Sloughing off dead skin cells to make way for brighter, healthier skin sounds like a recipe for a glowing countenance — and, for the most part, it is. “Exfoliating can improve the efficacy of your skincare products by removing dead skin cells so products are better able to penetrate the skin and deliver better results,” says Michele Green, MD, a board certified cosmetic dermatologist in New York City. “Exfoliants can fade discoloration, improve fine lines and wrinkles, and clear blemishes.”
But, as the cliché goes, you can have too much of a good thing. Thanks to the abundance of skincare products on the market and armchair aestheticians on social media sharing their recommendations, it’s easy to think a skincare routine isn’t complete without dozens of steps (see: Shay Mitchell’s 58-step beautification process) and daily exfoliation. But dermatologists tell us that not only is it possible to over-exfoliate the skin, it’s actually quite common among skincare enthusiasts. Here, the real experts explain how often to exfoliate and how to tell if you’ve gone overboard.
How Often Should I Exfoliate?
First things first, a quick refresher on exfoliators. Generally speaking, there are two types of exfoliation: chemical and physical. The former uses a chemical solution (usually composed of alpha, beta, and/or polyhydroxy acids or enzymes) to loosen up the bonds between dead skin cells and impurities so they slough off, while the latter involves manually buffing the skin. “Chemical exfoliation is gentler on the skin than mechanical exfoliants, which can cause microscopic tears in the skin,” Dr. Green says. “Plus, the benefits of a chemical exfoliation are immediate — once the skin is cleaned you are left with new, fresh glowing skin.”
Before an exfoliating product becomes a regular part of your skincare routine, Hadley King, MD, a board certified dermatologist in NYC, suggests testing it a couple of times on a smaller area of skin to see how you react. Keep an eye out for any irritation and notice if your skin feels unusually tight after using it. Once it passes muster, gradually increase it to the level recommended on the package.
How often you can and should exfoliate depends on a myriad of factors including your skin type and the product you’re using. Taylor Worden, a NYC-based facialist, says that most of her clients exfoliate about two times per week. Those with dry or sensitive skin may scale down to just once a week, while those with oily skin may be able to handle three times per week. Take your time to slowly introduce exfoliating products to your routine and let your skin guide you.
What Are Signs That I’m Exfoliating Too Often?
If that fresh, glowing skin turns dry, irritated, red, or flaky, your exfoliator might be to blame. You may even notice breakouts, which can happen as a result of stripping the skin of its natural moisture. While exfoliants can be sensitizing, any tingling and redness should be temporary and resolve quickly. When it lingers or worsens, it’s likely because the product doesn’t agree with your complexion or you’ve overdone it.
According to Dr. King, both chemical and physical exfoliants can lead to over-exfoliation if they are used too frequently, with too much pressure, at too high of a strength, or with too many other potentially irritating or drying ingredients.
How Can I Correct Over-Exfoliation?
First and foremost, hide the offending product in the back of your cabinet and avoid using it until your complexion looks and feels less irritated. While your skin is inflamed, take a step back from all harsh products, including scrubs, acids, and retinol. In its place, go back to basics and treat your skin the way you would in the aftermath of a resurfacing treatment such as a laser or a chemical peel.
Dr. Green suggests opting for a mild, non-sudsing gel cleanser like Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser or CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser. Both contain soothing ingredients like niacinamide, ceramides, and glycerin to calm sensitized skin. Amanda Doyle, MD, a board certified dermatologist at Russak Dermatology in NYC, is a fan of the SkinCeuticals Phyto Corrective Mask because it cools the skin on contact and visibly reduces redness.
Speaking of cooling the complexion, Dr. Green recommends trying to alleviate skin sensitivity with a cold compress, followed by an over-the-counter topical hydrocortisone. If you have broken skin, try the Aquaphor Healing Ointment or Doctor Rodgers Restore Healing Balm to lock in moisture and speed up recovery.
If swapping your harsh products for sensitive ones doesn’t calm down your skin, speak to your dermatologist about a prescription topical — and, while you’re at it, ask for their tips for gentler exfoliation. For some, trying an application technique like short contact therapy can allow you to reap the benefits with less of the side effects. Glowing skin is a delicate balance, but it’s absolutely achievable with the right products and a bit of patience.
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