Not your mamma’s scrub: next generation exfoliants

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*Part one (of many)

Face wash, toner and cream, with a weekly scrub and the occasional mask… The skincare routine that we were used to 5-10 years ago has gone through some major transformations. Now we’ve learned how to double cleanse, what serums, essences, ampules and lotions do, and our moisturisers have become sophisticated enough to address any skin issue you can think of. But what happened to our weekly scrub, how has this essential skincare step evolved?

Mechanical exfoliation

The scrubs that we all know, with abrasive particles that remove dead cells and impurities on skin’s surface, haven’t changed that much in terms of action and technology. While natural extracts like ground apricot kernel, olive seeds or coconut shell have been slowly replacing plastic microbeads that damage the oceans and marine life, these products are still very useful in softening the skin especially on problem areas prone to blackheads. Opt for a gentle formula with small exfoliating particles that will not irritate sensitive skins.

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One of my all-time favourites is Dead Sea Spa Magik Mild Exfoliant, which uses mud, sea salt, sand and minerals to clear out rough areas (I love using it especially on the nose and chin.) Price: £8.20/75ml at lookfantastic.com

Chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation is probably the number 1 advancement in terms of peeling. The use of gentle, yet effective substances such as BHA and AHA, salicylic acid, glycolic acid or lactic acid has turned exfoliation into a daily skincare step whose main function is to boost cell turnover, thus decreasing dullness for a healthy glow. These substances have been slowly added into cleansers, toners, serums and even moisturisers. Here is a breakdown of the most common and efficient ingredients that you should consider adding to your routine:

Salicylic acid: originally found in willow bark and aspirin, this type of BHA (beta hydroxy acid) is an excellent keratolytic medication, braking down the binds between dead cells to penetrate deeply into skin for a double exfoliating effect, both on the surface and at a cellular level. Famed for its anti-acne and anti-inflammatory benefits, salicylic acid is also effective in reducing sebum secretion and calming redness and breakouts. Find it in: Bravura London Salicylic Acid 2%, The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution, or Eminence Organic Skincare Rosehip & Maize Exfoliating Masque.

Glycolic acid: C₂H₄O₃, the smallest of α-hydroxy acids and derived from sugar cane, is one of the strongest exfoliating acids, working by removing the outer layer of dead skin cells. Glycolic acid is one of the best ingredients for helping in the treatment of acne, as it acts on pore size by preventing dead cells and oil plugs from developing in the hair follicle, which causes breakouts. Find it in: Alpha-H Liquid Gold, Pixi Glow Tonic, Murad Rapid Resurfacing Peel, or NIP + FAB Glycolic Fix products.

Mandelic acid: another AHA, this time derived from bitter almonds, which works similarly to glycolic acid, and recommended for skincare concerns such as wrinkles and fine lines, hyperpigmentation and acne. Mandelic acid is one of the safest options for sensitive complexions. Find it in: Dr. Denis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength Formula (in combination with glycolic acid), or Eminence Organic Skincare Bright Skin Licorice Root Exfoliating Peel.

Lactic acid: an AHA derived from milk that is suitable for all skin types, especially sensitive and dry, lactic acid is probably the most hydrating of all the peeling acids, yet its larger molecule size makes it less efficient at providing deep-down exfoliation (as opposed to the much smaller glycol acid molecules). Find it in: Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant, or Bravura London 10% Lactic Acid.

Azelaic acid: a dicarboxylic acid naturally derived from grains like wheat and barley, a product of fermentation that targets rosacea and redness with anti-inflammatory properties, but also acne with an anti-bacterial action and dark spots/pigmentation. It is a great alternative for sensitive skin. Find it in: The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 2%, or Paula’s Choice Resist Skin Transforming Multi-Correction Treatment.

Other fruit acids: malic acid from apples and pears, citric acid from oranges and lemons, and tartaric acid from grapes are some of the best natural choices in terms of exfoliating actives. Depending on their concentration, fruit acids can be as effective as any of the substances listed above, treating dry and sun-damaged skins without causing any further dryness. Find it in: Rodial Super Acids X-Treme Acid Rush Peel (in combination with azelaic, glycolic and lactic acids) or Herbivore Brighten Pineapple Enzyme + Gemstone Mask (with AHAs from pineapple and papaya).

Poly hydroxy acids (PHAs): gentler than AHAs and BHAs, these substances offer an excellent alternative for sensitive skin. Acids such as gluconolactone and lactobionic acid, which have been showing up more and more in Korean formulations, offer a comparable anti-ageing effect to glicolic acid and a comparable smoothing, brightening and anti-wrinkle action, without the redness and irritation associated with stronger chemicals. Find it in: Zelens Marine Complex Restorative Cream, Comfort Zone Sublime Skin Peel Pads, the Korean brand CNP, or Exuviance products.

The innovators

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The cult classic: Biologique Recherche Lotion P50

This formula is powered by gluconolactone, a poly-hydroxy acid, in combination with lactic, malic and phytic acids, to promote cell turnover, reduce hyperpigmentation, resurface the skin and, most importantly, boosting the effectiveness of your entire routine. Unfortunately, quite hard to buy in the UK (check ebay for trusted sellers or drop by one of the EF Medispa centres). Price: £50/250ml

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NIOD Superoxide Dismutase Saccharide Mist

By no means a humble toner, this beauty blogger-favourite mist works hard to protect skin against oxidative stress, moisture loss and inflammation. Based on Yeast-Derived Superoxide Dismutase (SOD), Marine Exopolysaccharides and Purified North American Four O’ Clock Flower, an anti-inflammatory Aztec plant, this formula is a great addition to any skincare routine for a boost of hydration and antioxidant defence. Price: £34/240ml at victoriahealth.com

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Perricone MD Blue Plasma

This complex formula is based on Bio-specific Peeling Technology and Micro-Extraction to eliminate dead skin cells, as well as Hydro-Fusion technology, Hyaluronic Acid and botanicals to hydrate and plump fine lines and wrinkles. Not your regular exfoliator, this ‘non-acidic daily peel’ is an excellent option for sensitive skins unable to tolerate/not used to acids. Price: £79/59ml at lookfantastic.com

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Pixi Glow Tonic

Not just a toner, this formula with 5% glycolic acid is slowly becoming a cult product and an all-time beauty bloggers favourite, working by oxygenating the skin while hydrating it at the same time. And it’s alcohol-free too, so gentle to all skins. Price: £18/250ml at lookfantastic.com

I will follow up with more details on how to incorporate acids into your skincare routine and some of the best low-budget options. Have you already heard of these acids? What product recommendations do you have?

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