Exfoliation (cosmetology)

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Cross-section of all skin layers.

Exfoliation involves the removal of the oldest dead skin cells on the skin's outermost surface. Exfoliation is involved in all facials, during microdermabrasion or chemical peels. Exfoliation can be achieved by mechanical or chemical means.[1]


Credit is given to the ancient Egyptians for the practice of exfoliation.[2] In the Middle Ages, wine was used as a chemical exfoliant, with tartaric acid as the active agent.[2] In Asia, specifically in China, the practice of exfoliation started hundreds of years ago, during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1944).[3][4] The etymology of the word "exfoliate" comes from the Latin exfoliare (to strip off leaves).[5]


Exfoliation is achieved either by mechanical or by chemical means.


Exfoliation methods used in Canada in 2011. Shown: top right, a bath sponge made of plastic mesh; lower right, a brush with a pumice stone on one side and a natural bristle brush on the other side, for foot exfoliation; lower left, a mud mask package for facial exfoliation; top left, a jar of perfumed body scrub to be used while bathing.

This process involves physically scrubbing the skin with an abrasive.[6] Mechanical exfoliants include microfiber cloths, adhesive exfoliation sheets, micro-bead facial scrubs, crepe paper, crushed apricot kernel or almond shells, sugar or salt crystals, pumice, and abrasive materials such as sponges, loofahs, brushes, and simply fingernails.[7][8] Facial scrubs are available in over-the-counter products for application by the user. People with dry skin should avoid exfoliants which include a significant portion of pumice, or crushed volcanic rock. Pumice is considered a good material to exfoliate the skin of the feet. Microdermabrasion is another mechanical method of exfoliation.


Chemical exfoliants include scrubs containing salicylic acid, glycolic acid, fruit enzymes, citric acid, or malic acid which may be applied in high concentrations by a medical professional, or in lower concentrations in over-the-counter products. Chemical exfoliation may involve the use of products that contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs, like glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs, typically salicylic acid), polyhydroxy acids (PHAs, like lactobionic acid, gluconolactone, and galactose) or enzymes that act to loosen the glue-like substance that holds the cells together, allowing them to ease away. This type of exfoliation is recommended for people treating acne.[9][10] In beauty spa treatment in continental Europe, the wine-producing grapes are claimed to have exfoliating properties and are used in the practice of vinotherapy.

With hair removal[edit]

Some methods of hair removal also exfoliate the skin.

  • Waxing is a mechanical process performed with the intention of plucking the hair, but it also functions as a mechanical exfoliant. It can be done every two to eight weeks. It is not carried out as frequently as many exfoliate. So, it does not fully substitute for an exfoliation regimen, but may substitute for a normal session in a regimen.
  • Nair is an example of a chemical hair removal product which also functions as a chemical exfoliant. It is applied more frequently than waxing (once a week rather than once a month) since it only partially destroys hair below the skin, rather than destroying the entire root as with waxing. Using it weekly can substitute for a weekly exfoliant regime. It is a very aggressive chemical and cannot be used on the face, so other exfoliants would need to be used on the face.
  • Wetshaving also has exfoliating properties: first, the action of moving a shaving brush vigorously across the face washes the face and removes dead skin at the same time. After applying the lather with a brush, the use of a double-edged safety razor or straight razor removes dead skin simply because the razor is dragged much more closely across the skin, and removes dead skin more effectively than a cartridge or electric razor.


Dermaplaning is a medical procedure that exfoliates the skin (or epidermis) by removing dead skin and vellus hair (peach fuzz). The procedure is performed by an aesthetician, who will gently glide a scalpel across the skin, removing the outermost layer of skin cells and hair from the face. As a byproduct, it also shaves off the vellus hair, but the hair will grow back at the same rate and texture as before. The procedure involves the use of a 25-centimetre (10 in) scalpel which curves into a sharp point. In most cases, the blade is used on clean dry skin on the forehead, cheeks, chin, nose and neck. Dermaplaning can also be performed on skin that has had oil applied to it.


In popular media, exfoliants are advertised as treatments which promote beauty, youthful appearance, or health.[7][original research?]


Lack of necessity and potential skin damage[edit]

According to dermatologists, chemical or manual exfoliation is not medically necessary, as dead skin cells already exfoliate naturally.[10] Excessive artificial exfoliation can break the skin's barrier against microorganisms, and lead to infection.[10] The process can also lead to tightness and sensitivity.[10] Artificial exfoliation can exacerbate dry, flaky skin, which needs moisturizing for repair.[10]


One disadvantage to exfoliation is the high price of some of the products and methods used to achieve it.

Visible side-effects[edit]

Exfoliation will lead to some initial redness to the skin. Near the end of chemical peels, the skin will frost, with colors varying from a bright white to grey on the skin surface.[2]

Marine environmental impact of microbeads[edit]

Microbead particles used in mechanical exfoliation are too small (less than 1 mm) to be caught by sewage works, so tonnes of microbeads are released into the environment, which damages marine ecosystems.[11] Consequently, in June 2014 the US state of Illinois became the first to ban the use of microbeads, and cosmetics manufacturers such as L'Oreal, Johnson & Johnson, and Colgate agreed to use more natural ingredients.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "New Skin - Via Exfoliation". Reuters. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
  2. ^ a b c "Medscape: Medscape Access". Emedicine.com. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
  3. ^ Positano, Rock (18 September 2007). "Getting Under Your Skin". New York Post. Retrieved 4 January 2015.
  4. ^ "Culture Insider: Skincare in ancient China[1]- Chinadaily.com.cn". www.chinadaily.com.cn. Retrieved 1 March 2021.
  5. ^ "Exfoliation - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". Merriam-webster.com. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
  6. ^ Anitra Brown. "What Is Exfoliation?". About. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
  7. ^ a b Alex Muniz. "Exfoliation - AskMen". AskMen. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
  8. ^ Cathy Wong, ND. "How to Use a Dry Brush for Skin". About. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
  9. ^ "Beauty & Skin: Facial Skin Exfoliation". Wdxcyber.com. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
  10. ^ a b c d e "Exfoliating isn't necessary. But if you do it, follow the tips from these dermatologists". 11 April 2021.
  11. ^ a b Hitchings, Lauren (23 June 2014). "Why Illinois has banned exfoliating face washes". New Scientist. Retrieved 24 June 2014.