Exfoliating can be extremely beneficial for your skin. However, as with all good things, it is better in moderation. Knowing how often to exfoliate depends on your skin type and concerns, but it’s easy to go from exfoliating just enough to exfoliating too much.
If you’re new to exfoliating, our local dermatologists can help you choose the right products and find the right balance for an exfoliation routine that will help you achieve the beautiful glowing skin you’re after.
What Is Exfoliation?
Exfoliation is safely removing dead skin cells from the outer layer of your skin to showcase the new, fresh skin underneath. Your skin naturally sheds the outer layer of dead cells every 30 days or so. But when skin cells don’t shed properly or evenly on their own, you can end up with flaky, patchy skin. Makeup, skin products, and dirt can also gather on your skin and clog pores if they aren’t removed. That’s where the need to exfoliate comes in.
There are two types of exfoliation: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliation involves grainy products like face and body scrubs and scrub away dead skin. Chemical exfoliating uses acid to remove the outer layer of skin while moisturizing the skin underneath. Exfoliating with a special scrub, face wash, or body brush, can leave skin looking brighter and clear pores. Because the skin is clearer and more even, many people find their skincare products apply more evenly on exfoliated skin.
But even with the many benefits of exfoliating, you shouldn’t do it too often. Over-exfoliating can harm your skin. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most common issues seen by dermatologists.
Why Does My Skin Itch After Exfoliating?
Exfoliating too often can remove the outer layer of skin protection, which can cause your skin to feel itchy after exfoliating. With some products, slight itchiness or light tingling is a normal reaction, but it should be short-lived. Itchy skin that remains even after you’ve removed products is a sign that your skin barrier has been broken down more than recommended.
Similarly, dry, tight skin is a clear sign that you’re not getting the moisture your skin needs. Just as over-cleansing strips the skin of beneficial natural oils, so does over-exfoliation. Without some of these natural oils, the skin becomes dehydrated, tight, and uncomfortable.
Exfoliating should leave your skin feeling fresh and firm but not too tight that it is uncomfortable. That tightness is a sign that too much moisture has been removed from the skin.
If you’ve already made exfoliation a regular part of your beauty regimen, here are six signs of over-exfoliation:
6 Signs of Over-Exfoliation
Your Skin Looks Red and Irritated
This is one of the most obvious signs of over-exfoliation, particularly for people who don’t normally have problems with redness. Exfoliating too much can cause tiny cracks in the skin, which can make the skin inflamed and irritated. Red, irritated skin is likely the first sign that you exfoliate too much.
Immediately after any exfoliation, the skin will appear slightly red and puffy. However, if the redness and irritation linger for hours or into the next day, you can be sure that you’ve gone a bit too far. Some people with sensitive skin may even experience broken blood vessels under the skin from over-exfoliation, which can lead to dark patches and redness.
If your skin is irritated or more sensitive than normal, you are exfoliating too much. Your skin shouldn’t sting when you apply products after exfoliating, which is a sign that the skin’s barrier has been broken down by exfoliation.
Your Skin is Rough and Flaky
If you exfoliate too much, your skin dries out, but it can also lose the ability to retain water as its natural protection barrier is compromised. If your skin can’t hold in moisture, it will develop dry patches that can quickly begin to peel or flake. Over-exfoliated skin loses elasticity and can develop dry, flaky patches. You may even experience areas of rash-like bumps and redness. When skin is rough and flaky, it is more susceptible to damage from air pollution and the weather.
Make sure that you never exfoliate flaky skin, as it will only make it worse.
Flaky skin can be made worse by not applying a moisturizing product after exfoliating. If you only remove the dead skin without protecting the new skin underneath, it can lead to rough skin and uneven texture. Some people even experience peeling skin because the texture is so dry and rough.
Your Skin Feels Dry and Tight
Dry, tight skin is a clear sign that you’re not getting the moisture your skin needs. Just as over-cleansing strips the skin of beneficial natural oils, so does over-exfoliation. Without some of these natural oils, the skin becomes dehydrated, tight and uncomfortable.
Your Breakouts Get Worse
Over-exfoliation breakouts are one of the most common causes of acne. If your breakouts are getting worse or just not going away, it could be because you are exfoliating too much.
Over-exfoliation can weaken the skin, preventing it from fighting bacteria or infection. When you scrub away the top layer of skin cells, you are also removing your skin’s first layer of defense against clogged pores and other factors that lead to acne. Skin that has been exfoliated too much creates an open door for bacteria leading to new, stagnant, or worsened breakouts.
Your Skin Becomes Oilier
It may seem counterintuitive, but a sign that exfoliating is causing your skin to dry out is when your skin becomes oiler. For people with oily or combination skin, exfoliating can quickly cause the skin to produce even more oil than normal. As skin becomes dryer or weaker, it naturally responds with extra oil to help rehydrate and protect itself. Your skin is overcompensating for the lack of moisture by producing more oil.
Oily skin can clog the pores and lead to breakouts and other skin conditions.
You’re Looking Shiny Instead of Glowing
Naturally radiant, glowing skin is one of the main goals for exfoliation. But if you’ve overdone it, your skin will look shiny and artificial instead. Over-exfoliating will smooth your skin’s natural texture too much, creating more of a waxy appearance.
Removing skin cells and natural oils and exposing the underlying skin before that new skin is ready can cause the skin to look waxy. Waxy skin will feel sensitive and dry, while healthy skin will look plump and moisturized.
What Do You Do If You Have Been Over Exfoliating?
When any of these issues begin to present themselves, the protective barrier of your skin has been affected so be sure to adjust your exfoliation routines before your skin’s condition worsens. You may need to exfoliate less often or switch to gentler products.
The first thing to do is stop exfoliating and give your skin time to return to its normal texture. That can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. You’ll know your skin has healed from the effects of over-exfoliation when the signs like redness, dryness, and sensitivity have gone away. You can also use gentle products like hydrocortisone cream to relieve some of the effects of over-exfoliation.
As you begin to re-introduce exfoliation to your skincare routine, use gentle products. Check the ingredients on every product you use—you might not even realize some items are removing dead skin. Check the skincare products you use to ensure that you are not using multiple products with exfoliating agents. This is one of the most common reasons for over-exfoliation. For example, don’t use an exfoliating facial cleanser in addition to exfoliating-specific products. Some exfoliating ingredients aren’t obvious, such as glycolic acid or salicylic acid, so it pays off to read the entire label.
When exfoliating and applying skincare products, remember to use gentle circular motions rather than scrubbing, allowing the product to do the work rather than your strength or actions. Rinse your hands and face with cool water and lightly pat dry with a cotton towel. Immediately after exfoliating, apply a moisturizing product to protect the new skin cells that are now on the surface. This product will also lock in your skin’s natural oils and moisture.
Keep an eye on your skin as it adjusts and heals from over-exfoliation. The entire process can take up to a month, or a complete skin cycle. For personalized recommendations or more serious repairs, talk to your dermatologist.
How Often Should You Exfoliate?
So, how often should you exfoliate? Most dermatologists say around two to three times a week, but it varies based on your skin type. People with sensitive skin or who tend to experience redness and irritation should only exfoliate once or twice a week.
For best results, talk to your dermatologist about the best exfoliation schedule for your skin. Your dermatologist can recommend when to exfoliate, how often, and the best types of exfoliation for your skin type.
Exfoliation is an important part of a skincare routine, but there’s a fine balance between exfoliating enough to help your skin and exfoliating too much that it harms your skin. Keeping an eye out for the warning signs and using the right products can help you have healthy, smooth skin.