Exfoliating is the process of disposing of dead skin cells from the skin’s surface using a granular, chemical, substance, or exfoliation tool. Our skin naturally removes dead skin cells to make room for new cells every thirty days or so.
Sometimes, dead cells don’t shed altogether. This can result in flaky, dry patches, and clogged pores . Exfoliating can help avoid this. Because every type of exfoliation may not click for every skin type, it’s necessary to consider the skin type before choosing an exfoliation method:
- Combination skin is oily in a few areas and dry in others
- Sensitive skin may burn or sting after product use
- Normal skin is not sensitive and clear
- Dry skin is itchy, flaky, or rough
- Oily skin is greasy and shiny
How does exfoliation benefit your skin?
Exfoliating can enhance the appearance of the skin in several ways. According to the ADA (American Academy of Dermatology), exfoliation can leave the skin looking brighter and enhance topical skincare products’ potency by improving absorption.
Regular exfoliation may also help counter clogged pores, resulting in fewer breakouts. Long-term exfoliating can improve collagen production. Collagen is key to vibrant, glowing skin. The protein also promotes skin elasticity, reducing the appearance of fine lines and related sagging .
[Read: 7 Life-Changing Skin Care Secrets]
What to expect from physical exfoliation
Any exfoliating method or product that requires rubbing falls or manual scrubbing is called a physical exfoliant. We may already be using a physical exfoliant — body brushes, cleansing scrubs, and loofahs are all standard methods.
The most significant advantage of physical exfoliation is the ease of access. We can do this at home with as little as a muslin washcloth or a DIY (do-it-yourself) scrub. It also offers immediate results .
If performed wrongly, physical exfoliation can sometimes irritate the skin and may result in transepidermal water loss. Following up with a serum or humectant oil can help minimize irritation and lock in moisture.
There’s considerable confusion surrounding exfoliation. Deservedly so, given how many variables there are. Even if the premise is straightforward (removing excess dead skin cells from the outermost layer of the skin or stratum corneum), there’s quite a bit to it in practice.
To start, there are two types of exfoliation—chemical and physical —which differ in how they slough off those cells . Then you get into strength and potency, which is a sliding scale that runs the gamut. Of course, there are questions about how often exfoliation is appropriate and regularity.
Finally, there’s the skin itself: How easily tolerant or irritated is the skin type, to begin with? These variations all amount to an extremely confusing skincare step.
That’s unfortunate because exfoliation is a practice we really shouldn’t get wrong: Doing it too aggressively or too much will wreak havoc on our skin. Over exfoliation can rob the skin of its natural oils, which can trigger more breakouts. Over exfoliating can also lead to redness, irritation, and inflammation of the skin.
With this, we regret to inform you that we may, in fact, already be doing just that—and the miscreant comes from a very sneaky place.
[Also Read: Face Packs for Skin Problems]
Can you exfoliate with a towel?
Yes, your towel may act as a physical exfoliant.
A physical exfoliant is any treatment, product, or tool that manually sloughs off the dead skin cells. They’re most often linked with scrubs, which are made with granular ingredients to buff away skin. However, loofahs and face brushes (electronic or otherwise) are also exfoliants. And lastly: So is your towel.
Traditional towels are made of waffled or woven cotton: Even the plushest options can scrape away skin when pressure is applied too rigidly, or you use it too aggressively. So when we go to dry our face post-wash, we may be unknowingly ridding ourselves of our protective stratum corneum layer.
This is potentially problematic because we are likely using it once, perhaps even 2 or 3 times a day. Sure, we know that everyone needs a different level of exfoliation, but that is certainly too much, regardless of our skin type.
Scared this might be us? Well, telltale signs are skin that is tight, blotchy or stings post-wash, and it may even appear ashy or red. And when this happens too often, irritation can become chronic—meaning our skin is regularly inflamed and develops new sensitivities.
We know it’s common to equate a squeaky skin feeling with cleanliness but stop: Skin should feel and appear soft and supple post-wash, not bone dry and strained.
The fix: Try muslin or microfiber cloth, and please be gentle.
The first thing to do is simply understand and acknowledge that rough towel usage can affect the skin barrier function. Now that we know the towel may be doing some harm, we’ll likely adjust our drying techniques. As for said techniques: Pat dry; never scrub or pull.
Blotting will take away water without irritating the skin—as well as leaving some of that much-required moisture on top.
You may also consider upgrading the face towel to a microfiber or muslin option. Muslin cloths are prepared of 100% cotton fabric. They are finely woven and multilayered, making them extremely soft on the skin. Even the smoothest washcloth is still not as gentle and soft as a muslin cloth.
Microfiber towels use extremely minute fibers (no larger than the diameter of a silk strand), so they are fabulously smooth—as well as absorbent, so they are able to more readily soak in that water, without as much effort on our end.
If your skin is irritated continuously, and you just can’t seem to find out why? Put down the towel. That small item may be doing more harm than it’s worth. The positive news is that the solution is simple: Stop being so harsh with your skin—and perhaps even invest in a softer, new option.