By Fiona McKim
Skin smoothing has become something of a loaded term. This is, in part, thanks to good old social media with its many skin smoothing filters, designed to airbrush away anything that might suggest the subject of a selfie (or any photo) has actual human skin. This includes pores, bumps, hair, and—heaven forbid—the occasional blemish.
Offline, in the real world, most of us have skin that features at least one (if not all) of the above, and then some—and that's perfectly fine. Time spent trying to achieve skin that's entirely untroubled by texture or tone anomalies is about as fruitful as time spent trying to predict the lottery results. Even the best foundation in the world won't make your skin look like a digitally altered image (and thank goodness for that). Real human faces have texture and that should be celebrated whenever possible.
Putting engineered perfection to one side, what we can do to make incremental yet gratifying improvements to what nature has given us is employ a hardworking skincare routine. For example, if you have rough skin texture on your face or body, you can use skincare acids to gently refine and smooth; dehydrated, ashy elbows can be scrubbed, softened, and quenched with emollients; large pores can be unclogged and deep-cleaned of any blemish-causing bacteria.
Sound good? Welcome to skin smoothing 101—this is everything you need to know to achieve silky, beautiful skin with no filter required.
Skin smoothing—everything you need to know
It will probably come as no surprise that the primary skin smoothing technique, be that on the face or body, is exfoliation. Naturally the area you wish to smooth, and the type of texture you want to tackle, informs the exfoliating products, tools, and ingredients that you should use.
Use this handy texture cheat sheet to find the right smoothing route for you. There are three:
- Rough skin softeners
- Bumpy skin smoothers
- Ashy skin fixes
Rough skin softeners
Rough or flaky skin is probably the most common texture bugbear that you might wish to smooth away. It can present itself on your face or body but, more often than not, it comes down to the same factors: Dead skin cells collecting on the skin's surface, a naturally dry skin type or—in many cases—a combination of the two.
"The signs of dry skin are rough-textured, scaly, flaky appearance, redness and irritation," explains Dr. Ana Mansouri, Aesthetic Doctor at Kat & Co. "The problem lies in the lack of oil (sebum, lipids, and fatty acids) produced from the sebaceous glands in the skin."
This lack of natural oil means that old skin cells, which move to the top of your skin ready to shed, are missing the cushion-like lipid barrier that keeps hydration in and protects the skin from irritants. Add to this a slowing of cell turnover as we age—and the resulting duller, drier dead cells that hang around longer on the skin's surface— and you've got yourself a recipe for rough-textured skin. It goes without saying that making sure you are using the right skincare for dry skin, such as non-drying cleansers and hydrating serums, is step one. Then, add in the right exfoliator for you.
How to dry body brush
Before showering or bathing, brush your body with small firm strokes. Work upwards from the bottom of limbs towards the heart. On the stomach and hips use larger circular movements. Keep going for at least a minute per day, you'll feel instantly energized and smoother.
How to smooth rough skin on the body
Good news, everyone! All but the most reactive of skin types can afford to go a bit harder with exfoliating rough skin on the body. Which is to say—knock yourself out with the best body exfoliators and scrubs, exfoliating mitts, or the slightly torturous but very effective body brush. There are plenty of fancy AHA body peels and liquids out there if you prefer, but honestly, nothing beats a satisfying physical exfoliation session for body skin smoothing. If you are very sensitive and really can't hack a manual scrub without redness or irritation, look to exfoliating body bars. They tend to be gentler and include a combination of fine powdery exfoliants, plus hydrating ingredients. They're also environmentally gentler than tubs of scrub tend to be. Win-win.
How to smooth rough skin on the face
Tempting and as it can be to scrub away at rough cheeks with a physical exfoliant, the majority of face scrubs are too aggressive for your skin and will further deplete your lipid barrier.
Instead, use a chemical exfoliant that naturally dissolves the joins between dead skin cells to help shift them. As long as your skin isn't on the more sensitive end of the spectrum, glycolic acid is the most effective option from a group of ingredients known as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA).
Glycolic acid comes in many forms—masks, liquid toners, handy peel pads—and can help hydrate the skin and stimulate collagen too. If glycolic is too strong for you, go for PHA products instead. This acid has larger molecules that don't penetrate quite as deeply, meaning it is less likely to irritate your skin.
Bumpy skin smoothers
Bumpy skin can go two ways, and we mean that literally:
- Bumps can form outwards because something has built up within the skin, causing it to raise
- A bumpy appearance can go inwards due to a 'gap'—most likely a larger pore
Both are, if not entirely solvable, certainly treatable if you know how:
How to treat bumpy skin on the body
Two words: keratosis pilaris. This bumpy skin on the body, which you might know as "chicken skin" is the result of a keratin build-up that clogs hair follicles. Often found on the upper arms, legs, and back, it's very common—an estimated 40% of adults and adolescents globally are affected by this. It is completely harmless and doesn't need to be "treated," as such, but it can be a bit of a confidence-sapper and is frustratingly hard to shift.
As KP bumps sit within the skin, a physical scrub or exfoliant won't get to the root of the issue and could, in fact, irritate and inflame your skin. Instead, use acids from a family known as beta-hydroxy acids (BHA), the most well-known of which is salicylic acid. This works differently to AHAs: instead of dislodging surface cells, it digs into pores and follicles to dissolve oil build-up and blockages from within. "Not all topical exfoliating formulations are identical in performance," says CeraVe skincare expert Dr. Christopher Hensby. "Salicylic acid helps smooth skin and reduce spots, which results in a healthier-looking skin." Naturally, this is a godsend for KP. That said, as salicylic dissolves oil it can be a little drying, so look for products that are well-balanced with moisturizing ingredients too.
How to treat bumpy skin on the face
Excluding the possibility of skin conditions such as hormonal acne (if that's what's going on, read up on the best skincare routine for acne), a complexion that appears bumpy or and uneven is likely the result of pores.
It's important to say now that, despite what many products claim, pores are not something you can shrink or 'close'. Pore size is often genetic and also comes down to skin type—oily skin, for instance, can often have larger-looking pores due to sebum blockages. Collagen plays a part too; as natural stores decline through the years, causing the skin's structural support to weaken, pores can appear to gape.
Using the right skincare for oily skin will ensure you aren't exacerbating clogged pores with overly heavy face creams. After that, the good news is that BHAs work just as beautifully on the face as they do the body. As with most acid treatments you might want to start with a lower dose on the face and (with the usual ultra-sensitive-types-need-not-apply caveat), combining it with an AHA could be a very good idea here too. The multi-pronged attack of oil-clearing, plus dead-cell shifting (which in turn prevents further clogging) ensures pores are spotlessly clean. Plus, the gentle collagen-promotion properties of AHA can help keep the skin plump and pores well-supported so they appear less noticeable.
Ashy skin fixes
When we talk about "ashy" skin, we're referring to the dry, grayish tinge usually found on elbows, knees, and knuckles. Like rough skin, ashiness comes down to a combination of dead cells and depleted moisture—the difference being that ashy skin is often caused by dehydration or a lack of water, rather than dryness, which is a lack of oil (although you could well experience both at the same time—joy!).
Once again, a chunky scrub is a satisfying and effective way to shift dull, ashy skin. Pick one with a clingy texture that won't disappear down the plughole before you have a chance to rub it in. Also, it's a good idea to look out for formulas that contain emollient ingredients such as shea butter, lanolin, and plant oils. These leave a waxy, moisture-packed layer on the skin's surface to prevent water loss and ease dehydration. Emollient ingredients can also disguise ashy texture with a sheeny finish, which is ideal if you're planning on getting your arms or legs out for the day.
10 brilliant skin smoothing buys for face and body
As woman&home's Senior Beauty Editor, Fiona Mckim has tried more beauty products than she’s had hot dinners and nothing makes her happier than raving about a brilliant beauty find on womanandhome.com or her instagram grid (@fionamckim if you like hair dye experiments and cute shih-tzus)
Fiona joined woman&home as Assistant Beauty Editor in 2013, working under legend Jo GB, who taught her everything she needed to know about the industry (clue: learn about ingredients and employ extreme cynicism).
In a previous life, Fiona studied journalism back home in bonnie Scotland and honed her skills as a features writer at publications including Junior and Prima Baby, with a brief and terrifying stint on the showbiz gossip pages of a tabloid newspaper in between. She's a skincare fanatic who can’t resist adding an extra step to her routine if it’s all the rage in Japan, loves fragrance, has fun with makeup and never turns down the chance to test a new hair tool. Basically, she loves it all.
When not slathering herself in self tan or squinting at a tiny ingredients list on a moisturiser, you’ll probably find Fiona enjoying something to do with food - cooking it, eating it, cajoling her friends into trekking across London to try a hyped pop-up in a dirty car park.
Come to think of it, the hot dinners and beauty products are probably about even.
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