Is it just me, or is exfoliation huge right now? Everywhere I look, it seems like there is a new mask, serum, or cream that promises to brighten skin by getting rid of dead cells. That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily. Removing dead cells can help skin’s appearance by evening tone, helping to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, and even promoting better absorption of other skincare products. The American Association of Dermatologists attests to these benefits of exfoliation — but it also warns that it may not be for everyone.
“There is a layer of dead skin cells called the stratum corneum that’s the barrier between us and the outside world,” explains New York dermatologist Kenneth Howe, MD. “You can have dry, rough, built-up scale. That stuff looks dull, it’s too thick, and it’s an uneven surface. That’s why we want to get rid of it.” But taking exfoliation too far can do more harm than good.
How Does Over-Exfoliation Happen?
Despite what you might assume, over-exfoliation is very common. “There is a misconception about exfoliating,” says lead esthetician at Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank’s PFRANKMD® Skin Salon, Edyta Jarosz. “I see people overdoing it all the time. They are using chemical peels too much at home, or using scrubs on sensitive skin.”
Dr. Howe typically sees over-exfoliation when scrubs are involved. Scrubs are particularly easy to overuse, since their power depends on the person at the wheel. Using them too often or too aggressively can actually cause some damage.
Why Is Over-Exfoliation Bad?
Like anything related to skin, the key to exfoliation is balance. While it’s true that removing dead cells can make your complexion appear brighter, have a more even tone, and help combat fine lines and wrinkles, too much can have the opposite effect. “[When you over exfoliate,] you remove so many layers of skin that you remove the protection your skin needs to stay healthy,” says Jarosz.
Without that all-important protection from the outer layers, your skin can become raw, irritated, and substantially weakened. “You’re getting inflamed because of the mechanical trauma of the exfoliation, plus you’ve thinned your barrier more than you should,” warns Dr. Howe. (More on why this is a problem later.)
What’s Worse: Mechanical or Chemical Exfoliation?
Both Dr. Howe and Jarosz agree that over-exfoliation is a particular risk when using mechanical exfoliation products (like scrubs). That said, using any type of product comes with a risk. “I do tend to see a rougher injury with mechanical exfoliants,” says Dr. Howe, “but you can really do it with either depending on how you’re using them.”
For the at-home exfoliating aficionado, it takes a bit more effort to over exfoliate with a chemical formula. “I [recommend] chemical exfoliants at home because they are a little more controlled, but any of them can be misused depending on how many passes you do and how long you leave it on,” he warns. That said, if you follow the instructions on your chemical treatment, it’s harder to overdo it. Howe recommends a single-use pad like the cult favorite Dr. Dennis Gross® Skincare Alpha Beta® peel.
Jarosz also recommends pad-based chemical exfoliants for the same reason, but admits that even they might be too harsh for some. “It really depends on how sensitive your skin is,” she says. “I have very sensitive skin and I use the MDNA SkinTM Chrome Clay Mask ($120 - $220) as an exfoliator. It removes the impurities and it exfoliates as I remove it.”
How to Tell If You’ve Overdone It
Over-exfoliated skin is angry skin. “The skin looks tight, dry, irritated, or red,” says Jarosz, “sometimes it’s even flaky. You feel burning or itchiness when you apply products on top of it, and it becomes sensitive to the touch.” This burning and sensitivity is the key to knowing if you’ve over-exfoliated, or what you’re seeing is some other condition, like rosacea. Keep an eye on any breakouts too, especially if they’re all in one place. “The area will have a slight red cast to it and there [may] be acne, but it will be uniform because it’s being induced by the same thing,” says Dr. Howe.
Pre-existing skin conditions mean you need to be extra careful. “People who really show over-exfoliation first are people that have other skin problems,” says Dr. Howe. “Let’s say they have acne. Their acne will start getting worse. That’s how their skin rebels.” Other conditions like dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis can also be particularly sensitive to exfoliation, and it should be done minimally even without signs of overdoing it.
I’ve Over-Exfoliated — What Now?
The most effective prescription for over-exfoliation is...a chill pill. “You need to let the skin recover,” says Dr. Howe. “Do very little, so there is minimal traffic on the skin. The good news is that you don’t have to do it very long since the facial skin turns over so quickly.”
This means taking your skincare routine down to zero (yes, really). Leave any products to the wayside for a few days, says Dr. Howe, even if you’re treating another condition like rosacea or acne. (Talk to your licensed provider about exactly how long you should wait.)
“This is not a good time to start a topical treatment,” he says. “Your stratum corneum is thinned and uneven, so a topical treatment will over penetrate.” You might even need to stop washing your face — particularly if you are older and produce less oil — and start focusing on being extremely gentle, using a mild face wash like Cetaphil® Gentle Skin Cleanser ($18 for 20 oz)., Aand avoid not rubbing or massaging too hard when using it.
Jarosz also recommends cutting out all products until your skin heals, but especially retinoids. “[It’s] too harsh,” she says, especially for anyone with a sensitive complexion. “If you use retinol in combination with exfoliating products, your skin is more likely to get irritated.”
[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by those who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]
Both experts recommend soothing, cooling masks to help with inflammation as your skin recovers (We’re especially fans of Kiehl’s Since 1851® Calendula & Aloe Soothing Hydration Mask, $45). “You can even do a massage with an ice cube over a mask,” suggests Jarosz. “This is great for calming skin and removing redness. Make ice cubes out of chamomile tea — which is even more calming.”
Does This Mean I Can Never Exfoliate Again?
If you’ve over-exfoliated once, it doesn’t mean you have to put down your peel pads for good. “You can certainly exfoliate again,” says Dr. Howe. “You just have to learn from that bad experience. Figure out what caused it — a particular type of exfoliation, if you were overzealous, or if you were ignoring the particular state of your skin at the time. Those things are important to know.”
Once you decide to start exfoliating again, adjust your schedule so you’re starting from scratch. “We should exfoliate once a week on average,” says Jarosz. “If you have very oily skin or thicker skin, you can maybe do it twice a week, but no more.” Jarosz is also against motorized facial brushes, which she says can cause particular harm for sensitive skin. Wash your face the good old-fashioned way — with your hands. And remember: listen to your skin. Just because it seems like everyone is exfoliating doesn’t mean you need to.