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10 Signs You're Over-Exfoliating

Exfoliation may be one of the best ways to keep your skin looking young and beautiful.

However, as with most things in life, there can certainly be too much of a good thing!

If you are starting to notice any of the below signs, it may be time to reevaluate your exfoliation habits.

Your Skin Looks Extra Shiny

This is a tricky sign because there is often a fine line between normal shiny and over-exfoliation shiny. Often times, part of the reason we start an exfoliation routine is that we are aiming to achieve skin with a very smooth and “glowy” look. If your skin typically has a bumpy or uneven texture, you may mistake that “shiny” look as evidence that your exfoliation approach is working beautifully.

And that’s probably true, only, it may be working a little too well. While improving texture may be the goal, developing a mirror-level degree of shine immediately after an exfoliating treatment could mean you are taking off too much skin. In other words, instead of just polishing away the old, dead skin cells, you are removing some of the healthy new skin beneath.

This eroding of healthy skin could result in damage to the skin barrier, opening up your pores to other problems like excessive dryness or pimples. See numbers two and three, below.

You’re Getting More Breakouts

Sign number one leads directly into sign number two: breakouts.

It seems a bit counterintuitive, right? Extra clean skin should help keep acne-causing bacteria away.

But once again, this is simply a case of too much of a good thing. When you are exfoliating your skin correctly, just the pore-clogging dead skin cells get removed before they can get trapped and cause blackheads and pimples.

But if you remove your skin’s protective barrier by scrubbing too hard or using acids too often, your skin is left vulnerable. Even things that normally wouldn’t initiate a breakout may be enough to cause one once your skin barrier has been compromised.

Your Skin Looks Puffy

Puffy skin is another sure sign that you need to cut back on exfoliating. It may be hard to notice at first, but pay close attention; especially when changing the products you use or starting a new exfoliation schedule.

Puffiness is actually a slight swelling of the skin that has been irritated. This is a sign of inflammation that could become more serious damage if not addressed.

It may be hard to tell if a little puffiness is from exfoliation or something else in your routine, which is why it’s important to introduce new products and treatments one at a time instead of several at once.

If you suspect your puffiness is a result of exfoliation, take a break from all forms of exfoliation for a couple of weeks to see if the swelling goes down.

Your Regular Products Start To Sting

If things are looking good but starting to feel different, this is another indicator that your exfoliating habit has gone overboard.

This usually shows up in the form of suddenly sensitive skin.

For example, if you’ve been using the same tried-and-true cleanser for years without issue, and suddenly applying it results in pain or redness. It’s probably not the cleanser causing the problem!

This is especially true if you get a stinging sensation when applying moisturizer after completing your exfoliation routine (and you should always moisturize after exfoliating or cleansing). While it may be that your skin disagrees with the ingredients in the second product, it’s more likely you were too aggressive by scrubbing at your skin.

This is probably more likely to occur immediately after performing physical exfoliation with a scrub or brush, as these can very quickly aggravate your skin and cause a reaction.

Infographic on mechanical exfoliation

But this is not to say you are clear to use chemical exfoliants without caution. It just may take many days of applying chemical exfoliants for your skin to become irritated enough for you to  feel the sting.

Again, it’s best to just take a break from exfoliating once you notice this happening. This is how you will determine if over-exfoliating really was the culprit. And if things get really painful, don’t hesitate to consult a dermatologist.

Your Skin Feels Tight

The feeling of tightness is one that many with dry skin are very familiar with. Of course, it can just be a sign that you forgot to apply moisturizer after your cleansing routine!

But if you are diligent in applying an emollient moisturizer after cleansing and exfoliating and are still experiencing this uncomfortable sensation, that’s a sign you need to change something.

Because exfoliation removes the topmost layer of skin, it may also be taking away the natural oils in your skin that help to keep things hydrated. So limiting yourself to exfoliation once or twice a week at most may be the key to making sure your skin doesn’t become stripped of its natural barrier, resulting in tightness.  

Your Skin is Red Long After Exfoliating

Redness is usually a bad sign, but we often both accept and expect to look a little rosier immediately after exfoliation. This is especially true for more intense treatments —a chemical peel, for example.

However, when it comes to your daily exfoliation routine, redness should be rare. While using a granulated scrub or chemical exfoliant can give you a little redness immediately afterward, it should not last long. If the redness lasts more than a couple of hours, you should reconsider the product and how often you use it.

Keep in mind that although redness would be normal after an in-office procedure with your dermatologist, at home it could be a sign you are doing damage to your skin. It’s better to leave the more aggressive treatments to a professional, who can quickly determine if a treatment is appropriate for your skin.

You Use Products with “Hidden” Exfoliants

If you are experiencing some of these symptoms but are limiting your exfoliation treatments, consider that there could be some “secret” exfoliating agents in your other daily skincare products.

That’s right: your cleanser, toner, serum, and even moisturizer may contain an exfoliating ingredient!

The problem is, that the exfoliating agent may not be labeled in an obvious way. Since there are many types and forms of chemical exfoliants, they can easily be lost among other skincare buzzwords and ingredient names that don’t necessarily include any form of the word “exfoliate.”

If you use a variety of anti-aging products, you may be especially prone to hidden exfoliators. It is often these products that promise to “rejuvenate” or “renew” aging skin, usually by means of a combination of chemical exfoliants and other nourishing ingredients.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with these products on their own, and often are capable of delivering beautiful and glowing skin. Problems can arise, however, when you unknowingly combine multiple potent exfoliants, overloading your skin and causing irritation over time.

The key is to check the names and labels of all the products you use. Acids, enzymes, and retinol derivatives are some common types of ingredients that act as an exfoliant on your skin. If you’re not sure if an ingredient is an exfoliant, check with your doctor.

And if you do have more than one of these types of products in your routine, there’s no need to throw them all out. Just limit yourself to no more than one exfoliating product per day, and make sure to follow up with a soothing and hydrating serum or moisturizer afterward.

Your Skin is Dry and Flaking

Skin that is drier than usual is another classic symptom of too much exfoliation. This is especially true if you are using a hydrating moisturizer every day and are still experiencing parched skin.

While this problem can appear in any skin type that is receiving too much exfoliation, skin that already tends to be dry is particularly prone to reacting this way.

It all comes back to the skin barrier; using exfoliating products more than your skin can handle leads to a weakening of your skin barrier.

Infographic on the function of the skin barrier

It can even result in rough patches and flaking. You may be tempted to try and rub or scrub those areas to remove the peeling skin. But don’t fall for this; what your skin actually needs is a break from all that abrasion.

As soon as you notice drying or peeling, your first reaction should be to stop using exfoliants. Allow your skin time to heal and build up again.

You Notice a Chronic Skin Rash

Perhaps the most surprising of all the symptoms of over-exfoliation is a persistent rash.

This can happen when your skin is repeatedly inflamed by your aggressive exfoliation methods.  This inflammation goes beyond the surface of skin deep into the pore, or hair follicle.

If bacteria gets into these inflamed pores, an infection can set in which you see as a red and bumpy rash. This type of rash is not only unsightly, but it can hurt pretty badly too. Even worse,  over the counter ointments may not be enough to clear up this rash, warranting a visit to the doctor’s office.

You Exfoliate Every Day

Keep in mind that over-exfoliation can be the result of exfoliating too aggressively, or simply doing it too often, no matter how gentle the method. So even if you avoid scrubbing too hard with physical exfoliants like a sonic brush or granulated scrub, you could still be over-exfoliating.

Even if you are not currently experiencing any of the signs of over-exfoliated skin, you may still be over-doing it. Sometimes your skin can handle for a while. But, over time excessive exfoliation can wear down and weaken your skin.

This is why it’s important to consider your skin type when choosing how often to exfoliate. Recommendations for how often a person should exfoliate can vary wildly, and often it really depends on the unique needs of each individual’s skin.

To err on the side of caution, it’s better to keep exfoliation to a minimum. Most skin types do better when exfoliated a few times a week, rather than every day.

According to New York dermatologist Dr. Julia Tzu, oily and acne prone skin types should try exfoliating about twice a week. Dry skin and skin that is aging should try to stick to no more than once a week.

Of course, when you do exfoliate, don’t to overcompensate by using an excessive amount of chemical exfoliants or doing a marathon scrubbing session with your sonic skin care brush. And as always, stick to one exfoliant at a time.

The most important thing is to listen to your skin and watch for signs of irritation. If even a pared-down exfoliation routine is causing redness, peeling, or swelling, stop for several weeks to let your skin fully heal. Or if you feel that your skin could use exfoliation more often, slowly add exfoliation days to your routine, waiting several weeks to see how your skin handles it.

One of your best resources will always be a dermatologist. They can provide a personal recommendation to you of not only how often you should exfoliate, but what method would be best for you.

How to Start Healing Over-Exfoliated Skin

If you’re realizing that you’re a victim of over-exfoliation, there’s no need to fret. You can begin to get back on track right away.

  • First, take a break from all exfoliating products. Let your skin rest and heal for at least 2-3 weeks, or even more. Wait until any visible inflammation has cleared up.
  • Use the only the gentlest cleansers and moisturizers while your skin recovers. Look for soothing and hydrating formulas that will keep your skin clean but allow it to rebuild its moisture barrier.
  • Treat any broken or inflamed areas with nourishing ointments and balms. Some of the best ingredients for fortifying compromised skin are essential fatty acids and B vitamins. You want to protect your skin as much as possible to allow it to get stronger.
  • If you have any rashes, broken skin, or possible infections you may need antibacterial or other medicated creams. If you’re not sure, speak with a doctor.
  • When everything clears up and your skin is strong and healthy again, slowly begin to exfoliate once or twice a week according to your skin type.
  • As always: if in doubt, ask a dermatologist!