Vyvian(XueQing) Jiang, BSc Pharm Student
Acne is a very common, concerning problem that many share, and fortunately, there are a lot of products available in the market for it. But what about acne scars? Many exfoliants or peeling agents are claiming to have benefits in reducing acne scars by removing the dead skin cells and oil on the surface of your skin, offering a deep cleanse and rejuvenation. But do these products really work? Let’s take a closer look.
Busting a Common Myth
True or False: Skin cells on the surface of your skin are not all dead skin cells.
This is in fact, false. The active or living skin cells that divide constantly to maintain the skin’s physical barrier are actually buried deep inside, under layers of dead skin cells. Meaning, no matter how much you scrub to remove “dead skin cells”, you will still have dead skin cells covering your skin.1
How Do Exfoliants Actually Work?
In order for an exfoliant, also known as a peeling agent, to effectively remove that top layer of skin, it would have to break apart what is originally holding the skin together. This is done through drying (by reducing oil production) or chemical breakdown. This process can be damaging and irritating to the skin, and with time, this will only stimulate skin cells to divide faster. Meaning, you’ll have a thicker layer of skin and less acne through reduced oil production, at the cost of skin irritation.1
What Kind of Exfoliants Are Available?
#1 Salicylic Acid
At concentrations of 3-6%, salicylic acid has skin thinning and comedolytic effects, meaning it will help reduce the number of whiteheads and blackheads on your skin. How does it do this? Salicylic acid has mild antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce redness, swelling and itchiness. You can see these benefits by using salicylic acid for 8-12 weeks once or twice a day. At higher concentrations of 20-30%, salicylic acid can be used as a chemical peeling agent, which helps reduce blackheads, whiteheads, pimples and hyperpigmentation (the redness after a pimple eruption) and can be repeated every 4 weeks.1 Unfortunately, this concentration can’t be found over-the counter, and will need a prescription from your healthcare professional.
While this agent is not as irritating as salicylic acid, it’s also less effective. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s free from irritating side effects either. When applying over a large area or on broken skin, caution is necessary due to increased risk of skin irritation. Unlike salicylic acid, resorcinol can potentially cause an allergic reaction with continuous use. So, keep your eyes open for potential swelling, redness or rash with continuous applications. Commercially available resorcinol products are often found in combination with sulfur (e.g. Clearasil®), as both ingredients work together. As for how long Resorcinol needs to be used before effects become evident, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer just yet.1
#3 Glycolic Acid
At concentrations of 20-40%, glycolic acid is effective as a peeling agent. Unlike the agents mentioned above, glycolic acid actually has a moisturizing effect on the skin, and can help increase the absorption of other creams. Due to this property, it may work as a great addition to your preexisting skin care routine. Effects of glycolic acid can be seen after repeated peels at weekly or longer intervals.2 However, since it’s not found over-the-counter, you would have to obtain a prescription from your healthcare provider.
Peeling agents are great for removing acne scars; however, their use together with retinoid products must be avoided. This is because retinoids weaken the skin cells at the surface of the skin, and the effect of skin peeling combined will be far too damaging.3
It’s also important to take proper care of your skin before and after skin peeling. A great deal of moisturization is needed during this period, and sunscreens are highly recommended for everyone. Routine use of sunscreen is important, but especially so in individuals who have recently undergone a chemical peel.1
The Bottom Line
Exfoliants (or peeling agents) are effective at reducing acne and acne scarring. However, there are important considerations associated with their use, such as skin irritation and an increased risk of skin thickness over time. We’ve covered different types of exfoliants such as salicylic acid, resorcinol, and glycolic acid. If you are interested in using these products, a consultation with your healthcare professional or a dermatologist is recommended, especially if you were to obtain higher concentrations of salicylic acid or glycolic acid. Upon use of exfoliants, make sure to avoid retinoid products, and stick to a good moisturization and sunscreen routine.
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- Zakopoulou, N., & Kontochristopoulos, G. (2006). Superficial chemical peels. Journal Of Cosmetic Dermatology, 5(3), 246-253. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-2165.2006.00254.x
- Grajqevci-Kotori, M., & Kocinaj, A. (2015). Exfoliative Skin-peeling, Benefits from This Procedure and Our Experience. Medical Archives, 69(6), 414. doi: 10.5455/medarh.2015.69.414-416