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How Often Should You Exfoliate Your Face?

Here's why I'm doing it daily.

A few years ago, I wrote a story for ELLE Canada that was essentially anti-exfoliation. The inspiration was a chat I had with the VP of R&D for Burt's Bees (Celeste Lutrario), who very convincingly argues that exfoliating is not all that good for you. (More on that in a sec.) Anyway, since then—and because I have sensitive skin—I've been careful not to aggravate it by scrubbing, toning or whirling my Clarisonic around more than once or twice a week.

That is, until a couple of months ago. You already know that I'm (still) EXTREMELY pleased with my results on the Miracle10 skincare system, which has a lactic acid-based AHA cream as part of the nightly regimen. Then I met Dr. Zein Obagi (if you're familiar with his skincare products, yes, the man himself) who to my surprise is pretty much all about cleansing and exfoliating. And finally, I had a little chat with my facialist. Let me tell you all about these recent developments, and then I wanna know if you're pro or against.

But first! What exfoliation does

You might not know that our skin has a natural exfoliation process all the time, even without our help. It's called keratinization and it's a 28-day cycle whereby the live cells (keratinocytes) at the bottom layer of the epidermis gradually become harder as they work their way up to the surface. Then they die (no love lost!) and flake off (good riddance!), revealing the newer cells underneath.

We can help things along by using...

a. Mechanical scrubs, which contain tiny beads or crushed shells (I'm not a huge fan of these, but this new-ish one from Aveda is nice)

b. Mild topical treatments containing alpha- or beta-hydroxy acids (these Origins salicylic acid wipes are très handy, even if you don't have acne)

c. Skin-buffing tools (like the Clarisonic or a hand-held skin brush)

or d. Doctor's office remedies such as chemical peels, microdermabrasion and various lasers.

The case for exfoliation

So according to derms I've talked to, you actually can't speed up this 28-day keratinization cycle. All you're doing by exfoliating is causing fewer dead skin cells to stick to your skin's surface. And that, in turn, is going to help your skin look shinier, smoother and healthier. Some experts even go as far as saying that it will stimulate new collagen formation, which plumps up the skin and fades hyperpigmentation.

I don't know about the plumping aspect, but like I said in this post, I've noticed a dramatic improvement in the texture of my skin thanks to Miracle10's workhouse AHA cream, which I apply every night mixed with a vitamin C powder. I still credit my cod liver oil routine for the lack of breakouts, but if you can believe it, even the one or two I'd have during PMS time have gone MIA. I *think* my freckly sun damaged bits are improving too—and that's probably a combo of the exfoliation itself and because the removal of the dead skin cells is helping the vitamin C penetrate better so that it can do its good work.

Dr. Obagi is pro-exfoliation and anti-moisturizer

As if my own personal results weren't enough, a presentation the other day by Dr. Obagi helped sway me too. He's got a new and very pricey line of prodz called ZO Skin Health, which you can buy at select derms' offices.

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From The Skincare Edit Archives

Anyway, to my surprise, the good doctor spent most of the time telling us that cleansing and exfoliating are the most important steps in your skincare routine—and that most people moisturize too much.


Apparently, our skin cells get "lazy" and we need to "wake them up" by "restoring their normal function" so they can regenerate and renew themselves. That means being diligent about removing sebum and dead skin cells... and of course, using his products (mostly retinol-based) to stimulate cellular repair. (But the jury's still out on those since I haven't tried 'em yet.) There's a good article here on BellaSugar if you want to read more about his anti-moisturizer theory.

Why my facialist says I should step up the Clarisonic action

The final nail in the coffin for my exfoliation-on-ice period was a visit to Irena, the esthetician at Robin Barker in Toronto who threads my eyebrows... and who gave me a facial on the weekend. Even though I've been generally happy with my skin, I had these little milia things that were driving me nuts (and which Dr. Obagi totally dissed, by the way... kthxbai). Since he told me I'd have to have them lasered off or something (um: $$$$), I asked Irena for her opinion. And to my delight, she said that milia were actually her specialty.

Jackpot! It's kind of unheard of for a beauty editor to pay for her own facial (or any beauty service, to be honest), but I happily plonked down my credit card for 90 minutes of steaming and needle-based extractions. I've had a lot of facials in my life, and most were pleasant enough, but I've got to tell you: never have I had one that produced results like this. Once milia appear, you can't remove them with any topical products, so they have to be extracted—but you need to go to someone who knows what they're doing. And Irena certainly does, because my complexion is now smoother than ever.

Here's where exfoliation comes in. I think I freakin' CAUSED the milia (or helped cause them) by not exfoliating enough for so long. And the longer you leave them, the more chance that they calcify (harden) and become next to impossible to extract. Irena says some skin types—those with small pores, like me—just tend to develop them. She told me to start using the Clarisonic every other day, in addition to my nightly AHA cream. AND she agrees with Obagi on the moisturizer (less is more).

So, double wow.

Why some peeps are anti-exfoliation

And now I'll leave you with the other side of the story. Experts like Celeste Lutrario from Burt's Bees maintain that the dead skin cell layer is there for a reason: to lock in moisture and protect you from pollution and the sun. She even told me that the benefits of exfoliation are only temporary—when you constantly remove that layer, you're risking damage to your skin over the long term, making it drier, ashier and more wrinkled. Eeks! Another doc I spoke to says women tend to exfoliate because they're told by people like me that they have to. HEY-O! And yet women have so many more skin problems than men, which is true. He thinks exfoliation leaves your skin open to bacteria, infection and increased sensitivity and dryness.

Then there's this thing called the Hayflick Limit (seriously, there's a Wikipedia page on it), which is a theory developed in the 1960s by the scientist Leonard Hayflick. In a nutshell, he suggested that our skin cells have a finite lifespan and can only be renewed a certain number of times before they become sluggish. And have you noticed how some skincare brands have introduced anti-aging products with ingredients called sirtuins that slow down—not speed up—cell renewal?

Gosh, it's all so confusing.

The bottom line

It really just depends who you believe. If your skin is normal (you lucky B!), then you can probably get along just fine without exfoliating. However, like I said, I've noticed AMAZING BENEFITS from stepping things up, and I'm going to continue to do so as long as my skin behaves, i.e. I'm not burning or irritating it, obvi. And at the same time, I'm experimenting with less, not more moisture, to see if I can get hydration without drenching myself unnecessarily.