Exfoliants and Emollients Part 1: Weeding Your Way Through the Marketplace

dr. lisa ginn

With so many skin care products in the marketplace, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by selection. This post is the first of a two-part series where I will explain the different types of products in a skin care regime. My goal is to help you understand

  1. Which products do what,
  2. How often to use them,
  3. What to look for in the ingredient labels, and
  4. Which selections are best for your skin type and budget.

These two posts will cover cleansers, exfoliants, humectants, antioxidants, and moisturizers.

Cleansers remove excess oil and environmental pollutants from the skin. Unlike moisturizers, antioxidants, and humectants, cleansers tend to remain on the skin for a short period of time. Even so, in general, you should cleanse no more than twice a day or you risk over-cleansing. Any cleanser, even gentle ones, when used excessively may cause irritation and dryness.

Unless you have extremely oily or greasy skin, I prefer gentle cleansers. In my experience, bars are the driest and suitable for oily skin. Gels are also drying but not as much as bars. Milk cleansers are the most gentle. If you have dry or sensitive skin or suffer from psoriasis I recommend using a milk cleanser or something that doesn’t lather. I prefer mild, gentle cleansers even for acne. In my opinion, you don’t need to spend a lot of money for a decent cleanser if you have a limited budget for your skin care products. Save your money for a product that will stay on your skin longer and deliver greater benefits.

Exfoliants are products that remove the dead skin cells in the top layer of your skin, revealing the fresher, newer skin underneath. Starting in your early twenties, your skin begins to shed dead skin cells more slowly. By your mid-to late twenties this decrease in turnover results in skin that appears more dull, retains less moisture, and holds dark patches longer. Exfoliants help your skin slough off dead skin cells more efficiently. There are two ways to accomplish this: physically and chemically.

Physical exfoliation removes the dead skin mechanically. One example that’s available in stores is a bead scrub (like jojoba or seeds), which provides a very fine abrasive. Think of a bead scrub as really fine sandpaper. The type and texture of your skin determines which scrub is ideal for you. My advice is to not use a fine scrub more than once a day and a slightly coarser scrub more than once or twice per week. I recommend using your fingertips to apply a scrub. Brushes harbor bacteria and make it more difficult to regulate pressure. The best time to use a mechanical exfoliant is at the end of your shower when your skin is soft and will slough easily. You can also use professional exfoliation, such as microdermabrasion. This treatment should be done by someone who is familiar with your skin. I don’t recommend microdermabrasion as a first treatment.

Chemical exfoliation melts dead skin away. Food acids are effective, easily accessible, and have become a popular choice for consumers and dermatologists. Food acids include fruit acids, such as grape, pumpkin, or papaya, and alphahydroxy acids (AHA), which include sugar cane (glycolic acid) and milk (lactic acid). Lactic acids offer the additional benefit of having hydrating properties, meaning it binds water to the skin.

These products are available in the marketplace and you can use them at home. I tell my patients to use mild chemical exfoliants once per day. Medium level exfoliants should be used once per week, and professional grade can be applied once per month. I recommend AHA acids for oily skin and lactic acid for dry or sensitive skin.

Humectants bind water to the skin, creating a blanket of moisture that prevents dryness and decreases dryness-related skin irritations. Humectants are ingredients. My favorite is hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid has a misleading name. It holds 1,000 times its weight in water and is actually very smooth and pampering to your skin. In comparison, collagen holds 40 times its weight in water. Both hyaluronic acid and collagen are found naturally in our skin. In fact, collagen is the component of our skin that keeps it smooth, firm, and wrinkle free. Moisturizers that contain collagen, however, do not penetrate deep enough into the skin to increase the actual amount of collagen present in our skin. Instead, the collagen in cosmetic products sits on the top layer and binds the water just like the products that contain hyaluronic acid.

Look for hyaluronic acid or collagen as ingredients in cleansers, moisturizers, masques, and serums. Ingredients are listed in the order of quantity from the highest amount in the product to the least. I recommend reading the ingredient labels and looking for those that list hyaluronic acid near the top. This way you know how much of the ingredient you’re getting when you purchase the product.

In my next post I’ll write about antioxidants and moisturizers with explanations of their impact on aging skin and how to incorporate them into your skin care routine. I’ll conclude by providing my recommendations on selecting products and sharing what I believe to be an ideal skin care routine.

Published on 09/22/2010 | Last updated on 12/20/2016