Are You Over-Exfoliating Your Skin?

Heed These Warning Signs and Save Your Skin

Photo: Shuji Kobayashi/Taxi

Exfoliation has been promoted as an important part of the beauty routine that revitalizes tired and dull-looking skin, removes pore-clogging oil and debris, and gives one younger-looking skin by softening the look of wrinkles and fine lines and promoting collagen production. It’s true. Exfoliation can help with all of these things. Temporarily.

But could you also be aging your skin?

Natural Exfoliation

The body naturally “exfoliates” through a process called desquamation.

This happens daily as dead skin cells surface to the top layer of the skin, are shed and replaced by new cells.

The act of chemical exfoliation (with fruit acids or enzymes) or physical exfoliation (with scrubs or brushes) is to purposely irritate the skin, which causes it to have a protective reaction to repair the damage. It’s similar to what happens when one gets a sunburn: the upper layers of the skin peels away as the skin heals itself and new skin cells develop under the damaged tissue.

Cell Turnover Slows With Age

As the skin ages, the turnover of the epidermal layer slows down, and because the dead skin cells cling together on the surface of the skin, it can appear dull, with a rougher texture. Exfoliating the skin increases cell turnover and also stimulates the production of new cells, helping skin look fresh and rejuvenated.

The American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t believe skin needs help in getting rid of dead cells and that over-exfoliating and over-cleansing can result in dry and irritated, damaged skin.

Other medical professionals, like Dr. Ben Johnson, think that exfoliation diverts nutrients and skin cell rejuvenating activity from repairing existing damage, as cells rush to the area that needs more immediate healing (the exfoliated skin). Chronic exfoliation, therefore, can actually speed up the aging process.

Why You Need a Thick Skin

The epidermal layer of skin is supposed to be thick to protect us from environmental toxins, bacteria, and disease. As we age, the dermis slows turnover rate in a response to a lack of nutrients and immune system support. Instead of potentially destroying healthy cells, it would be better to assist the dermis with supplying the dermal blood supply and thereby repair unhealthy skin due to a poor diet and vitamin deficiency, harsh products, stress, environmental damage from sun and pollution. It would make sense to protect the skin from the inside out.

How Much Is Too Much?

How your skin reacts to exfoliation can depend on a number of factors, such as the potency of the product, the frequency of exfoliation, other skin care products that you may be using with the exfoliant, as well as the physical exfoliators being used, such as exfoliating brushes and loofahs.

The potential use of several different products that may have incompatible ingredients (or ingredients that are not for your skin type or issues) is why many dermatologists suggest using one product line regimen for skin care. If you don’t want to go this route (perhaps you have found that another cleansing product works better on your skin), it is important to read the ingredient list.

Some daily use products, for example, contain exfoliants and you might not want to use them along with an exfoliating cleanser, especially if you have dry, mature or sensitive skin.

How often you use a product like an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) or beta hydroxy acid (BHA) depends on the product’s potency, your skin type, and skin concerns. Many skin care professionals believe chemical exfoliation should not be done on a daily basis. For at-home products, follow the instructions. When in doubt, call the manufacturer or visit the website for more information on proper usage or consult a dermatologist.

Signs of Over-Exfoliation

When you strip the skin’s protective barrier you end up with dehydrated and inflamed skin. Signs that you are over-exfoliating:

  • Redness
  • Irritation
  • Tightness
  • Excessive dryness/dry patches
  • Flaking skin
  • Uncomfortable stinging that persists
  • Burning sensation 

When these issues occur, decrease the frequency, strength, or type of exfoliation. In addition, be aware that over-exfoliating skin of color with certain chemical exfoliants or doing improper physical exfoliation can result in hyperpigmentation and skin discoloration.

Other Things to Consider

  • The face, neck, and chest require gentler exfoliation than other areas of the body.
  • Dry brushing, washcloths, sponges, loofahs, exfoliating, and power brushes (like Clarisonic) are exfoliators, so it is better to not use chemical exfoliants or grainy scrubs along with them. 
  • When using exfoliating particles, gently massage in circular motions on the skin. Do not scrub; let the product or ingredient do the work. 

Any kind of exfoliation thins the skin barrier, which can lead to moisture loss and sensitivity, so be sure to moisturize afterward and to use sunscreen, since the skin will be more susceptible to sun damage.