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Skin Care: Then and Now—Exfoliation

By: Lydia Sarfati
Posted: September 3, 2013, from the September 2013 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

As the leaves begin changing color and the weather starts to shift into the fall season, it is the perfect time for renewal ... and what better way to help treat your clients’ skin then by giving it a fresh start. Exfoliation is an essential part of maintaining healthy, beautiful skin for your clients. This is not a new concept: In fact, the ancient Egyptians used abrasive tapes made with alabaster, honey and sour milk to exfoliate, and then abraded the skin with finely ground sand to keep it silky smooth. Luckily for today’s professional skin care clients, the beauty industry has advanced by leaps and bounds when it comes to exfoliation.

The early days of exfoliation

There have been phenomenal advancements in exfoliation techniques even since the early days of professional skin care in the United States. When thinking back on the methods used in the 1970s to force the creation of new, healthy skin cells for clients, it becomes apparent that it has truly been a journey. One of the main forms of exfoliation during that time was a method called gommage, which comes from the French word meaning “to erase.” This process involved applying an enzyme-based cream that would sit on the face for a few minutes until it dried and then the hardened cream would be rubbed away, just like an eraser. Although this was effective, much easier and less messy forms of exfoliation have come into play today.

I also used to mix together granule concoctions of almonds, honey, oatmeal and buttermilk that would leave clients’ skin nice and smooth. Little did I know, I was actually using alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are now used regularly in the esthetics world. To help get rid of dead skin cells even further, other common kitchen items were often used, such as sugar, lemon and oil. Many of these ingredients are actually still used in exfoliants today, but the formulations have become so much more advanced. This time period laid the foundation for future advancements. Along with topical products, estheticians would use electric brushes and pumice stones, which seemed advanced at the time.

The evolution of chemical peels

While estheticians were using these exfoliation methods, physicians were performing one the strongest types of chemical peels—phenol—which could remove all the pigment from the skin and leave patients needing strong sun protection for the rest of their lives. This treatment was highly effective at the time, but very risky.

The largest impact on exfoliation in the esthetic world has been due to chemical peels. In the 1990s, a safer version of glycolic acid entered the beauty industry and really changed the game. This is one of the mildest types of AHAs, but still provides a great exfoliation, revealing gorgeous skin minus the irritation. Prior to glycolic acid, peels were known to be somewhat painful, so its introduction made them so much more accessible and available to estheticians, who could perform these safer treatments. Not only could clients skip a visit to a doctor’s office, but they also could get a facial instead and just add in the peel!