If you were to ask me, "What's the number one thing I can do for my skin, that will make the BIGGEST difference?"
I would never feed you some tired line about drinking more water. (Jennifer Aniston is wrong. It does nothing.)
Nor would I tell you to reduce stress, eat better, exercise or get more sleep. I mean, sure—we're all up to speed on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Vacation skin is the best skin. But it's not like most of us can suddenly find more hours in the day for "me time," in the pursuit of nicer complexions.
So what's something that anyone can do for their skin—that is quick, easy and produces fast, noticeable RESULTS?
My answer: Daily exfoliation. Maybe even twice a day!
Before we get into the frequency thing—which is controversial, yes!—let's backtrack a bit. You're probably aware of the benefits of exfoliation in general.
Our skin operates on a 28-day cycle whereby the live cells at the bottom layer of the epidermis (keratinocytes) gradually become harder as they work their way up to the surface—where they die and flake off to reveal the new cells underneath.
This process goes on all the time, without our help, but can slow down with age, sun damage, hormonal changes and certain skin disorders. When this happens, your skin can start to look dull, pores can get clogged (leading to acne), and your tone can look uneven.
That's where exfoliation comes in. By getting rid of these built-up dead surface cells, you'll see brighter skin, fewer breakouts and blackheads, and a smoother, more even texture. Because dead skin can also form a barrier that interferes with absorption, exfoliation can help you get more mileage out of your topical products, leading to more hydrated skin and fewer signs of aging.
Now... here's why I think you should do it daily (and with what!).
Weekly Exfoliation is an Outdated Concept
Surely you've been told that weekly exfoliation is enough and that you don't want to "overdo it." It's become one of those pieces of accepted skincare wisdom, like always wearing sunscreen or never going to bed without washing your face.
But think about how many old habits you've discarded over the years, as new and better technologies became available.
That's what I see is happening right now in the category of exfoliation.
It's true that you wouldn't want to exfoliate daily with the old type of exfoliating products. What you might not know is that there's a NEW generation of exfoliators that are completely different, with options gentle enough to be used daily. Allow me to explain...
The Problem with Mechanical Exfoliators
It used to be that exfoliating meant scrubbing. Think: that dreaded St. Ives Apricot Scrub with the broken-up walnut pieces in it (which, inexplicably, continues to be one of the top-selling skincare products).
This is an example of a mechanical exfoliant. These types of products remove dead surface skin cells by physically sloughing them off with gritty pieces (beads, shells, salt, sand, etc.) suspended in the formula. Some people produce the same effect by scrubbing at their faces with a washcloth.
The problem is, you can cause harmful micro-tears in the skin when you use products containing large, jagged particles or rub the skin too aggressively. That leaves it open and vulnerable to bacteria, and can increase irritation, redness, sensitivity and dryness.
"When most doctors say exfoliation shouldn’t happen every day, they are talking about standard scrubs, which is sandpaper in a bottle. They don’t have a concept of what products are available," says Dr. Howard Lancer, Hollywood's top dermatologist, in this fascinating interview over at The Cut. (He takes care of Beyoncé's complexion, so I think he knows his stuff.)
Dr. Lancer actually sells a scrub as part of his line, but it features very fine crystals of a uniform size and shape, which provide "precise exfoliation without the risk of micro-cuts or abrasion."
Personally? I think acid toners are an even BETTER way to go, with more customizable results and less risk.
The Case for Daily Acid Exfoliation
Acids, a.k.a. chemical exfoliants, are in my opinion the best option for removing the layer of cells that accumulate on the surface of your skin. Rather than physically scrubbing, they work by dissolving the "glue" that holds dead cells together. There are two types:
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic and lactic acid. Glycolic is the most common AHA, and widely considered the most effective because it has the smallest molecule size. Some dermatologists, including Dr. Neal Schultz, actually believe its results are superior to prescription retinoids (!!) because it also stimulates collagen production and thickens the skin. It does have a rep for being more irritating, but apparently this depends on the formulation. A milder AHA alternative is lactic acid, which is better tolerated by even sensitive skin, and is actually hydrating.
- Beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) or salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is best for oilier skin because it dissolves the oil within the pore. So it can help with blackheads, milia and acne.
You might've noticed, acid-based skincare products used to be VERY hard to find. I can remember when I first started out as a beauty editor in the mid-'00s; I think NeoStrata was the only brand that had them, and even they diluted their glycolic into a moisturizer. I might have seen one or two acid toners, but back then, the thinking was that they could only be used on acneic skin.
Fast-forward a few years later, and I got my hands on Lotion P50 (probably the most sought-after, cult skincare product of all time). It's a lactic acid-based toner that you're meant to use twice a day, after cleansing.
I have never heard more people rave about a beauty product ever, but when I used up my bottle many months ago, I got to thinking...
The craze for Lotion P50 isn't only because of what's in it. It's also the regimen of using it TWICE DAILY, every day, which they are extremely specific about when they sell you the product. (Heck, you're not even allowed to buy it without speaking to one of their reps first, which is unheard of.) I am convinced that is the main thing transforming people's skin, and you don't necessarily have to use Lotion P50 to get similar results.
There are now a number of more easily accessible acid toners on the market, including gentle lactic acid formulations that you can use in the exact same way you'd use Lotion P50 (i.e. daily).
If you can tolerate a stronger acid, there are plenty of glycolic and salicylic formulas as well, many with extra ingredients that help soothe and hydrate while they resurface your skin. (Recos coming at the bottom of this article.)
The other benefit of these new acid products is that many don't come in toner form but in pre-soaked, single-use pads, which are much more convenient. I am a total convert!
What I've Noticed From Daily Exfoliation
In the past year or so, I've committed to twice-daily exfoliation with a variety of acid types, and it has made the best difference to my skin.
Before that, I really wasn't sure if acids were for me. You might remember me talking about daily exfoliation way back in 2011 on this blog, after I met famed dermatologist Zein Obagi. He inspired me to go on a daily Miracle 10 glycolic acid regimen, but I had to quit that a little while later after it made my skin too dry and flaky. I did P50 after that, but like I said, now that I've tested so many other toners on the market, there are plenty of great alternatives.
The key for me is to always mix it up between lactic, glycolic and salicylic acids. I always have a few different jars of pads on rotation.
Compared to when I used lactic acid exclusively (too weak) or glycolic acid exclusively (too strong), I feel like I'm getting all the benefits now without irritating my skin.
I have noticed more skin compliments—always the best indicator that you are doing something right!—as well as fewer breakouts and more of a glow. When I do get a pimple, those annoying post-acne marks are quicker to heal, and I think it might even be helping with pigmentation, so I might not do this again.
How To Use Acid Toner (This is Important!)
With anything new in your skincare regimen, you always want to start slowly and gently. I can't stress that enough.
If you've never used an acid exfoliator before, and/or if your skin is on the dry or sensitive side, I would go with lactic acid to start. Introduce it once or twice a week and build up to more frequent use from there. The mildest pads I've tried are the First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads.
If you use an exfoliating brush such as the Clarisonic, I wouldn't do the acid toner at the same time—it's probably too much. The exception is the Foreo Luna (specifically the Sensitive Luna 2), which has silicone bristles that are ultra-gentle. For that reason it is my favourite, must-have cleansing gadget. Also consider switching to a sulfate-free cleanser to further minimize the chance of irritation.
Make sure to follow up your acid toner with a hydrating step, whether that's a serum, moisturizer or both.
Sunscreen is always key, but even more so when you're using acids, which increase sun sensitivity.
Finally, keep a close eye on your skin. If you see any signs of irritation such as increased redness or flaking, that's an indication that you've over-exfoliated and need to back off—either to a milder product, less frequent application, or both.
My Favourite Acid Toners
A few product recos to close off!
- Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme: I'm on my second or third jar of these now. Very affordable and thanks to the hyaluronic acid, not drying.
- Juice Beauty Green Apple Peel Nightly Brightening Pads: Also very gentle, these exfoliate with fruit acids and contain hyaluronic acid and vitamin B3.
- Rodial Glamoxy 15% Fruit Acid Exfoliating Pads: Another fruit acid option, these are stronger but still not as irritating as glycolic can be.
- Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel: I've only tried the original (one of the first peel pads on the market, I believe), but the reformulated version features five types of acid.
- Cane + Austin Miracle Pad+: These have pharmaceutical grade glycolic acid, along with lactic acid, with results equal to 30 percent regular glycolic acid. I've only tried a few samples of these, but was impressed that they weren't irritating.
- Laboratoire Dr Renaud Peel Pads: I was so excited to discover these, which are formulated with lactic acid, fruit acids and enzymes. Rare find!
- Dr. Denese Advanced Firming Facial Pads: These are extremely juicy pads soaked in glycolic acid, peptides and alpha lipoic acid for both exfoliating and anti-aging benefits.
- First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads: These are a lactic-glycolic combo and the mildest pads I've tried.
Hopefully I've made my case for what exfoliation—done right!—can do for your complexion. Yes, there are doctors and estheticians who warn against anything more than once-a-week exfoliation. I say, they're either not up to date on their product knowledge, or they're dumbing it down, thinking most people will interpret exfoliation to mean a harsh scrub. But the average beauty consumer these days is so much more educated than that.
Also, did you notice? Many of the acid pads on the market are coming from skincare companies started by the world's leading dermatologists. They know what they're doing! As long as your skin is tolerating the product well, there are MANY benefits to using an acid daily. Let me know what you think...
How often do you exfoliate?
Have you tried acid toners?
What are your favourite exfoliating products?