got a travel size bottle of this with another Krave Beauty purchase, and I used it, not expecting much. After all, I’m used to p50, and this is a lightweight 5.25% glycolic acid formulation specifically created to be an exceptionally gentle exfoliant. Frankly I expected my skin to laugh at it! But the joke is on me because two months later, this is truly one of the best exfoliants I’ve used. Because it’s so gentle, I can use it and not worry that my skin will get drier or more sensitive, but it still gives you the results you want to see from removing a layer of dead skin from your face.”
$42 on Amazon
Prescription 0.025% Tretinoin
“Sorry if this is cheating but unfortunately one of the best things you can do for your face is see a dermatologist and use what they prescribe to you. I got this about a year ago to treat milia, and it is absolutely the most life-changing product in my cabinet. It is also one of the most researched things you can put on your face. It helps prevent wrinkles! It can fade dark spots! It frickin’ shrinks pores! It is one step short of picking up your dry cleaning for you, it is that much of a routine workhorse.
When I was using it to treat my skin, I was using it every other day, but now that I’m using it more preventatively I’m using it ~once every week and a half. Tret is known for being horrifyingly drying, but if you use a true pea-sized amount OVER a layer of moisturizer to buffer it, it will help minimize the flaking that can come with it. With all of these, please make sure you’re using a sunscreen, but with Tret, please REALLY make sure you are wearing a sunscreen because it is not messing around.”
Courtney is a brand designer living in Austin. You can find her posting about dogs and several attempts to leave her house @courtneyleonard (ig) and @courteroy (twitter).
Becca is professionally a software engineer, and personally a reality tv enthusiast living in Brooklyn. You can find her online @becckitt.