While dermatologists maintain that exfoliation is a great (and sometimes necessary) way to shed dead skin cells and reveal the fresh, radiant skin sitting below the surface, the recent popularity of cell-scrubbing cleansers, toners, grains, and serums means that many beauty enthusiasts are exfoliating a bit too much and a bit too often.
Here’s where it gets confusing, though: Some of the key issues exfoliation is meant to treat (like dry, peeling skin and breakouts) can also be markers of over-exfoliation. So, how can you tell if you need to buff away the buildup or give it a break?
Here’s a comprehensive guide to all things exfoliation, including how to nurse your skin back to health after you’ve gone too far.
“Over-exfoliating is one of the biggest mistakes we see people making,” says Dr. Aanand Geria, a dermatologist with Geria Dermatology. “Generally, skin should be exfoliated only one to two times per week to help expedite skin cell turnover without causing damage.”
Yup, one to two times per week. If you’ve been slathering on the exfoliating acids daily, there’s a good chance your skin is begging for a break.
Luckily, it should be fairly easy to tell if you’re overdoing it on the exfoliators. Classic signs include:
- otherwise inflamed skin
Eventually, your complexion can become dry and flaky. You may even develop a rashlike texture, leading to uneven tone (like patchy, red blotches). Breakouts are another common reaction, especially small, rough, bumpy pimples.
Signs of over-exfoliation
- irritation, burning, or peeling
- redness and inflammation
- breakouts, especially small pimples
- increased sensitivity to other products in your routine
There is one symptom of overuse that’s harder to pinpoint: The skin may develop a tight, waxlike texture, which — get this — can be confused for a healthy glow. In reality, it’s anything but.
“It can look waxy from wiping away skin cells and natural oils, allowing premature exposure of underlying skin,” Geria says. “The skin appears as if it has a radiant shine. However, it is in fact very dry and exposed.”
And overexposure can devolve into painful cracking and peeling, explains Geria. For reference, a healthy glow will always look plump and moisturized, not dry, thin, or waxy.
“You may also see increased sensitivity to application of subsequent products in a regular daily regimen,” says Dr. Craig Kraffert, a board-certified dermatologist and the president of Amarte. In other words, the remainder of your skin care routine may suddenly cause redness, burning, or peeling.
But don’t blame it on your other products! It’s (probably) all the exfoliator’s fault.
Like we mentioned above, some of these symptoms have a tendency to make you feel like you need to exfoliate more, but resist. Here’s what you should do instead.
If you note any of the above reactions after exfoliating, whether from an overzealous face-scrubbing session or an application of acids, Geria advises the first thing to do is stop exfoliating until your skin has healed and is at its baseline texture.
“Baseline texture” will differ from person to person; in general, it just means the texture your skin had before overexposure. If you’ve always been acne prone, that will be your baseline texture. You’re really just waiting for the signs of over-exfoliation — redness, inflammation, peeling — to fade.
Over-exfoliation recovery 101
- Stop all foaming cleansers, retinol products, and physical or chemical exfoliators.
- Switch to a mild cleanser and a fragrance-free moisturizer.
- Spot treat extremely red or raw areas with a rich emollient, like Aquaphor or Aqua Veil. You can also use a hydrocortisone cream or aloe gel.
It could take as long as a month — aka, the entire length of a skin cell cycle — for your skin to get back on track.
There are ways to help calm irritation in the moment
“Immediately following an over-exfoliating episode, a cold compress can be applied to alleviate burning,” says Geria, adding that a hydrocortisone cream may also help with redness and inflammation.
“Aloe gel is known to have healing properties as well but can sometimes be irritating depending on how open and raw the areas are, in which case applying the actual aloe plant can help,” he adds.
You may need to readjust the rest of your skin care routine, too. Eliminate foaming cleansers (which can be drying and exacerbate existing issues), retinol products (which are too harsh for use on compromised skin), and, of course, any physical or chemical exfoliators. The goal is to keep it simple.
As for what to add to your regimen? A vitamin C serum, for starters. “Vitamin C can soothe and help to expedite the healing process,” Geria says.
Remind yourself to be patient
Irritation occurs because you’ve removed more skin cells than your body is able to replenish. It’s kind of like the growing-out period after a bad haircut: annoying to deal with in real time but over before you know it.
Just because you’ve experienced some exfoliation irritation doesn’t mean you need to swear off the stuff forever. Once your skin has healed, dermatologists agree it’s possible to reintroduce your favorite grains or acids — albeit slowly and strategically.
When your skin has recovered, start by exfoliating once a week
Need a refresher? “Physical exfoliants abrade away the outer skin layer using water and light surfactants, like milled rice and corn powders,” Kraffert explains. Think scrubs, grains, and even gentler, “eraser peel” gommage treatments.
“Chemical exfoliants use ingredients that react with the outer skin surface to separate off the outermost cell layers, including alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs),” Kraffert adds.
Lactic acid and glycolic acid are the most common AHAs. Salicylic acid is a much-loved BHA.
Having trouble deciding which category to try? Derms are partial to the acid variety.
“Often it is recommended that people try both AHAs and BHAs to see what works for them and then stick to that routine,” Geria says. “But combining can often lead to over-exfoliating, especially because many of these exfoliators have shared properties.”
In short: Test a gentle lactic acid (AHA) exfoliator one week then switch to a salicylic acid (BHA) product the next and note how your skin responds. Then pick one to move forward with. In general, sensitive and dry skin types will love lactic or glycolic acids; oily or acne-prone skin does well with salicylic.
“If there is a desire to use both AHAs and BHAs (which can be done safely), it is best to alternate days and sometimes even take a day break altogether to avoid any over-exfoliating issues,” Geria adds.
The second you notice any redness, peeling, or ‘tingling,’ that’s a sign it’s time to cut back
Just like anything in skin care — or in life, really — exfoliation is best in moderation. After all, your skin already does the heavy lifting on its own. All you need to do is give it a (gentle) nudge every now and then.
Little-known fact: Your skin exfoliates itself. The natural process is called desquamation. It usually takes
But, of course, it’s not that easy, especially in an urban environment. Plenty of interruptions can slow the skin cell turnover process, from a weakened skin barrier or imbalanced oil production to pollution particles.
That’s where exfoliating products typically step in to lend a helping hand. “Proper exfoliation leaves a fresh, healthy, and fully ‘cleansed’ epidermal surface,” Kraffert says.
Basically, exfoliation can deliver clearer skin when done correctly… but if you mix and match different types of exfoliators or use a single product too often, your favorite exfoliants have the potential to do more harm than good.
The moral of this skin care story? It’s one beauty category where less really is more.
Jessica L. Yarbrough is a writer based in Joshua Tree, California, whose work can be found on The Zoe Report, Marie Claire, SELF, Cosmopolitan, and Fashionista.com. When she’s not writing, she’s creating natural skin care potions for her skin care line, ILLUUM.