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Learn all about over-exfoliation, common signs of over-exfoliated skin and options for restoring your skin back to health.

There’s no denying that exfoliating is good for your skin. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) says that the right amount of exfoliation for your unique skin type can improve the skin’s appearance and make topical treatments even more effective. With that being said, there are some risks to over-exfoliating (or removing too many vital layers of skin during the exfoliation process).

Exfoliation is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it can be incredibly beneficial to your unique skin problems. On the other hand, too much can cause serious — albeit reversible — skin damage. Finding the right exfoliation balance is key to healthy, beautiful and productive skin.

Facial Exfoliation

What exactly is exfoliating, anyway? The AAD defines exfoliation as “the process of removing the topmost layer of dead skin cells.” Exfoliation can be achieved in two ways: either via chemical exfoliants — applying an acid that dissolves those cells — or by hand, such as using a brush or scrub to physically remove the cells from the top layer of the skin.

You may use textured brushes, gloves, washcloths or exfoliating facial scrubs to remove the skin’s top layers. With the proper exfoliation routine, you’ll experience cosmetic benefits, including brighter, more even skin, and deeper penetration of topical treatments like anti-aging creams, acne treatments and rosacea medications.

Those with skin issues know skin is one of the most fickle parts of the body and that healthy skin can be elusive. When you adjust your skincare routine to meet your unique skin needs — whether you’re facing clogged pores, dry skin, reactive skin, hyper pigmentation, red patches, sun damage or breakouts — you’re giving the dermal layer the best possible barrier function.

Exfoliating does encourage quick cell turnover (which in turn leads to more vibrant looking skin), but it compromises the top layer of skin and deters its ability to produce natural oils and other protectants. This barrier is an important aspect for creating new skin cells and improving the skin’s physical appearance.

This article should help you to determine when you might be scrubbing too hard, and how to correct some of the side effects associated with over-exfoliation. Thankfully, there are several things you can do to combat conditions caused by too much exfoliating, ranging from taking a break from overly abrasive exfoliating products to consulting a dermatologist or cosmetic surgeon for professional skin treatments. But first, let’s take a look at some of the most common signs indicating you may be over-exfoliating so we can move forward and give your skincare routine a healthy, safe upgrade.

10 Signs of Over-Exfoliation

  1. Dryness — Whether you’ve gone the chemical or mechanical route, you may experience some levels of dryness associated with exfoliation. This is because those top layers of skin act as a protective barrier which can lock in hydration. If you’ve noticed dry patches or peeling, you could be drying out your skin with your exfoliator.
  2. Excess Oil — If you’ve long suffered from skin issues, you know how mercurial and complex the dermal tissue can be. Just as dryness is a telltale sign of over-exfoliation, the same goes for too much oil. Overly oily skin can indicate you’ve compromised the skin’s ability to regulate oil production.
  3. Discomfort — Again, removing your skin’s protective barrier can compromise the performance of your skin, leading to inflammation, itching or a burning sensation. This top layer of skin also acts as a protectant against allergens and irritants, so you don’t want to get rid of it completely or aggravate it too frequently.
  4. Breakouts — Dry and oily skin may not be as easy to identify as the blemishes they cause. If you’ve noticed an increase in pimples it could be a sign you’ve temporarily compromised the skin’s ability to block breakouts. Additionally, over-exfoliation limits the skin’s ability to protect under-layers from bacteria and free radicals, which can clog pores and cause acne.
  5. Redness — If you don’t generally experience skin redness but suddenly notice that your skin is redder than normal after implementing an exfoliation routine, you may want to dial things back a little. Note that recently exfoliated skin will typically appear somewhat reddish (primarily if you’re fair-skinned), but shouldn’t be red the following day or for that matter, even just a few hours later.
    Acne_ Over-exfoliating
  6. Shininess — Shiny or artificial-looking skin is another indication of too much exfoliation. This is especially common for those who use acids or retinol to exfoliate, as the top layer of skin has been removed, therefore looking waxy and extra smooth. Light tends to reflect off of over-exfoliated skin since the fresh new layers below the top layer are less textured.
  7. Infection — When the skin’s natural exterior barrier is compromised, there’s a greater risk that it will be introduced to infection-causing bacteria. You may experience infected pimples and other unsightly skin infections as a result of too much exfoliation. Over-exfoliated skin may also be more prone to cellulitis, fungal skin infections and other dermal infections.
  8. Increased Sensitivity — As you probably know by now, that top layer of skin is vital to keeping your skin in tip-top shape. When you rob the skin of the protective barrier that is the natural dermal top layer, you’re exposing thinner skin below. Therefore, you may experience an increase in skin sensitivity, with more redness and itchiness than before.
  9. Puffiness — Excessive exfoliation can cause the skin to become irritated and inflamed, resulting in it looking puffy or swollen. Damage to the skin’s natural lipid barrier removes its ability to regulate inflammation, so make sure to take note if your skin looks a bit swollen.
  10. Translucent Skin — Too much scrubbing can cause your skin to look translucent and sheer, especially after you’ve gone through a chemical exfoliation treatment or some heavy-duty manual scrubbing. Additionally, your skin may look and feel taut after it’s been exposed to over-exfoliation.

How to Repair the Damage

First thing’s first: if you suspect you’ve been scrubbing too hard or introducing your skin to too much exfoliating, make sure to immediately decrease the frequency by which you exfoliate. Another thing to consider is the pressure you’re applying while exfoliating. To ensure you don’t further damage the top layer of skin, reduce exfoliation pressure to a gentle massage rather than a deep scrub.

You should take a break from exfoliation for at least a week once you’ve noticed signs of over-exfoliation. The best option, though, is to take an exfoliation break until your skin has fully healed. You’ll also want to take a respite from skincare masks during this period, and avoid any salicylic acid, chemical peels, hyaluronic acid serum and other potentially damaging products.

According to the AAD, you always want to make sure that you’re being gentle with your skin. When choosing treatment options to correct over-exfoliation, use gentler cleansers and moisturizers than you normally would. This will help repair your skin without worsening the damage or creating any additional issues. You always want to use products that will restore the skin’s natural barrier slowly, without causing supplementary irritation or cosmetic concerns. Stick to your favorite gentle cleaners and ditch the rough brushes for a soft cloth or cotton pad.

Additionally, you will want to stop using any irritating creams or liquid makeup while your skin restores itself. Lastly, don’t forget to read the labels on your skincare products. Sometimes cleansers and even moisturizers will have “hidden” exfoliants you may not notice until it’s too late.

Dermatologist Treatment

If you believe that you’ve caused long-term skin damage as a result of exfoliation, it’s time to make an appointment with your dermatologist or find a trusted cosmetic doctor who can help you correct the problems. Professional skin-correcting treatments are a great way to give your skin a whole new starting point after high levels of damage. See a specialist to help you with long-term or chronic acne, rosacea and other frustrating skin conditions.

The Right Exfoliation Routine

A trip to your dermatologist can really do wonders to help you develop the ideal exfoliation routine that’s right for your unique situation. Here’s how often to exfoliate based on your skin type:

  • Oily Skin — Those with thick, oily skin may need to exfoliate as often as once a day in order to thoroughly remove the excess moisture and skin cells that can build up on the top layer of skin. Those with shiny or greasy skin may encourage the production of more oil by over-exfoliating. People with oily skin types may benefit from stronger chemical treatments or mechanical exfoliation.
  • Dry or Sensitive Skin — If you have dry or sensitive skin, it’s best to limit your exfoliation to once or twice a week. Those with easily irritated skin are more likely to experience the side effects of over-exfoliation than those with normal skin types. Try to limit exfoliation to gentle, circular motions if you have dry or sensitive skin. This will help prevent damaging the skin and any potential flaking while providing enough time for your skin to heal between exfoliation sessions.
  • Acne-Prone Skin — In order to prevent further irritation, only exfoliate acne-prone skin twice a week at most, while trying to limit yourself to once a week on a more regular basis. Those prone to breakouts will want to start with a gentle exfoliation and work their way up to something more intense. You want to make sure you give your skin enough time to heal, so make sure to pay attention to any dull skin or red spots and, if you notice them, take a break for a few days.
  • Normal Skin — Those with “normal skin types” — skin that’s clear and not particularly sensitive — can get away with exfoliating every other day. So long as you closely monitor your skin to ensure that you’re not over-exfoliating, you’ll be able to provide the right amount of dead skin cell removal for healthy, glowing skin.

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