Over-Exfoliated Skin: The Dangers Of Over-Exfoliation & How To Treat It

Over-Exfoliated Skin: The Dangers Of Over-Exfoliation & How To Treat It

Exfoliation is a skincare treatment used to prevent acne and reduce its scars. But sometimes, exfoliation can be too much of a good thing, causing over-exfoliated, sore skin.

So what are the dangers of over-exfoliating your skin, and how do you treat it?

Exfoliation is Natural

Did you know our skin exfoliates itself naturally? Scientists call this natural process desquamation. It takes around 28 days for the natural exfoliation cycle to complete and to reveal new, healthy skin cells.

During desquamation, our skin cells become born, grow, mature, reach the cellular equivalent of "old age," and die. Our body manages to do this in almost a month, keeping our skin barrier maintained.

This is why some people don't need to exfoliate at all. Their skin just looks healthy and smooth, thanks to their efficient desquamation cycle.

Over-Exfoliated Skin

But what happens when our natural exfoliation procedure just isn't working?

In this day and age, there are many factors that can affect your skin and interrupt the natural exfoliation process. Harmful UV radiation from the sun, free radicals from air pollution, and random particles of dust and dirt can throw your skin's healthy maintenance cycle out of whack. This leads to premature skin aging and increases your risk of acne - especially if you have acne-prone skin. 

When this happens, you end up with plenty of dead skin cells, sebum (skin oil), dust, and dirt all over your face. This layer of debris then clogs your pores and causes the appearance of whiteheads and blackheads. If left untreated, this can progress to full-blown acne inflammation or lead to an uneven skin tone.

Many of us do whatever we can to restore our skin's health. We scrub our faces or use exfoliating products. But as we mentioned in the introduction, we can sometimes overdo it, and end up over-exfoliating.

Over-Exfoliated Skin

The Dangers of Over-Exfoliation

When exfoliation is done right, you won't even notice it. Yes, your skin will feel smoother, cleaner, better, and even younger. A healthier, more glowing look will present itself.

But if you use an exfoliator that's a bit rough on your skin, apply it too much or too often, or even combine two or more exfoliating substances, you can do more harm than good.

You won't be able to miss the signs of over-exfoliation. Other than irritated skin, soreness, and possibly some redness, the explicit signs of over-exfoliation are:

Overly shiny skin - Be it your cheeks, chin, your nose, or your forehead, you'll notice a new sheen that appears more like plastic than that healthy, dewy look. You wanted smooth, clear skin, but not quite this smooth. The exfoliation is so strong and effective that it's removed too much of the surface layer of the skin. What remains underneath are smooth baby skin cells, which cause that weirdly reflective effect.

Swelling or puffiness - This is another symptom of too much exfoliation. When the exfoliating substance works a little too deep, it can damage your skin's so-called lipid barrier. When this happens, your skin may become rosy, puffy, or a bit swollen. It feels like a soft pillow made of skin. You've damaged your skin's natural protective barrier. This deeper, innocent layer of skin is more exposed to the elements and therefore, more vulnerable. If you don't take good care of it, your skin can easily become inflamed and develop an acne inflammation.

    Over-Exfoliated Skin

    Acne breakout - Speaking of the devil, your skin can become so vulnerable and damaged that it causes inflammation. This inflammation then escalates into an acne breakout. So, if you end up with acne after exfoliation, you need to rethink your method.



    Peeling and flaking - Another sign of too much exfoliation is if it starts to dry very quickly and then falls off in small bits and pieces. Using too much exfoliant can remove the skin's surface layer, taking away all the trapped moisture. With nothing to protect your skin from the elements, the hot air, and the sun's rays, your newly uncovered young skin cells are helpless. They dry up quickly and fall off.



    A feeling of tightness. Your skin can feel unusually tight when all the excessive exfoliation and scrubbing work a little too well. The exfoliation removes the layers of your skin that provide it with much-needed flexibility and elasticity. Two proteins, known as collagen and elastin, are essential for keeping your skin flexible and elastic. Over-exfoliation can remove elastin and collagen, and sometimes this removal manifests as increased skin tightness. 

    Oftentimes, over-exfoliation can make your skin look (and feel) more terrible than whatever it was that you wanted to treat. But there are ways to avoid this.

    Over-Exfoliated Skin

    How to Avoid Over-Exfoliating Your Skin

    It's no accident that doctors and dermatologists recommend exfoliating once or two times a week at most. You don't want to burn your skin with too much scrubbing and exfoliation. Using exfoliators on a daily basis, or even every other day, will lead to dry skin and other problems.

    Another way to avoid over-exfoliating your face is by following the instructions. Too often, we tend to rush things, overlooking the safety precautions that came with the product. Read a product's label carefully. If it comes with a user's manual or instructions on how to use it, read those and follow them to the letter.

    Over-Exfoliated Skin

    Finally, if you're not sure how your skin will react to a given substance, perform a patch test first. This is especially important for people with sensitive skin, as they may experience irritation or an allergic reaction when using a product they haven't used before.  

    Over-Exfoliated Skin

    I Over-Exfoliated My Skin. What Should I Do?

    If you're already here, reading this article, chances are you didn't know how to prevent over-exfoliating your skin. We've all been there.

    You can heal over exfoliated skin by leaving it alone. It will heal all by itself, but it needs time and proper care, which means not doing much to it. 

    Here are some tips to help your skin regenerate faster:

    • Stop exfoliating. Yes, seriously.
    • Stop using anti-acne or strong skincare products. If you need to use a cleanser or a moisturizer, go with mild products that are, ideally, fragrance-free. 
    • Stop using retinol or Retin A products. These substances are great for a normal or healthy skin, but they’re just too intense to be used on an over-exfoliated area.
    • Stop using foaming cleansers since these can dry out your skin and just make the whole situation worse. Look for products with hyaluronic acid or gentle options for acne-prone skin.
    • If you've used chemical exfoliants, use sunscreen every day to protect your new, fragile skin cells.

    Over-Exfoliated Skin

    If there are patches of skin that are especially raw, red, and sore to the touch, applying certain skincare treatments will help.

    We recommend applying a cold compress to your skin as soon as possible. Cooling down the affected area can make it hurt less and reduce the possibility of inflammation.

    Treat these patches with spot treatments that contain emollients. Emollients are substances designed to make your skin softer, more elastic, and more lubricated. Additionally, using hydrocortisone cream, or products based on aloe vera can also be very helpful. Adding a vitamin C-based serum, or cream, to the formula can improve your skin's recovery even further. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that protects your new skin cells from damage and premature deterioration.  

    However, this is not a fast process. Patience is key. Full recovery can sometimes take an entire month or, in some cases, even longer. Avoid things that might irritate your skin and slow down its recovery. Sooner or later, your skin will return to normal, and you can exfoliate again.

    Over-Exfoliated Skin

    When Can I Start Exfoliating Again?

    Just because you overdid it once or twice (or, hey, three times) doesn't mean you should abandon exfoliation forever. For what it's worth, it's a very efficient and valuable skincare treatment that can expedite skin cell turnover and aid your skin's health instead of hampering it. 

    Most doctors and dermatologists say it's safe to exfoliate once a week. However, it's best if you take it slow. Remember, do a patch test to see how your skin reacts - especially if you have a sensitive skin type. And if you feel stuck between choosing more or less exfoliant, always go with the second option. Better safe than sorry.

    Stick to one type of exfoliant. If you mix physical exfoliants with chemical ones (such as glycolic acid), you'll likely overload your skin again and end up over-exfoliating yourself.

    Over-Exfoliated Skin

    Physical exfoliants usually contain small granules that - when rubbed over your skin - chip away at your skin's surface layer and collect dead skin cells. Most homemade exfoliants and scrubs are technically physical, although key ingredients include coffee, rice, sugar, and so on. That doesn't mean they can't irritate your skin. Most exfoliation or scrubbing products you can buy in the store contain other substances, such as corn powders, milled rice, and other surfactants.

    Chemical exfoliators don't require rubbing to work. The most popular are salicylic acid (also known as beta hydroxy acids or BHAs) and a group of alpha hydroxy acids (shortened to AHAs, including glycolic acid and lactic acid). BHA and AHAs share some similarities but differences as well. They both work by dissolving the "glue" that holds dead skin cells and surface skin cells together. However, they can make your skin sensitive to the sun, and their main difference is that AHAs are water-soluble, while BHA is oil-soluble.

    While this may mean that people with oily skin will find BHA more efficient, and dry skin types will prefer AHAs, that's not always the case. Skin types and using the appropriate skincare treatments for your skin type are important. But at the end of the day, we are all individuals, and our reactions will be different. You can try both (but not mix them!) and see which works for you.

    Over-Exfoliated Skin

    Over-Exfoliation: A Summary

    Our skin exfoliates itself naturally in a process known as desquamation. However, plenty of factors complicate, slow down, and sometimes completely disable this process. This is why exfoliating occasionally is good and healthy for your skin.

    Mixing physical exfoliating products with chemical exfoliants can cause over-exfoliation, leaving your skin sore, bruised, red and irritated. If you're suffering from over-exfoliation, apply some ice or a cold compress over the affected area. This will soothe the burning sensations, calm your skin, and prevent inflammation. Additionally, applying aloe vera gel, hydrocortisone cream, or a vitamin C serum over the affected areas can help and help your skin heal faster.

    You should stop using any foaming cleansers or moisturizers, stop taking any retin-based products, and stop exfoliating until your skin recovers fully. The recovery process can take at least a month. 

    Remember, patience is a virtue, and when done right, exfoliation will make your skin healthier. After a full recovery, you can add exfoliation to your skincare routine again. If you have any doubts about a certain product or a substance, perform a patch test. If you experience any pain or injuries, or your skin isn't recovering as expected, consult a doctor or dermatologist immediately.


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