This article has been reviewed by Dr. Meg Sison, a board-certified dermatologist practicing both medical and cosmetic dermatology.
Whether you’re a fan of minimalist skincare or fancy a lengthy ritual, regular exfoliation is crucial to maintain skin healthily, especially with age, when the natural cycle of cell turnover slows down. Exfoliation is more of a necessity rather than a choice because it encourages cell production and replacement, which is essential if you want your skin at its peak condition. However, as good as it is, exfoliation can also turn out to be a double-edged sword that comes with some caveats if done too frequently or with products that are too harsh for your skin. Exfoliation is one of these cases where less is more, and while it brings a bunch of benefits to the skin, overdoing it will get you nothing but a skin nightmare. To set the record straight for everyone, we picked the brain of board-certified dermatologist Meg Sison and did extensive research to find all the tell-tale signs of over-exfoliation and how to recover skin from it.
What is exfoliation?
Exfoliation is the process of removing dead cell buildup from the outermost skin layer with chemical acids like glycolic acid or salicylic acid, fruit enzymes, grainy scrubs, or tools like exfoliating brushes. When old cells are removed, healthy ones replace them, leading to less noticeable fine lines and dark spots, smoother texture, fewer breakouts, and clear pores. Yes, exfoliation does all that. But only if you find the proper frequency for your skin. While exfoliating two to three times a week might be fine for some, other people’s skin can break even when exfoliating once weekly.
As over-exfoliation is a host for a plethora of skin issues, avoiding it is as important as exfoliation itself.
What is over-exfoliation?
Over-exfoliation happens when you either exfoliate too often, use products that are too intense for your skin, or make aggressive skincare cocktails, such as using alpha-hydroxy acids and retinol at the exact same time. Over-exfoliation strips the skin of essential moisture, weakens the protective barrier, and leaves the complexion vulnerable to external damage. Now, this begs the big question: how do I know if I am over-exfoliating?
Signs you’re over-exfoliating your skin
The skin can only benefit from the exfoliation process once you get it right in terms of the products you use to exfoliate, frequency, and after-care. Here are all the signs of over-exfoliation you should look out for:
Dryness and increased sensitivities
The most common signs of over-exfoliation are parched skin, flakiness, and dryness. It’s well established that too much exfoliation can weaken the protective barrier, leading to redness, increased chances of irritation, and hypersensitivity. While some redness is normal after exfoliation, if it persists and your skin has terrible reactions to products it usually didn’t react to, it is most likely a sign you have over-exfoliated and indicates that you should consider cutting things back — more on that later.
When the skin is depleted of essential moisture, the sebaceous glands produce more sebum to compensate for the loss, leading to excess sebum, clogged pores, and breakouts. So, next time you wonder why your skin is oily all of a sudden, consider over-exfoliation a reason.
Blackheads and breakouts
If your complexion starts to break out too often, it might be a sign you’re over-exfoliating. When exfoliating in excess, sebum — which protects the skin and keeps the barrier integer — strips away, leaving the skin unshielded. That’s how bacteria, pollutants, and other irritants wreak havoc on your skin, leading to breakouts. On the other hand, as we mentioned above, over-exfoliating may induce excess sebum production, which clogs pores and makes pimples appear.
Your makeup flakes away
Since over-exfoliation often leads to dry and flaky skin, it’s no surprise you don’t get to have the perfect canvas for makeup. When skin is dry and peels off, it’s difficult for your makeup products to layer smoothly and stay put throughout the day. Many times you could blame the foundation or your primer when it could just be you over-exfoliating.
What does over-exfoliated skin look like?
Most often, over-exfoliated skin appears red and shiny. And it’s not the glowy, radiant shine we’re talking about here; it is an unnatural sheen (almost waxy) that indicates the skin has been left exposed and essential moisture has been stripped. Also, over-exfoliated skin can look flakey, feel tight, and uncomfortable. If you experience any of these signs, it’s high time you cut back on exfoliation.
Briefly, these are the signs of over-exfoliated skin:
- Redness, inflammation, or a burning sensation
- Dryness, tightness, or flakiness
- Excess sebum and breakouts
- Sensitivity to products skin didn’t react before
How to treat overly exfoliated skin?
First and foremost, quit using exfoliants until the skin recovers — which can take up to a month. Also, steer clear of any other skincare ingredient that may cause further dryness or peeling, such as retinol, or a high concentration of vitamin C. Products that feature drying alcohol (like alcohol denat or SD alcohol), cleansers with sulfates, synthetic fragrances are also a no-no until your skin against its moisture back.
Instead, consider adding to your routine products that focus on regenerating, skin-calming, and hydrating ingredients. Because exfoliation leaves the skin’s barrier vulnerable, your top priority is to restore and reinforce it. Then you should ensure the skin is well moisturized and finally, pamper it with softening emollients. Simply put, look out for:
- Hyaluronic acid: hydrates and speeds up cell regeneration
- Squalane: traps moisture in the skin and eases damage
- Ceramide: increases moisture retention and rebuilds the barrier
- Peptides: induce collagen production, strengthening the skin
- Cholesterol and fatty acids: restore the skin’s barrier
- Centella asiatica: encourages skin repair, boosts collagen
- Snail mucin: hydrates, repairs, and reinforces the barrier
If you don’t know where to start, here you can find some good products to restore the skin’s barrier and soothe the signs of over-exfoliation. These ceramides creams and squalane moisturizers will also do.
As a last measure, when you’re dealing with overly exfoliated skin, you should whittle down your routine as follows:
- Gentle, pH-balancing cleanser sans sulfates
- A rich, non-comedogenic moistuzier
- Sunscreen with at least 30 SPF (in AM)
Frequently asked questions
- How long does it take to recover from over exfoliation?
Depending on how much harm was caused, age, and skincare routine, recovering from over-exfoliation can take anywhere from one week to six weeks or more.
- Should I moisturize over exfoliated skin?
Using a gentle moisturizer that loads repairing ingredients, like ceramides, peptides, and cholesterol, and skips harsh compounds helps the skin recoup resilience faster and keeps it protected against external foes.
- Can over-exfoliation cause breakouts?
Over-exfoliation can cause the sebaceous glands to produce more sebum, leading to breakouts. Also, exfoliating too much can leave the skin unshielded and inflamed, which can also increase the chances of breakouts occurring.
- What is the fastest way to heal over exfoliated skin?
Quit exfoliants and harsh compounds, and pare down your skincare routine to a gentle, non-foaming cleanser and a gentle repairing moisturizer.