The growing trend of taking better care of one’s skin has broken the male-female divide. In the past, skincare products have been largely marketed to women; however, in the last years, we’ve seen more and more personal care products for men. You can expect almost every type of ‘feminine’ skin product to have a ‘masculine’ counterpart, from facial washes to makeup lines by high fashion brands.
Facial scrubs for men are not a recent addition to this trend; we’ve seen quite a few advertisements of these products on the local TV channels. These contain coffee, licorice, charcoal, sea salt, and other seemingly no-nonsense exfoliators that rid the face of dirt, gunk, and dead skin cells. These ingredients are often emphasized to differentiate them from the supposedly gentler exfoliators typically marketed to women. But do these differences actually matter? And how do facial scrubs and other exfoliators affect your skin?
Exfoliation refers to the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. It can be done through mechanical exfoliation, which refers to removing debris with the help of abrasive substances that literally buff away dead skin cells and impurities, or chemical exfoliation, which dissolves dead skin cells through the use of an acid- or enzyme-based formula. Facial scrubs and your good ol’ panghilod are examples of mechanical exfoliators, while soaps and cleansers with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are examples of chemical exfoliators. We’ll get into the different types of exfoliators in detail later.
To answer the first question: yes, male and female skins have their differences, and it’s important to consider these when putting together a skincare routine or shopping list for skincare products like facial scrubs. Here are some of their key differences:
- Oil production. Men’s sebaceous glands have more receptors for androgens, which include testosterone. This explains in part why, after the onset of puberty, men produce twice the amount of sebum compared to that produced by women. The overabundance of oil not only leads to a shinier appearance, it also lowers the pH of the skin, making it more susceptible to pore blockages and acne flare ups. These, then, can result to a noticeably rougher skin texture for men. On the other hand, high sebum production means that men are less likely to experience dry skin.
- Collagen density and loss. One of the essential building blocks of the body, collagen is crucial for skin cell renewal and keeps the skin firm and supple. The male skin has about 20% more collagen than the female, making it thicker and giving it a tighter and firmer appearance. Men also lose collagen at a consistent rate of about 1% per year after they reach their 30s. Women, on the other hand, lose around 5% per year for the first 5 years following menopause, then around 2% after that.
- Signs of aging. The amount of collagen in one’s skin affects the appearance of the signs of aging. Among the common signs of aging skin in men include grooved and well-defined wrinkles, sagging skin, and puffy eyes with dark circles underneath. Due to the consistent rate of collagen loss, it takes a bit more time for the male skin to exhibit the said signs; but once the signs do start to appear, they’ll become prominent more quickly.
- Stress levels. Skin can get stressed by many activities, including shaving. While not every person shaves or has facial hair, those who do may shave up to 16,000 times in a lifetime. Shaving every day can irritate the skin and cause inflammation, and using a blunt razor or insufficient lubrication can lead to nicks and cuts.
At the same time, one has to keep in mind that Filipino men have different skin types, which should also be a factor when choosing an exfoliator. For example, those with sensitive or acne-prone skin are advised to steer clear of physical exfoliators, while those with combination or dry skin can use gentle facial scrubs.
How Exfoliation Affects Your Skin
Believe it or not, the practice of exfoliation has been a thing for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians favored a concoction made of milk, honey, and alabaster specs, while old wine and tartaric acid were used by people in the Middle Ages to rejuvenate their skin. It wasn’t until the late 1800s when scientists decided to take a deeper look into chemical exfoliators and develop different peeling agents.
Even in the olden days, people found it a necessity to get rid of dead cells and gunk from the largest organ in the human body. There are plenty of good reasons for this— reasons that answer our second question. First, exfoliation unclogs pores and makes them appear smaller, and it leaves the surface of the skin looking better, brighter, and healthier. Second, removing dead skin cells allows skin ointments and other topical applications to penetrate the skin more effectively. Third, it helps in managing skin conditions and preventing future breakouts. Fourth, in the long run, regular exfoliation can boost collagen production and make the skin look younger.
Using exfoliators regularly is definitely a good habit that anyone should keep, but it should be done correctly and cautiously. Aggressive exfoliation through mechanical or chemical means can exacerbate skin conditions like inflammatory acne, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, or warts. Individuals with these conditions should see a dermatologist to get the right advice and products that will help them manage their skin. Also, even if you don’t have these conditions, excessive exfoliation can damage the barrier of the skin and lead to irritation and inflammation. Redness and dryness following the use of an exfoliator are not signs that the product is doing good work on your skin; they are actually indicators of skin damage.
Types of Exfoliators
As mentioned earlier, there are 2 general types of exfoliators for the face: mechanical and chemical. Aside from facial scrubs, mechanical exfoliators also include facial sponges and towels, silicone cleaning pads and brushes, as well as motorized facial brushes with different settings and attachments. Here’s a summary of how they typically work:
- Facial scrubs. All facial scrubs contain tiny, unevenly sized particles that buff away dead skin. If these particles are too large, they can cause micro-tears that will eventually weaken the skin’s barrier and make it prone to redness and other signs of sensitivity. While some facial scrubs are advertised to remove acne, making good of such a promise isn’t easy. The scrub can probably remove the topmost and most visible layer of blackheads, for example, but the root of the problem is still there. Still, facial scrubs can be a part of a healthy skin routine that can help control acne and other skin issues.
- Facial sponges and towels. Konjac sponges are a popular type of facial sponge. The gentle surface of the konjac sponge allows it to exfoliate without damaging the skin. It is often used with a facial wash to cleanse the skin and remove makeup. Aside from konjac sponges, there are also microfiber facial cloths and face mitts that help remove makeup and other impurities from the skin.
- Cleansing brushes. Silicone cleansing brushes are some of the most inexpensive tools one can use to remove dead skin cells. This tool has tiny bristles on one side that massage the skin and gently remove clogs and debris. Aside from silicone brushes, there are also regular facial brushes with super-soft hair bristles that loosen the debris that clog pores. Just like silicone brushes, these facial brushes are used with a facial wash to achieve the best results.
- Motorized brushes. Electric brushes are on the opposite end of the spectrum, as they are often the most expensive cleansing tools one can have at home. These multifunctional brushes come in all shapes and sizes and can have a silicone brush, hair brush, and even a konjac sponge on their business end. With the help of a cleanser or facial wash, they can clean the skin using rotating or oscillating motions, or even sonic pulsations. What makes electric brushes so appealing is their versatility, as the settings and the attachments of the tool can be changed to fit the skin type or condition of the person using it.
Mechanical scrubs are easy to use and provide immediate results. These exfoliators best benefit people with fuzz-free, dry, or oily skin and those with a history of allergic reaction to chemical cleansers. Now, if you have sensitive, acne-prone, or aging skin, you can look into chemical exfoliators. The most common chemical exfoliators are retinoids, AHAs, and BHAs, and they often come in the form of creams, masks, serums, or gels. Here’s how they work on the skin:
- Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Typically derived from organic sugars, AHAs like glycolic acid and lactic acid dissolve the bond between the skin cells, allowing the dead cells to be removed easily. This water-soluble substance works on the surface of the skin, hydrating it and repairing sun damage. Typically, at-home exfoliators with AHAs have around 4% of the acid, while the formulas used in clinics have a high concentration of up to 70%. AHAs get rid of pore blockages and trapped bacteria, leaving the skin smoother. However, they can also cause photosensitivity and irritation, so be sure to start with a product with low concentration and use sun protection.
- Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). BHAs like salicylic acid work on and below the surface of the skin. They are oil-soluble and are often used to treat sun damage and acne and calm redness and inflammation. Because AHAs and BHAs have a lot of shared benefits, the 2 are typically found on many commercial exfoliators.
- Derived from vitamin A, retinoids can help treat acne, promote collagen production, minimize signs of aging, and sooth sun damage. Examples of topical retinoids include retinol and adapalene.
People with sensitive skin can start out with BHAs because this type of acid is less irritating than AHAs, while those who have mild to moderate acne can opt for products with retinoids, glycolic acid, or salicylic acid. Even men who have minimal skin issues can benefit from a chemical peel. Those who have normal skin can choose a product based solely on their personal preference, while those with dry skin can benefit from the hydrating properties of AHAs. If you have combination skin, you can apply AHA to the dry areas and BHA to the oily areas. If you have oily skin, you can try pairing physical and chemical exfoliators to see which combination works best for you. Also, it’s not that hard to find products in the market that have a mix of chemical exfoliators.
Start with a gentle exfoliation using a product or tool that you like, and take care not to go overboard. After trying out a product or tool, watch out for the following: inflammation, shiny or waxy skin, dryness, tightness, flaking or peeling, dehydration, excessive oil production, and breakouts. These are signs that your skin has been overexfoliated. Should any of these happen, hold off exfoliating for 2 to 3 weeks and use a gentler exfoliator in the future. Strong reactions, like a bad rash or bleeding, may need the attention of a dermatologist.
Speaking of professionals, you can also choose to head to a clinic for a professional exfoliation. You can expect most clinics to offer chemical peels; dermaplaning, or the removal of baby hair and dead skin cells through the use of a scalpel; and microdermabrasion, or exfoliating the skin with the use of fine crystals.
How often you should exfoliate depends on your skin type and the exfoliation method you are using. If you have thick, oily skin, you can exfoliate daily; if you have sensitive skin, once or twice a week should be enough. Professional exfoliations are done less frequently, like every couple of weeks or so, as they use harsher methods and their effects last much longer than over-the-counter products.
Unfortunately, determining whether or not an exfoliator works for you is still a trial-and-error process. While mechanical scrubs are heavily marketed to men, there’s no shame in trying out gentler chemical exfoliators or a combination of the two if that’s what your skin needs. After all, your exfoliation method and tools should fit your skin type and issues, not the other way around.