"Microdermasion" or "exfoliating beads" are favorite catch-phrases on exfoliating face washes and cloths. These products rely on physical exfoliants to strip dead skin cells -- in other words, the product buffs skin away like sand paper. The visual is a little extreme, but it illustrates how harmful physical exfoliants can be. If you can feel sharp or scratchy particles in a face wash, skip it -- these products are better for less sensitive skin on the rest of your body. Round beads or smaller particles are less abrasive and better for facial skin. Using your fingertips, buff the product gently over wet skin in circular motions, avoiding the eye area. A washcloth can also act as a physical exfoliant, but should be used gently. No exfoliant should turn your skin red or blotchy.
Many exfoliating face washes and lotions include an ingredient that may sound alarming: acid. These chemical exfoliants, called alpha hydroxy acids or AHAs, strip dead skin cells without the use of abrasive particles. The best AHA for you depends on your skin type and how often you use the product. Glycolic acid is the most effective AHA but is most likely to irritate, so it should be used infrequently or on particularly resilient skin types. Lactic acid hydrates as it exfoliates, so it is good for dryer skin types. Fruit acids (like citric acid) are the mildest and least irritating. They're a great way to get your feet wet in the sea of AHAs. Regardless of the type of chemical exfoliant used, follow the instructions on the product's packaging, and pair AHA usage with extra sunscreen -- chemically stripped skin is more prone to sun damage.
At-Home Chemical Peels
At-home chemical peels are a more concentrated version of AHA-laden face washes or lotions. At-home peelers should aim for a concentration of at least 10 percent (not all products list the concentration of AHA; look for one that does), and can choose their AHA based on the guidelines above. Dermatologists recommend testing the peel on your inner arm before using it on your face -- a slight sting is OK, but burning is not. Chemical peels can be used up to two to three times per week instead of daily exfoliating with a wash or lotion. Like other products with AHA, pair increased exfoliation with higher SPF.
Seeing a Pro
Dermatologists, aestheticians, spas and salons all offer exfoliating services similar to those listed above. These treatments are best for women fighting more serious signs of aging (fine lines, wrinkles, dullness, discoloration) or preparing for a special event. (But not right before the event! Tell your doc or aesthetician the date of your function to get their advice on timing.) You may consider microdermabrasion -- which is a physical exfoliation -- or a chemical peel. Both treatments are often done in a series and can cost decidedly more than at-home treatments. Your specialist will best be able to guide you to the appropriate treatment, but be prepared to pay for all this extra attention.