5 Signs You’re Over-Exfoliating Your Skin

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I’ll never forget my first real facial treatment. In addition to getting pampered and having my first extractions performed, it was the moment I learned that there is such a thing as over-exfoliating your face. As it turns out, over-exfoliating our skin is an epidemic and I wasn’t alone. “Over-exfoliation is one of the most common mistakes we see with skin care,” explains Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew Elias. “You should be exfoliating about once a week, twice a week max.” 

Although you’ll often see some form of mild to moderate exfoliating step in many suggested skin-care routines, they’re not meant to be done every day. Santa Monica, CA dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD says collectively as a whole, most skin-care enthusiasts are getting it wrong. “We can at times be at risk of being an over-exfoliation nation,” she explains. “It is one of those important skin support treatments, but in moderation. Some is certainly necessary and important, but more is not necessarily better and in fact can be detrimental to the matrix and skin-barrier function.”

Why You Shouldn’t Overdo It

Our skin requires natural lubrication, which we get in the form of sebum, for healthy function. “Exfoliation is intended to lift the dead skin cells off the skin surface to allow the follicles to be free from buildup, but not to strip skin of its healthy lubricant,” explains Dr. Shamban. “Overdoing exfoliation can happen easily by mixing any range of different physically-based with chemical exfoliants, being too aggressive or using harsh stripping ingredients.”

So, how can we tell if we’re doing too much? Here, the top signs you need to pump the breaks on evicting your dead skin cells.  

Your Skin Looks Red and Feels Irritated

Bloomfield Hills, MI dermatologist Linda C. Honet, MD says red, irritated, and inflamed skin is a major signal that your skin may need a break. “When you over-exfoliate, skin may get irritated and inflamed. Stinging and/or redness can be mild warnings that you may be exfoliating too aggressively or too often.”

You’re Experiencing Breakouts

“Acne flare ups are also a symptom,” says Dr. Shamban. “Over-exfoliating puts oil production into overdrive compensation for the stripping. It signals the sebaceous glands to react which can lead to blemishes and acne breakouts.” 

You’re Exfoliating Several Times a Week

“The most you should be exfoliating is twice per week,” notes Dr. Elias.  “Don’t forget that the scrubs, acids and facial-cleansing brushes you use are all sloughing away dead skin, so anytime you’re using one of those tools or treatments, that one time is enough for the week. If you are exfoliating more than that, you’re likely are over-exfoliating.” To rectify the problem, he adds that simplifying and cutting back on your routine will do the trick. “Do less,” he says.

Your Skin Is Flaking Off

If you have a texture issue when putting on makeup or have those dry, flaky patches around the nose, Davie, FL dermatologist Marianna Blyumin-Karasik, MD says you too may be over-exfoliating. “If this happens, take a break from exfoliation, rehydrate to repair skin barrier with cica-based healing skin-care products like Bioderma Cicabio Cream ($14) or Tolerance Control Skin Recovery Cream by Avène ($35).”

It Stings When You Wash Your Face

When a simple morning face-wash angers your skin, your skin may need a clean break from all harsh products, says Dr. Shamban. “Stop all retinol products. Halt on any physical or chemical exfoliant, eliminate acne medication or any benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and other advanced acids,” she explains. “Eliminate all products with fragrance and also say ‘sayonara’ to any foaming cleansers for a while or certainly any deep cleaning products with sulfates or SLS.”

Try This Instead

To give skin a fresh start, our experts say lay off the physical exfoliants like scrubs and brushes, and do this after giving your skin a good, long break: “Use chemical exfoliants as they can be gentler than physical exfoliation products with textured ingredients to mechanically remove dead skin cells,” notes Dr. Shamban. “Switch to gentle chemical exfoliants made from fruit enzymes like pineapple and papaya, or light alpha hydroxy acids like lactic acid.”

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