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The Unmistakable Magic of Exfoliation

Our skin sheds cells like mad, but sadly, they don’t just dissipate into the ether. Instead, they cling to healthy skin, dulling our complexion, clogging our pores, and highlighting lines and wrinkles. The best defense? Exfoliation.

Regular exfoliation helps prevent dull skin, clogged pores, and even skin discoloration, says Dr. Kally Papantoniou, board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at Mount Sinai in New York City. And for women who love anti-aging products, there’s another benefit: Regular exfoliation also allows skin care products to better penetrate skin and provide superior results, she says.

Unsurprisingly, exfoliation matters even more so for women of a certain age. “As we age, it becomes more important to exfoliate in order to combat the effects of dry skin, slow skin turnover, and worsening fine lines and wrinkles,” Dr. Papantoniou says.

But what does “regular” exfoliating mean when addressing mature skin? And of the different exfoliation methods, which works best for women over 50? Read on to find out the what and why of sloughing your way to more beautiful skin.

Exfoliation Methods: Mechanical Versus Chemical

Peruse beauty aisles, websites, or counters: The variety of exfoliating products is dizzying. Yet, there are only two methods that you need to know: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical (also known as physical) involves using tools, like brushes, sponges, loofahs, or abrasive scrubs that create enough friction to loosen and slough away dead skin cells, debris, and oils. Chemical exfoliation uses chemicals such as hydroxy acids, retinol, and enzymes, to aid in cell turnover and cause the superficial epidermal layers to exfoliate sans friction.

With mechanical exfoliation, always seek scrubs containing small, smooth exfoliating agents; larger, jagged pieces (think: fruit pits and nut shells) tend to be more abrasive and can cause micro-tears in the skin. When sourcing tools, Dr. Papantoniou says, “Avoid facial brushes with firm bristles and abrasive sponges and loofahs. It’s best to select softer options for use on your face, and read labels to learn the recommended use and which body areas an item is best for.”

skin exfoliation products - women over 50

If you choose the chemical exfoliation route, look for the following ingredients.

Retinol: “For mature skin, this is one of the best ingredients out there. Regular application leads to the improvement of lines, wrinkles, skin tone, and pigmentation,” she says. “It’s also proven to encourage skin to produce collagen, which helps in rejuvenating the appearance of skin.” Try: SkinCeuticals 1.0 Retinol Night Cream.

Alpha-Hydroxy Acids (AHAs): “These work very well for mature skin,” Dr. Papantoniou says. “Depending on the strength, they can gently exfoliate, improve the appearance of fine lines, and even out skin pigmentation.” Try: Herbivore Blue Tansy AHA + BHA Resurfacing Clarity Mask.

Enzymes (Papain and Bromelain): “Enzymes can be helpful in a more gentle way to exfoliate superficial layers of skin. [They] will help relieve the dull appearance of skin and may help with fine lines and mild discoloration,” she says. Try: Perfect Image Pineapple Pumpkin Enzyme Peel.

Rice Extract and Rice Bran: “This is a gentler option for mature skin, and is a good choice for those with sensitive skin that can’t tolerate AHAs or retinol,” Dr. Papantoniou says. Try: Tatcha Polished Gentle Rice Enzyme Powder.

Which Is Best for Aging Skin?

Does one method trump the other for aging skin? Dr. Papantoniou believes chemical beats out mechanical, hands down. “I prefer chemical exfoliation over mechanical for most people — and certainly for more mature skin. This is because you can get better results with chemical exfoliation and actually trigger better cell turnover and more improvement in wrinkles and discoloration,” she says. Additionally, facial skin becomes more delicate over time, and choosing abrasive materials to exfoliate could compromise the skin’s integrity and cause irritation and inflammation.

How Often Should You Exfoliate?

Despite the fact that exfoliation deeply benefits mature skin, there’s no reason to become heavy-handed. In fact, over-exfoliating can be counterproductive for mature skin, slowing cell turnover, causing inflammation (which accelerates skin aging), and stripping skin of necessary natural oils. Your best bet: If you’re new to an exfoliator, Dr. Papantoniou suggests introducing it as a regular part of your skin care regimen by starting with a weekly session and then building up the frequency as tolerated.

How do you know what your skin can stand? The fine line between too much and too little can be settled by paying close attention to your skin. If you find your skin becoming irritated, with persistent flaking, redness, or swelling, tone down the frequency (or take a break altogether) and evaluate what may have caused the issue.

“Redness and irritation will occur from the use of harsh tools or chemicals, and the overuse of the products,” Dr. Papantoniou warns. “Remember not to scrub hard. Gentle exfoliation will be more effective and better for your skin in the long run.”

Photos: Top, Drazen Lovric; all others courtesy of the companies

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