Your skin naturally sheds billions of skin cells a day, which actually contributes to dust. Gross, right? But if it doesn’t shed properly, or if the shedding slows down, your skin can become dry and dull, and you may suffer from clogged pores and develop whiteheads, blemishes, and an uneven skin tone. This buildup of skin cells can even be the cause of those flaky skin flare-ups that are responsible for your makeup looking patchy and that can’t even be tamed with moisturizer. Exfoliation gives your body’s natural skin-cell shedding a boost and encourages cell regeneration, which results in a brighter and more even skin tone and smoother skin texture. You can exfoliate daily, weekly, or even just once a month, as it really depends on the condition of your skin.
The Right Exfoliator for Your Skin: Chemical or Mechanical?
As we discussed before when talking about cleansers, the skin on your body is thicker than the skin on your face, so you don’t want to go to town on your elbows and cheeks with the same vigor, or tools. Exfoliators mostly fall into two categories: mechanical and chemical. Mechanical exfoliation uses products such as sugar scrubs or brush bristles (such as a Clarisonic) for the face, or Korean moms armed with Italy towels for the body, to physically slough off dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. Mechanical exfoliation is good for normal to combination skin, but be cautious of using these methods if you have active breakouts or dry or sensitive skin.
The downside here is that the physical nature of the mechanical exfoliation process can irritate skin, causing it to produce more oil and leading to more acne. If you have active pimples (such as those with a white tip), avoid mechanical exfoliators, as you don’t want pimples to burst and spread bacteria to the surrounding skin.
Even without acne, you should still handle mechanical exfoliators with care. For example, if you’re using an electric rotating brush, limit the amount of time and pressure you press the rotating brush on your skin. Also, be careful of what mechanical exfoliants are used, because if the material used to make the scrub isn’t high quality, the rough, sharp edges of the granules can actually cause micro-tears in your skin.
In general, look for ingredients such as sugar, jojoba beads, or oatmeal, as all are fairly gentle on skin. Walnut and apricot scrubs, while popular, have uneven and odd-shaped granules that can have sharp edges and spell bad news for your skin.
If you’re using a rotating brush or exfoliating cloth for your face, you can use it during the second step of your double cleanse with your water-based cleanser. If you’re using a separate exfoliating scrub, do your double cleanse, then use the scrub on wet skin, wash it off, and follow with your toner.
On the flip side, chemical exfoliation uses acids or enzymes to remove dead skin cells. Acids and enzymes break down and dissolve the lipids that act like glue and hold the dead skin cells together. Some acids can even work deep into pores to remove sebum, which is an extra bonus, because dead skin cells aren’t just on the surface—they can settle deep into pores.
For chemical exfoliants, you’ll want to apply them after washing your face and using your toner. Be careful to avoid the eye area, since this is extra-sensitive skin, and then follow with the rest of your skin-care routine in order. If you’re using any retinols or prescribed products, double-check with your doctor to make sure that these products can be used together safely.
Dead Skin: Your Body’s Natural SPF
After you use chemical or mechanical exfoliators, you mustn’t forget to moisturize! Exfoliation weakens your skin’s barrier, and you want to rehydrate and protect with a good moisturizer.
As important as it is to exfoliate, dead skin cells do act as your body’s natural defense against the sun, and banishing them makes you extra sensitive to UV rays. You’re more susceptible now to hyperpigmentation and sun damage, so it’s incredibly important to regularly use at least an SPF 30 after you exfoliate. But let’s be honest, you should be using an SPF every day regardless of whether you’ve exfoliated.
The World of Korean Spas
The spa is the cornerstone of Korean beauty culture. There are Korean spas (also known as K-spas) all over the world in major cities and suburbs with large Korean populations, and you can find them the same way you would a Western spa: get recommendations from friends and magazines, and read online customer reviews. However, the similarities might end there.
Even if you’ve never been to a spa, you’ve probably seen the experience portrayed in movies or on TV—you know, rich, snooty ladies sipping antioxidant beverages in near-total silence with cucumber slices over their eyes.
Now, to prepare yourself for a jimjilbang—the Korean word for spa, which roughly translates to “heated room”—throw all those ideas out the window. First off, a jimjilbang is very much a family and group affair, so you won’t be wrapping yourself in a luxurious robe and retreating into solitude to the ambient noises of a birdsong CD. Instead, jimjilbangs are often multigenerational gathering spots where people go to get clean and chill out with their mothers, daughters, sisters, fathers, sons, brothers, cousins, friends, and even significant others. You’re as likely to see a four-year-old at a Korean spa as you are a seventy-four-year-old.
Korean spas have separate areas for men and women, but also areas where everyone can hang out together. When you check in at one of these spas, you’ll likely be given a key with a number that corresponds to the locker where you’ll store your clothes and personal belongings, as well as a color-coded outfit to wear in coed areas. Men get one color and women get another, and these shorts and T-shirt combos fall someplace between pajamas and the gym clothes you wore in junior high. They’re not cute, but they’re comfortable, and that’s the whole point.
Once you’re in the locker room, you’ll change out of your street clothes, but don’t put your spa clothes on yet. This is where the nakedness comes in. As soon as you’re au naturel, you’ll head to the showers, where you’ll wash off before getting into any of the hot tubs or saunas. This helps ensure that the spa doesn’t have hundreds of people a day bringing grime from the streets into the pools. You’ll wash your hair, your face, and your body, and all thoroughly.
The Wet Room
Tucked inside the locker room and still single-sex, the wet room will have tons of different pools and hot tubs. The hot tubs will likely have several different temperatures ranging from just lukewarm to piping hot, and some might have strategically placed jets for aqua-acupressure, to help relieve joint pain and enhance circulation. Some of the pools may even be filled with mineral or herbal treatments. A common one is the mugwort tea pool, which is said to help increase circulation and decrease inflammation.
Treatments and Body Scrubs
Most K-spas also offer treatments, ranging from massages to facials to classic body scrubs. The body scrub is one of my favorite things about Korean spa culture (it’s the most hard-core exfoliation around), but again, it might be a bit of a shock if you hear the word “treatment” and think private room with scented candles.
The Dry Saunas
Around the heated floor, you’ll see several doors that lead to different saunas. These range anywhere from 60˚F to 200˚F, and all promote resting, healing, and rejuvenation. Each Korean spa will be different, but the sauna arrangement will likely be something like this: the salt sauna, full of said minerals to help with skin conditions; the jade sauna, supposedly good for reducing stress; the clay sauna, full of thousands of tiny clay balls that you can bury yourself in to be warmed from all sides; and the bulgama, which is like baking yourself in a clay pizza oven heated to more than 200˚F