When done with care, exfoliation is a real gift. “Exfoliation, whether chemical or physical, is an important part of a skin-care routine because it helps maintain a dewy hydrated glow, can even skin tone and texture, and can unclog pores,” explains New York City board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein. “It also makes all other skin-care products and ingredients absorb better.”
As Marchbein just pointed out, there are two types of exfoliation, both of which are great methods for eliminating dead skin cells, excess oil, and dirt. There are physical exfoliants, which are grainy products like face and body scrubs (if a product has coarse sugar, coffee grounds, or anything similar in it, it’s a physical exfoliant).
Chemical exfoliants, on the other hand, are acid-based — think alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid, beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid, and so on. Those “exfoliate the upper layers of the skin while also hydrating and helping your skin retain moisture,” as New York City board-certified dermatologist Michelle Henry previously told Allure.
Consider both of them a double-edged sword, though, because all that good does come with some caveats. According to dermatologists, over-exfoliation is all too common. “For some reason, people think exfoliating means ‘torture my skin like it has secret government information,'” Boston board-certified dermatologist Ranella Hirsch previously joked to Allure. “Over-exfoliating is probably the single most significant cause of breakouts.”
Similarly, New York City board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner once told us that exfoliating too much can “create tiny cracks in the skin barrier that lead to more loss of hydration and inflammation.”
Over-exfoliation, needless to say, is something to be cautious of — or your skin might wind up having the opposite reaction to your routine than you were hoping. And that type of reaction can be hard to differentiate from run-of-the-mill skin issues and conditions.
Thankfully, there are expert tips you can use to figure out if you’re going a little too hard on the scrubs, toners, and peels. All you’ve got to do is listen closely to your body. Here’s how to tell if you’re over-exfoliating, and what to do if you are.
Keep an eye out for redness, dryness, and irritation
If you find your face more itchy and inflamed than usual, your exfoliation habits very well could be the culprit. “Short-term [effects include] obvious irritation or inflammation on the skin,” explains Connecticut-based board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara. “If it stings when you wash your face or apply products, you may be overdoing it.” This goes for both physical exfoliants (like face scrubs) and chemical exfoliants (such as toners and peels containing hydroxy acids). Melanie Palm, a board-certified dermatologist in San Diego, concurs. “Short term [effects include] redness, itchiness, pain, and eczema-like patches,” she says, adding that in extra-sensitive patients, too much exfoliation can even lead to broken blood vessels under the surface.
This effect becomes heightened when the user fails to moisturize well (and wear an SPF of 30 or higher during the daytime), Marchbein explains, because the skin needs barrier-building ingredients to account for heightened sensitivity caused by exfoliants. “When you think about the skin, think about to top layer as bricks and mortar,” she explains.