Exfoliation has been around for donkey’s years. Ancient civilizations knew that scrubbing your skin with a solution of oil and salt or sugar left it shiny and soft. In recent years, there’s been an increasing focus on chemical exfoliation – a world away from traditional methods, but a similar means to smooth, glowing skin.
Despite its long history, there’s still debate and uncertainty, namely about when exfoliation should be performed. Before or after shaving? Before or after cleansing? And what’s the most effective method? For a complete guide to exfoliating your legs, read on.
Why should I exfoliate?
Exfoliating is the simple process of removing dead skin cells from your skin.
Dead skin cells on the skin’s surface come with several unwelcome effects. Firstly, they create an uneven surface, meaning light reflected from the surface is scattered in several directions. If your skin is clear and exfoliated, light reflects as one, creating “glow”.
Secondly, dead skin cells can clog pores, causing spots or even acne. And thirdly, they can trap hairs under the surface of the skin, leading to ingrown hairs. That’s why exfoliation and hair removal go hand in hand.
How often should I exfoliate my legs?
Our legs are a high-traffic area for razors. They’re one of the most commonly shaved regions of our bodies, especially in the summer months where they’re the most exposed. The skin on our legs is also tough enough to withstand regular shaving, unlike more delicate areas of the body, where many prefer to use wax or creams.
Whether you’re shaving, waxing or epilating, the difference exfoliation makes for hair removal is huge. Not only do dead skin cells trap hairs, they also prevent wax from sticking, and get in the way of blades and tweezers.
With this in mind, it’s best to exfoliate every time you remove hair. If you shave every couple of days, you can exfoliate every couple of days, as long as your exfoliator of choice doesn’t irritate your skin. Exfoliating every day probably isn’t necessary, but a two to three times a week is a good standard to aim for. It must be done regularly to keep dead skin cells at bay, and make way for new ones to emerge and thrive.
When should I exfoliate?
Knowing when to exfoliate isn’t one of those instinctual things. When our skin is dry, we know to moisturize. But it’s harder to tell when your needs exfoliating with the naked eye.
A little known fact that highlights the importance of correct practice is that exfoliating takes away a layer of dead skin cells, and any germs or bacteria that were on your skin. When you exfoliate, you open your pores to contamination. To prevent this bacteria from getting close to your new, more vulnerable skin cells during exfoliation, start by dry-brushing the skin with a handheld exfoliation brush, then cleansing with soap and warm water.
For the closest and most gentle shave, there should be no barriers to the razor blade. This means it’s best to exfoliate next, before shaving, which will allow the blade to glide over the skin, and will aid in the prevention of ingrown hairs.
Remember: ingrown hairs also occur after shaving, when new hairs begin to break through the skin. This is why regular exfoliation is key, to make sure their path is clear, and they won’t become trapped by a buildup of cells.
Shaving is tough on your skin, so there’s no need to exfoliate again straight after. As above, every 2-3 days is optimal.
Finally, use a shaving oil or a regular moisturising cream or lotion to soothe any irritation and replace any moisture lost during the process.
To sum up, here are the 5 stages for perfect exfoliation:
- Dry brush (optional, but ideal for those with typically dry skin)
- Cleanse (with warm water)
- Exfoliate (by massaging the scrub or sponge in small circles)
- Shave (with a sharp blade, against the direction of hair growth)
- Moisturise, or apply oil.
Types of exfoliation
Many of us are familiar with scrubs and loofahs, but active ingredients previously only found in salons have been appearing in mainstream exfoliation products: things like AHAs, BHAs, lactic acid, salicylic acid, and glycolic acid. These are the types of chemicals you’ll find in a chemical peel, and in many chemical exfoliation toners and serums.
Despite the slightly unfriendly-sounding names, they are all derived from natural sources, such as rice, milk, fruit, and papaya, and can actually be gentler on the skin than ‘mechanical exfoliation’ (scrubs, brushes, and microdermabrasion).
Unlike mechanical exfoliation, these products are applied onto dry skin, after cleansing and moisturising, in the evenings. They tend to be geared more towards facial skincare, as they’re particularly good at combating signs of ageing, and increasing shine and glow.
Your skin type and exfoliation
Any of the five skin types (oily, dry, combination, sensitive, normal) can reap benefits from exfoliating. But as is always the case for introducing something new into your skincare regime, different products and product types will yield different results.
Dry skin types tend to need exfoliation the most. Dry skin produces less sebum than normal skin. If your skin regularly gets dry enough to flake, you might find your skin looks dull due to an excess of dead skin cells on the surface. This can also clog pores, leading to blemishes.
Irritation can sometimes accompany dry skin. In this case, abrasive scrubs may do more harm than good, so chemical exfoliation might be worth looking into for it’s gentler, more nourishing effects.
Oily skin has the highest tolerance for exfoliation, but similarly, using products that are too abrasive might cause an increase in the spots or acne that often accompany this skin type.
How to exfoliate at home
Exfoliation can be an involved and luxurious process, or it can be quick and simple. It all comes down to your skin’s needs, and whether you love to indulge in the pampering ritual, or just want a quick solution on the go.
If your exfoliating needs are low (in other words, if you don’t struggle with dry skin or ingrown hairs), you’re probably lucky enough to get away with a handheld exfoliating pad, or glove. It’s always best to cleanse first and moisturise after, but the physical abrasion from a pad is often enough to slough away dead cells and prep you for hair removal, without the need for multiple products. An all-over body buff in the shower takes just a minute or two.
If you want to step up your at-home exfoliation game but don’t want to spend out on pricey exfoliating skincare products, you might just have all you need in your kitchen cupboard. Mix a teaspoon of sea salt (can be harsh on some skin types) or sugar (for a gentler consistency) with a tablespoon of olive or avocado oil. Massage the mixture in circles across the skin, and rinse with warm water. The oils will lend bonus softness.
Can I use the same exfoliator for my legs and face?
The main thing to remember about our facial skin and bodily skin is that the face is much more delicate. It’s also more reactive, and relies more heavily on the oil barrier to protect against bacteria, sun damage, and ageing. The DIY scrubs we mention above are great for a cheap fix for bodily exfoliation, but you might find that salt or sugar granules are too large and abrasive for facial skin.
Mechanical exfoliation is great for large areas of the body. It can be done with reusable tools, like brushes, gloves and towels, meaning no burning through liquid products. Scrubs also tend to come in larger packages, and are designed to go a long way in covering broader areas.
Chemical exfoliation is well suited to the face. It’s gentler, less likely to provoke a sensitive reaction, and kinder to acne prone skin. You can often find chemically-exfoliating ingredients in products with high vitamin concentrations, like retinols, so they’re often accompanied by other benefits.
There is one thing to bear in mind, however – these types of products can render your skin more vulnerable to sun damage. They should also be left on the skin for 30 minutes or so while your skin processes the acidity and absorbs the benefits. They’re not ideal for morning application, and make up won’t go over them very well. So if you opt for chemical exfoliation, make sure you apply it only at night, starting with once or twice a week while your skin adapts.
Treating ‘strawberry legs’ with exfoliation
You might have heard the term ‘strawberry legs’ in skincare circles. This common condition actually has a scientific name – ‘ketosis pilaris’. It’s characterised by ‘flesh-coloured or reddish bumps’, usually on the arms or legs. It’s caused by a buildup of keratin in the pores. It’s similar to ‘razor rash’, where slightly enlarged pores can get clogged with oil, dirt or product build up.
The good news is it’s a harmless condition, and most people grow out of it by their 30s. In the meantime, it can be dramatically improved via exfoliation. AHAs are great at combating it, as is regular mechanical exfoliation, to keep your pores as clean and clear as possible, and bumps and irritation to a minimum.
To sum up…
Exfoliation can help take your skincare routine to the next level, by boosting circulation, shine, and skin cell turnover. If you find the process too harsh or abrasive at first, switch to a smaller-granule product, a chemical exfoliator, or something designed specifically for sensitive skin.
Exfoliation can benefit everyone, so it’s worth spending the time to figure out how much and how often works for you.