If you’ve been feeling a little “burned out” on exfoliating acids lately (pun fully intended), you’re not alone. Many beauty enthusiasts are beginning to realize that what seemed like a miracle ingredient at first — Eliminates dead skin cells! Increases cellular turnover! Makes skin look tight and shiny! — may be doing more harm than good, especially for sensitive skin.
According to dermatologists, overexfoliating with acids can lead to issues like dry skin, breakouts, and inflammation. Oh, and that “tight and shiny” look? That could actually be a sign of damage, not the healthy glow you were hoping for.
“This is important to discuss, as so many people suffering from minor breakouts will automatically overuse salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide on the face,” Nousha Salimi, a registered nurse and skin care specialist at Rejuvenate with Nousha, tells Healthline.
“When we do that, it eventually dries out the skin, and our skin’s response is to produce more oil, causing additional breakouts — and the cycle continues.”
Creating an acid-free skin care routine
Experts agree that the solution to these skin troubles may lie in curating an acid-free skin care routine, filled with gentle-yet-effective skin care products. “There are better ways to keep skin healthy than using acid products,” says Ronald Moy, a dermatologist and consultant for DNA Renewal, a research-based skin care company.
He notes that an acid-free routine is especially beneficial for those with sensitive skin or anyone living with a chronic skin condition, such as rosacea, eczema, or dermatitis.
“Cleanser is the foundation for removing dirt and pollutants,” Moy says — so, yeah, that’s essential for keeping pores free and clear.
However, many cleansers on the market have alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) built right in — which can create issues for those with more reactive complexions, or anyone who later doubles-up with an acid toner or another exfoliating product.
The solve: “Use a gentle, sulfate-free cleanser,” Aanand Geria, a dermatologist with Geria Dermatology in New Jersey, tells Healthline.
The texture of said cleanser can differ based on your skin type — for example, dry skin does well with cream or oil-based products, while gels are ideal for oily skin — but there are a few universal callouts: Avoid formulas that feature alcohol, acids, and sodium lauryl sulfate, since all three can strip the skin of moisture.
Another cleanser tip: Seek out a face wash that is pH balanced, which won’t disrupt the skin barrier and will help it stay hydrated and protected. For reference, the recommended pH is between 5 and 5.5.
“If you're going from using acids to not, start incorporating one active serum in place of the acid that helps with pigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, and texture,” suggests Moy.
Vitamin C is an excellent example. The antioxidant-packed ingredient is endorsed by aestheticians and dermatologists alike for its ability to lift spots of hyperpigmentation, protect from environmental damage, and even stimulate collagen production. The result? An even, plump, healthy complexion.
It should be noted that the medical name for vitamin C is L-ascorbic acid — but it’s not an acid of the exfoliating variety, and it won’t impair your skin’s barrier. It will, however, make you more sensitive to sunlight. It’s safe to incorporate vitamin C into your daytime routine — just top it off with a helping of SPF (more on that later!).
Instead of relying on acids to eliminate dead skin cells, Moy says to seek out ingredients that repairand protectskin cells, instead.
“As a dermatologist, I use skin care ingredients like DNA repair enzymes, which are sourced from marine botanicals like algae and plankton and help repair and build the barrier of the skin,” he says.
“I also look for Epidermal Growth Factor (EGF), which works at the cellular level to repair sun-damaged skin and boost collagen, thereby increasing the thickness of aged skin.” EGF naturally occurs in the body, and is
Many people who turn to acid exfoliation may actually be able to remedy the underlying issue with “a good quality oil,” Salimi says.
That sounds a little counterintuitive, but here’s what’s happening: Often, skin is underproducing natural sebum, and is therefore dry and flaky. This might make you tempted to exfoliate the flakes away with an acid toner. Or, your skin is overproducing sebum, which can lead to breakouts, and you’re tempted to give pores a deep-clean with acids.
But there is a way to balance your natural oil production and eliminate the need for acid exfoliation:
Jojoba oil is a 97 percent chemical match to human sebum. When it’s pressed on dry skin, pores positively drink it up. Conversely, when applied to oily skin, it sends a “signal” of sorts to oil glands so they stop producing excess oil. It works wonders for all skin types: no dry flakes, no clogged pores, and no need for an acid exfoliator. Bonus? You can use it in place of your usual moisturizer.
For best results, look for organic, pure, 100 percent jojoba oil that’s been cold-pressed to preserve the oil’s natural properties. Looking for a lighter luxury oil? Most face oils that include jojoba oil within the first five ingredients listed (therefore, in high concentrations) may offer similar benefits.
Just because you’re avoiding acids doesn’t mean you should avoid exfoliation. Experts recommend using a physical exfoliator no more than once or twice a week — otherwise, you could see some irritation. (Think: redness, peeling, and breakouts.)
“Biodegradable, plant-based granules that help eliminate dead skin cells without the risk of overexfoliating are great,” Geria says.
“It has small grains in it that exfoliate, while turmeric brightens, tightens, and brings down inflammation in the face,” she reports.
One of the main reasons exfoliating acids are much-loved is because they dissolve away the pollution particles and product buildup sitting in your pores. But there’s another way to get the grime out: professional extractions.
If you notice comedones, or small bumps on the skin’s surface, or blackheads popping up, it may be time to enlist the help of an aesthetician. Facialists are trained to extract this buildup — a mix of sebum, leftover product, and environmental “dust” — with minimal irritation. (Not to mention, sterile tools — so much safer than popping them yourself.)
As Salimi says, “The best thing is to set up monthly facials so then you don’t need to do it daily.”
“A toner is not necessary for most people, since it removes the natural oils your skin needs,” according to Moy. “This can overexfoliate and excessively dry the skin.”
It’s worth noting that not all toners are drying.
Products that feature witch hazel or alcohol are the ones to avoid. Moisture-based toners — sometimes known as “essences” — are fine to keep in your rotation. Make sure they contain ingredients that soothe and hydrate: Hyaluronic acid helps cells retain moisture and glycerin pulls outside moisture into skin cells.
Besides being safe for sensitive skin, a no-acid skin care routine has another major benefit: It’s easy. Just be sure you’re also maintaining skin care basics.
- Non-irritating cleanser. Look for pH-balanced cleansers without AHAs, BHAs, alcohol, and sodium lauryl sulfate. For extra caution, also skip products with essential oils as these may also irritate sensitive skin.
- Antioxidant and cell-repairing serums. Look for vitamin C and EGF, Growth Factor, or oligopeptide.
- Sebum-approved face oil. Look for pure jojoba oil or a product that lists jojoba oil as one of the core ingredients.
- SPF 30. Put it on every day, especially if you’re using vitamin C in the morning.
- Skin maintenance. Set yourself up for weekly physical exfoliation and monthly facials.
“Keeping the skin healthy with non-acid products is easy, as long as you’re using sunscreen and drinking plenty of water,” Geria says.
In other words: Tending to your skin’s basic needs — hydration and sun protection — is all you really need to do. Everything else is just icing on the skin care cake.
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.