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Exfoliation. It’s an essential part of any skincare routine, as proper exfoliation can help actives penetrate the skin, get rid of dead skin cells, reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and overall lead to healthier, brighter skin. And for most people, it’s often neglected, as it’s considered an “extra” step that they don’t really make time for on a regular basis.
But you can also over-do it. Here are signs you’re over-exfoliating and what you should do about it.
So here’s the deal: you have five layers of skin on your face. The youngest, healthiest skin cells are at the bottom layer, while the outer layer is composed of dead skin cells that form a flat layer of protection on the skin.
The goal of exfoliation, then, is to help slough off that outer layer so new, healthier cells can come to the surface. And if you do it right, it has many benefits:
When it comes to how often you should exfoliate, the reality is that there’s no hard-and-fast rule. We recommend that you start off with an exfoliator once or twice a week - chemical exfoliation is typically a little more gentle on the skin than physical exfoliation for beginners - and see how your skin reacts. Getting red or irritated? Consider less frequency or a lighter product. If your skin reacts well, though, it’s totally fine to ramp it up. You can even exfoliate every day if you’re seeing good results.
The overarching problem here is that over-exfoliation can actually remove too many skin cells and strip away your skin’s natural barrier. As we’ve explained, the skin’s natural barrier is essentially a wall of dead skin cells held together by lipids. It functions as a security guard, protecting what’s inside and preventing any “bad guys” - like UV radiation, pollution, bacteria, dirt, and toxins - from passing through.
The barrier also maintains proper hydration, balances lipid levels, and maintains your Natural Moisturizing Factor.
Well, if you over-strip that barrier through exfoliation, you can actually create a lot of concerns that proper exfoliation is supposed to help with: things like acne, flaking, and dry skin.
Here are some warning signs to look out for:
Slight redness or pinkness is perfectly normal, particularly after physical exfoliation. But if your skin remains red for an extended period of time or you experience itching or burning, then your exfoliator may be doing some damage and harming your skin’s natural barrier.
If this is the case, reconsider the product your using or the frequency with which you exfoliate.
Similarly, over-exfoliating the skin can cause dehydration, flaking, and dryness. If you start to notice patches or flakes after exfoliating, cut things back.
The big issue here is that over-exfoliation can weaken the skin so it can’t defend itself against bacterial infections. This makes it much easier for pimples and congestion to form.
Plus, physical exfoliation over active acne can actually spread the bacteria around on the skin. If you notice new breakouts developing after exfoliation, then - or existing breakouts lasting longer than usual - this may be the problem.
If you strip away your skin’s natural barrier or deplete your skin’s natural oils, it will respond by overproducing oil to try to balance itself and rehydrate. This is why even oily skin types need proper hydration and why we always recommend you steer clear of really harsh, detergent and chemical-heavy products.
While there are many possible culprits here - overly hot water, harsh products, environmental stressors - keep in mind that if the rest of your skincare routine is gentle and you’re not mistreating your skin, your exfoliator may be to blame.
Everyone wants that dewy, shiny, fresh-from-a-workout glow - and the right exfoliant should help deliver that. But if you’re noticing an unnatural, saran wrap-style sheen after you exfoliate, it’s a sign (once again) that your skin is being stripped away.
If you see this type of shine, then, it’s time to cut back.
First thing’s first: if you notice any of these signs, you should stop exfoliating for about a week to allow your skin to recover. Once you resume, stick to about 2-3 times a week, and consider more gentle exfoliating products.
Next, add some restorative and repairing skin products into your routine. Look specifically for ingredients that repair your skin’s barrier, deeply hydrate, and protect the skin from any external aggressors.
Want a comprehensive post-exfoliation rehab kit? You can find three all-star products that contain allof the above ingredients to get you started (and help you fight fine lines while you're at it) in our Complete Anti-Aging Routine.