If you are a person who is into skin care and anti-aging in general, you have most likely gone to a salon or spa and had a facial. Or “skin care treatment” if you are male. During your facial, you most likely experienced some form of exfoliation. If it was a basic facial, you may have had a scrub, or an enzyme mask, or a pass with the spinning brush machine.
Your aesthetician might have suggested more aggressive exfoliation procedures such as series of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) peels, microdermabrasion treatments, or even laser resurfacing. The intention of these procedures is to cause the skin to generate more collagen. Collagen is the protein that gives our skin a youthful plump and smooth look. Collagen synthesis decreases with age, and as a result of excessive sun exposure, improper skin care, poor nutrition, dehydration, and inflammation among other reasons.
These exfoliation procedures speed up the skin’s cell turnover rate (which also slows as we age), and promote collagen synthesis by removing several layers of the epidermis (the outermost layer of the skin, containing “dead” skin cells). This creates an inflammatory response that is intended to send a message to the cells in the dermis (inner “live” layer of the skin where the proteins of youth, collagen and elastin, are generated) to produce and send new collagen to the injured area. This gives the skin an immediate plumped, tightened, smoother, and more youthful appearance. However, the results are temporary so repeated treatments are necessary to maintain the look.
Most likely, your aesthetician also recommended a home care product regimen that will help maintain the results of the treatments you just had. At least one of the products probably contains ingredients (AHAs, salicylic acid, retinol, etc.) that exfoliate the skin on a daily basis. The purpose of this is to continue to speed up the skin’s process of sloughing off dead skin cells so the skin is smoother, looks more youthful, and other skin care product ingredients can penetrate deeper.
This is the “gold standard” of the skin care industry today.
Exfoliation does not just occur in salons and spas. There are many over-the-counter products containing exfoliating ingredients, as well as popular at-home microdermabrasion kits and spinning brushes that are widely available to the general public.
The short term effects of these treatments are very pleasing to clients, which is why so many people pay lots of money for them. But are these procedures actually doing anything to slow down aging in the dermis, where aging of the skin actually occurs? Do they actually benefit the skin’s health? Or are they actually doing to the skin what we are all trying so hard to prevent: speeding up the aging process, instead of slowing it down.
Dr. Ben Johnson, MD believes that the skin care industry’s current obsession with exfoliation is doing just that: exacerbating the aging process by destroying the skin’s natural barrier, the epidermis. His book, Transform Your Skin Naturally: Groundbreaking Alternatives to Exfoliation and Other Damaging Antiaging Strategies, discusses how these current skin care practices are doing more harm to the skin than good in the long term.
The epidermis must be repaired, not removed.
Dr. Johnson has a very accurate understanding of how the skin actually functions. Most skin care professionals and cosmetic dermatologists believe that the accumulation of the dead cells in the stratum corneum (top layer of the epidermis) are what give people a dull, aged appearance and worsen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. They believe that these cells must be removed in order to reveal the new, youthful cells underneath.
The build-up of dead cells is not a flaw in the design of the skin; is absolutely essential to its protective barrier function. What these professionals neglect to realize, is that the stratum corneum serves a very important role in protecting the skin (and the entire body) from UV radiation and other environmental aggressors, preventing infection, and serving as a barrier to prevent fluid and blood loss. Over-cleansing and exfoliating the skin also strips the skin of the protective lipids and enzymes that make up the barrier.
The lower layers of the epidermis are very important to protect and preserve, because they house many of the skin’s most important protective features. The basal layer, which is the lowest layer, is where melanocytes are located. These are the cells that create melanin, which is the pigment that gives our skin and hair their color. Melanin does not merely exist for aesthetic reasons; it protects our body from free radical damage caused by the sun and other environmental invaders. Exfoliation can cause the melanocytes to overproduce melanin pigment if they believe the skin’s barrier is compromised. This causes hyperpigmentation, otherwise known as age or sun spots. Exfoliation can also cause irreparable damage to the melanocytes, and make them cease to function. This causes hypopigmentation, or areas of lightness on the skin.