Stepping into the glorious world of exfoliation is like Skittles: You can never have just one. Once you feel that first tingle—the ubiquitous sign a product is working—you’re hooked. There’s no skincare product out there quite like an exfoliator, whether it’s a physical scrub or a chemical toner. But too much of a good thing can have its consequences, and when your skin goes haywire after too much exfoliation, we must look to barrier repair to fix it.
But first, how did we get here? You moisturize your skin, but it feels tight and dry, or maybe it’s red and inflamed. Celebrity esthetician and skincare expert Renee Rouleau explained, “While regular exfoliation with the use of facial scrubs and acids, along with retinol and prescription retinoids, is certainly very beneficial to the skin, over-exfoliated skin removes so much of the surface skin cells that it loses the layers of the skin that give it texture.” Basically, when you do too much exfoliation, your skin and moisture barrier loses some of its integrity, leading to a whole slew of problems.
Is My Skin Over-Exfoliated?
But is my skin just dry, or could it be over-exfoliated? According to Rouleau, over-exfoliated skin will appear “shiny since light reflects off the skin easily.” Along with dry, shiny skin, you’ll likely experience redness, tightness, stinging, and irritation that feels dehydrated beyond just lacking moisture.
When you’re over-exfoliating for a long period of time, Rouleau said the prolonged inflammation can advance aging, destruct healthy skin cells, and increase hyperpigmentation. If your skin suddenly started looking a lot older and duller, over-exfoliation could be the culprit. “Seeing as your skin needs a certain number of protective layers to stay healthy and retain moisture, over-exfoliating may be harming your skin more than you realize,” Rouleau said.
How to Heal Over-Exfoliated Skin
The obvious way to heal your skin is to cut back on how much you’re exfoliating. For a few days, kick any acids, retinoids, and facial scrubs to the curb and rely on layers of hydration instead, like toner, serum, and moisturizer.
When you’re making over your skincare routine for the time being, Rouleau advised using a mild cleanser that’s sulfate-free. If your skin is irritated and stinging, avoid products with lots of fragrance that can cause more irritation. Also, Rouleau recommended incorporating a moisturizer “with ingredients that work to repair a damaged barrier that have natural lipid-mimicking oils,” suggesting borage oil, evening primrose oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, sweet almond oil, or jojoba oil. If your skin is feeling extra irritated, apply hydrocortisone cream to the itchy, red spots.
This cream was specifically formulated to heal dry, flaky skin from retinol, exfoliation, and chemical peels, so you know it's thick and occlusive. Not only does it make skin feel less dry, but it also actually helps strengthen your moisture barrier over time.
How to Avoid Over-Exfoliating
“To avoid over-exfoliating, try following the general rule: Exfoliate no more than five times per week at night,” Rouleau said. “When it comes to making recommendations for the skin, it’s always hard to generalize for all skin types, but for most, four to five times per week is plenty.” Between your facial scrubs, AHA serums and masks, acid toners, retinoids, and more, make sure you’re not using an exfoliating product on your skin every single day if you’re prone to irritation.
Similarly, Rouleau said the most important guideline is always listening to your skin. “When fixing your moisture barrier, you want to avoid anything that makes the skin sting or feel dry, tight, or irritated. I know this sounds simple, but many people fall into the mindset of ‘if it’s stinging then it must be working.’ While some products can make the skin tingle (exfoliating acids in particular), you should really examine whether or not the product is supposed to give that sensation.” If your moisture barrier is compromised, products that wouldn’t normally cause a tingling sensation might because your skin is already irritated. Pay attention to what products feel like on your skin because you might be using things that are causing unnecessary irritation in the long run.