The importance of exfoliation: what it is used for and how to exfoliate the skin with peeling or scrubs. Physical vs chemical exfoliation?


The skin is a dynamic organ: every day the stratum corneum eliminates, through a physiological mechanism, an infinite number of keratinized cells. If as a young person this regenerative process normally takes place in 28 days, the passing of years slows down this rhythm, causing the epidermis to lose elasticity and favoring the appearance of wrinkles.

Exfoliate the skin: what it means and what it is used for

Exfoliation is a cosmetic treatment that consists in removing the dead cells present on the surface of the skin, which would also clog the pores, in order to free the underlying layers and give the skin a brighter and smoother appearance. Exfoliation allows a deep skin cleansing, with the elimination of dead cells and an increase in skin elasticity. In this way, any wrinkles are reduced and the pores reduce dilatation.

What is the purpose of exfoliating the skin? to obtain these benefits:

  • removal of excess sebum on the skin
  • reactivation of blood circulation
  • reduction of the probability of formation of black points
  • reduction of cellulite
  • improvement of skin texture
  • minimization of wrinkles and fine lines
  • exposure of the hair follicle for a closer shave
  • reduction of the formation of ingrown hair
  • allowed new cells to regenerate
  • preparation of the skin for a uniform tan
  • removal of tanned matte skin

Physical vs chemical exfoliation

In the aesthetic field the term “scrub” is used (English term which translated means “clean with energy, rub”), in the medical field the term “peeling“; we will use both words to define, in general, the process of “exfoliation”.

Depending on the mechanism of action, exfoliation can be of two types:

  • physical exfoliation: it consists in the mechanical rubbing on the skin of some ingredients (physical exfoliants) applied on the skin. Physical exfoliants are solid particles, generally of natural origin, which perform a microabrasive action, removing the corneal cells and promoting the renewal of the stratum corneum: the skin is thus smoother and more luminous. The physical exfoliants of vegetable origin usually used in natural scrubs are fine powders obtained from the shell of the walnut, from the peach seed, apricot, almond, or corn cob. Of particular interest are the small spheres obtained by processing the jojoba seed, which have a delicate exfoliating action suitable for the most easily irritated skin. Among the physical exfoliants of mineral origin used in exfoliating products we find kaolin (a particular type of clay) and silicon (obtained by pulverizing the coating of diatoms (single-celled algae).
  • chemical exfoliation: it consists in the application on the skin of one or more chemical substances (chemical exfoliants) which determine a controlled decay of some layers of the skin, with consequent desquamation, acceleration of cell turnover and stimulation of the epidermis and dermis. Depending on the depth, the chemical peel can be superficial, medium, deep. The “heavy” peels, conducted in the medical field, are able to cure some dermatological disorders, such as to correct scars, acne and deep wrinkles; “soft” peelings, carried out by the beautician or with do-it-yourself creams are useful for maintaining the skin and in the treatment of some imperfections. Chemical exfoliators are mainly used in the treatment of senescent and acne-prone skin. In general, chemical exfoliants have a keratolytic action, that is, they weaken the intercellular junctions present between the keratinocytes of the stratum corneum and favor the detachment and removal of dead cells. There is an innumerable range of chemical exfoliants: some can only be used by (very aggressive) medical personnel, others are applied in beauty salons, still others are purchased directly by final consumers for “home care” treatments. Here are some chemical exfoliants just mentioned:
  1. alpha hydroxy acids (AHA): AHAs are carboxylic acids with a hydroxyl group in the alpha position. They are found in nature in apples (malic acid), citrus fruits (citric acid), milk (lactic acid), unripe grapes (tartaric acid), sugar cane (glycolic acid). At low concentrations the alpha hydroxy acids have a moisturizing action, at high concentrations they have an exfoliating action. In particular, lactic acid increases skin hydration and promotes epidermal regeneration, giving the skin an elastic and soft appearance, stimulates the synthesis of ceramides and contributes to enhancing the barrier function of the skin. Peeling with glycolic acid: glycolic acid, in addition to the common properties with lactic acid, also has the ability to stimulate the synthesis of mucopolysaccharides, hyaluronic acid and chondroitin sulfate in the dermis; on the one hand it directly stimulates the dermal fibroblasts to produce collagen, and on the other hand inducing the keratinocytes to produce interleukins which migrate to the underlying dermis and stimulate the metabolism of the fibroblasts; it can be useful in pigmentation disorders (solar freckles, melasma, post inflammatory hyperpigmentations);
  2. beta hydroxy acids: they are carboxylic acids with a hydroxyl group in the beta position; among these, salicylic acid (which has a percentage limit of use in cosmetics) is used to perform superficial peels, especially in the treatment of papulo-pustular acne of mild and medium size. Peeling with salicylic acid: salicylic acid is believed to be very effective in eliminating the keratin plug and in releasing the pilosebaceous follicle; it also quickly penetrates inflamed lesions, where it performs bacteriostatic, drying and soothing action, without causing irritative phenomena. More sessions are needed and in the meantime sun exposure should be avoided;
  3. poly hydroxy acids: they show skin effects similar to those given by alpha hydroxy acids, but are more delicate. Examples: gluconolactone and lactobionic acid (given by the combination of gluconic acid and galactose). In particular, lactobionic acid shows a marked antioxidant and moisturizing action and the presence of gluconic acid gives this molecule exfoliating properties which favors cell renewal: this is why lactobionic acid is an ingredient of choice in the treatment of skin aging.

Physical vs chemical exfoliation: difference between scrubs and peeling

The two techniques (scrub and peeling) both aim to free the superficial layer of skin of the face and body (exfoliate the skin) from dead cells to restore softness and radiance, renewing the complexion and reducing the visibility of the pores. Yet they actually do it very differently:

  • scrub, also known as mechanical (or “physical”) exfoliation, removes cells by physical friction by exploiting the action of microgranules that decisively eliminate dead skin. This technique is very suitable for the body and is recommended especially for oily skin.
  • peeling exploits the properties of some substances (chemical exfoliants), such as alpha and beta-hydroxy acids. Take for example glycolic, salicylic or lactic acid and apply them to the face to accelerate the natural exchange of the skin, favoring the formation of new cells. The peeling action is deep and intense compared to that of the scrub precisely because these substances act directly on the adhesive between the dead cells, and eliminate it. The peeling is suitable for dry skin because it skips the slightly more aggressive process of mechanical exfoliation, which can damage an already compromised skin.

How to use the scrub and peeling treatment

Apply the face scrub gently avoiding the mouth and eyes, with circular movements and without adding water, in front of the mirror. For the body scrub (or body peeling), start gently from the feet in a circular motion, then move on to the legs, arms and then back and then finally move on to the bust.

Leave the scrub on your skin for a few minutes to absorb its nutrients and appreciate its effect; rinse well with cold water. Do not remove the scrub so as to drag it on the skin otherwise you risk damaging it: better use a dampened towel. Make sure to remove all the smeared scrub, so as not to leave any residue. Gently dry without pulling the skin and now apply a good natural moisturizer to your new layer of skin to maximize its elasticity.

Exfoliate the skin: when to do it and when not to do it

Facial scrub (or facial peeling): it is better to perform a facial scrub before a night’s rest, especially in summer. For dry and sensitive skin it is sufficient to do a scrub every other week. For oily skin it can also be done once a week. Never exceed twice a week.

Body scrub (or body peeling): it is preferable to perform the scrub after taking a bath, shower or sauna, and this is because when the body is softened by steam it is easier to remove dead skin cells and skin , like a sponge, better absorbs nutrients. They are useful not only to renew the stratum corneum, but also to counteract the formation of ingrown hair.

It is good not to exfoliate the skin with the peeling treatment or the use of scrubs immediately before sunbathing and during the whole period that you expose yourself, to avoid the appearance of spots and skin discolourations: rather, for a beautiful and homogeneous tan, peeling is recommended but if done 3-5 days before exposure, to prepare the skin.

Peeling, scrubs: where to find them

You can find them in all cosmetics stores. Here you can find some natural, eco-bio peels and scrubs, which Erboristeria Como has selected for you and the advice for use:

  • the anti-aging face and body peeling mask (eco bio, cosmeceutical dermocurative created by Domus Olea in collaboration with the University of Florence) has been specifically designed to give the skin of the face a deep cleansing and an antioxidant anti-wrinkle treatment in a single gesture. Ideal for mature, thickened and dull skin to regain a young radiance; excellent for the treatment of oily, impure, acne and atonic skin, thanks also to the synergistic action of antibacterial and purifying essential oils. The massage with Apricot granules activates the skin microcirculation and prepares the skin for the application of emulsions. Essential for other parts of the body that need to be smoothed and renewed (feet, knees, elbows, décolleté). How to use: apply to the skin at least once a week, without adding water, massage gently with circular movements for about 1-2 minutes, then rinse. Find out here how you can associate it in the routine according to your skin: dry, sensitive skin, oily skin, combination skin.
  • the exfoliating face and body scrub by Maternatura: it is excellent for all skin types, gently eliminates dead skin cells and skin impurities, making it softer and smoother. It is formulated with rice and bamboo powder, sweet almond oil, sesame, sunflower and apricot oil, essential oils of lemon, orange, mint which restore energy, brightness and finesse to the skin. Apply the scrub once a week on dry or moist skin of the body. After 30 seconds rub with your fingertips until the product is removed, then rinse with warm water.
  • Nourishing organic body scrub by Phitofilos: it relies on the exfoliating action of the apricot kernel microgranules in synergy with the jojoba wax and the organic chestnut extract, promoting cleansing elasticity and shine to the skin. The presence of organic extracts of Pineapple, Rice, Flax, Aloe, Malva and Altea gives emollience and hydration. Allergen-free fragrance. Apply the necessary quantity before the shower gel on damp skin, massage carefully and rinse. We recommend using it once a week.

Dr. Laura Comollo

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  • Dermocosmetologia. Dall’inestetismo al trattamento cosmetico, Di Andrea Bovero
  • Vis à vis. I trattamenti per illuminare la pelle e migliorare l’espressione …- Di M. Angela Masino
  • Organic body scrubs – Di Pamela Godson

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