Thursday, 26 March 2009 | Tags:

Winter or summer, the weather and environment can do damage to your skin. Many turn to exfoliating products to reveal soft, smooth, fresh skin again. We talk to dermatologists and cosmetic experts to find out more about exfoliators.

The Basics

  • Exfoliators work by helping to remove dead skin cells from the surface layers of your skin. 

  • There are two types of exfoliators:

    • Chemical exfoliators dissolve away the top layer of your skin using chemical ingredients.

    • Mechanical exfoliators or scrubs physically scrub off your skin using abrasive beads.

  • More about mechanical exfoliators (scrubs):

    • Composed of a cream based with irregularly-shaped bits of organic marterial such as ground walnuts, almond meal, apricot pits, oatmeal, or synthetic beads or granules.

    • Natural scrubs contain other ingredients like seaweed or sea lettuce. They are rich in minerals and thus increasing the price tag, the value is questionable due to the lack of effectiveness of these nutrients used in a 30-second scrub.

    • If you’re worried about hurting your skin, use a synthetic scrub, which uses rounded granules and beads without rough edges.

    • Be aware:

      • Avoid ingredients such as tea tree oil, eucalyptus, and mint – in combination with the scrubbing action, they can irritate the skin.

      • Avoid irregular shaped abrasive fragments. They can cut the skin. Two examples of this are walnut shells or almond pits. They can irritate the skin if you scrub too hard.

      • These scrubs often contain thick waxes and creams so you can smooth them more easily over your skin, but waxes can clog pores and leave a film over the face.

  • More about chemical exfoliators:

    • Use acids to loosen dead skin cells, often softening or dissolving the outer layer of dead cells.

    • These exfoliators can smooth the skin, improve its texture, unclog pores and give the appearance of plumper, firmer skin, but cannot prevent aging or improve wrinkles.

    • Chemical exfoliators work best as creams, not cleansers, because the acid needs to stay on the skin for a while in order to work.

    • Be aware:

      • Chemical exfoliators should not be used in higher concentrations than recommended. If used improperly, they can cause severe skin damage.

      • Most people feel a tingle after application. Anything more than that, beware because you may be extra-sensitive. Remove the cream, do not use it again, and consult your dermatologist.

      • Don’t mix exfoliating products (e.g. cleansers, lotions, creams) because too much may irritate your skin.

      • Do not let children use chemical exfoliants since their skin is much thinner.

  • Forms of chemical exfoliants include:

    • Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs):

      • Glycolic and lactic acids are the most commonly used form of AHAs because of their ability to penetrate the skin.

      • AHAs work best on dry skin, mature skin, or sun-damaged skin and can help correct, but not prevent, the appearance of aging, as well as improve discolourations and increase collagen production.

      • AHAs work on the surface and should not harm the healthy skin below.

      • AHAs work best at concentrations of 5-8% and a pH of 3-4 (effectiveness is lost as pH goes up and concentration goes down).

    • Beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs):

      • BHAs work similar to AHAs, but are oil-soluble so able to penetrate the oil in pores and exfoliate dead cell build-up.

      • BHAs work best at concentrations of between 1-2% and a pH of 3 (effectiveness is lost as pH goes up and concentration goes down).

    • Poly-hydroxy Acids (PHAs)

      • Similar to AHAs but moisturize better, are gentler, and don’t sting as much.

      • However, they aren’t as strong as AHAs or BHAs because they don’t penetrate the skin as well. If your skin is too sensitive for those two, PHAs may work for you.

  • Choose a product based on your skin type:

    • Oily/clogged pores: try a BHA product 2-3 times a week because they can penetrate oil and exfoliate inside the pores. Look for a product in gel or liquid form with no added irritants (alcohol, plant/fruit extract, witch hazel). Also look for something lightweight that won’t clog pores.

    • Dry skin: try an AHA product if breakouts are not a problem. If your skin is very dry or sensitive, use only once or twice a week.

    • Combination Skin: choose type from above that matches the majority of your skin type.

    • If you have extremely sensitive skin, older skin, or any skin conditions like Rosacea, Eczema, dermatitis or seborrhea, you may want to consult a dermatologist before trying any exfoliating products.

  • Almost every cosmetics company has some type of exfoliant in its product line. But how much should you spend to get quality? Our experts say that spending more on such products doesn’t necessarily get you better results. Designer brands may come in prettier packages with better marketing. And if you like that, great! But don’t feel you have to buck up to get results. Drugstore exfoliators can work just as well.


We recruited a couple of volunteers (Diana, 49, dry skin; Natasha, 40, oily skin) to help us test two mechanical and two chemical exfoliants.

Our test products: . Available at
  • Aveeno (mechanical or scrub): claims to make your skin brighter and more radiant. $10.99 / 140g
. . Well.ca Drugstore.com
  • Helena Rubinstein scrub: promises to leave your skin smoother and softer. $38 / 50ml
. .
  • Neutrogena (chemical): contains both Alpha and Beta Hydroxy acids. $10.99 / 58ml
. . Well.ca Drugstore.com
  • B. Kamins (chemical): promises to increase your skin’s elasticity and softness. $60 / 130g
. . Drugstore.com

(Note: prices listed above are approximate and in Canadian dollars)

Exfoliation Test

  • Both Kristina and Anna preferred the B. Kamins, the expensive chemical exfoliator.

  • Diana preferred the Neutrogena chemical exfoliant.

  • Natasha’s top pick was the Helena Rubinstein scrub. She was the only one of us who liked a mechanical scrub best.


Overall, it seems that we like the products with the richest textures and the prettiest smells, the more expensive ones, which experts say don’t necessarily perform better. Remember exfoliated skin is extra sensitive – so wear that sunscreen!



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