My general philosophy for skincare is “more is more.” It’s like “less is more,” except, you know, the total opposite. For example, if one layer is good, then three layers are even better.
Unfortunately, this philosophy has gotten me into trouble a few times in the course of my skincare journey. While it’s great for things like hydrating toners and sunscreen, it’s not exactly ideal for exfoliation.
For most of us, the right combination of physical and chemical exfoliation is the most reliable way to get beautiful, glowing skin. It’s easy to think that the “more is more” philosophy should apply to this aspect of skincare too, but trust me. It does not.
Since we’re all guilty of getting a little too acid-happy sometimes, today I’m going to talk about why we should be more careful, red flags to watch out for, and what you can do to recover from overexfoliation.
It’s easy to think that the “more is more” philosophy should apply to exfoliation too, but trust me. It does not.
The Problem With Too Much of a Good Thing
When I discovered the existence of chemical exfoliants (other than those super-drying salicylic acid acne pads from Walmart), I could have cried from happiness. I have oily, acne-prone skin that also tends to get dehydrated easily. This means that I need more acid than the average person, but I also suffer greatly if I overdo it.
The purpose of chemical and physical exfoliants is to shed dead skin cells that make our complexions look dull and clogged. And they’re so appealing. A good exfoliation session can make your skin feel noticeably softer, smoother, and clearer. I’m impatient, so the instant gratification of exfoliation calls to me.
The problem with exfoliating too much or too often is that it can remove the healthy skin cells that aren’t ready to come off. It can also disrupt your skin’s natural protective barriers (aka your moisture barrier and acid mantle) that keep out bad bacteria and environmental stressors.
Warning Signs of Overexfoliation
One frustrating part of adding acids to your routine is that breakouts and dry skin can also happen when they’re working properly. So how are you supposed to know when to stop and when to keep going?
Fortunately, there are a few other red flags that can tip you off that it’s time to pump the brakes on your exfoliation routine.
- Tight, shiny skin
- Unexplained redness
- Burning or stinging from products that don’t usually irritate your skin
- Breakouts in unusual places
- Rough, rash-like texture
Your skin shouldn’t look waxy or shiny! When it’s healthy, your skin will look plump and dewy. Shiny skin usually means that you’ve stripped away too many healthy skin cells, so you’re seeing too-fresh and vulnerable skin instead.
What to Do When You’ve Overexfoliated
Overexfoliation happens to the best of us, but you don’t have to panic. It will take a little bit of time and patience, but your skin can (and will!) recover.
The first step? Put. Down. The. Exfoliators. All of them. The peels. The washcloths. The acid toners. The acne-fighting face washes. The scrubs. The cleansing brushes. Set them aside until your skin is totally healthy again.
The next step is to go back to basics. This isn’t the time to add new products (even soothing ones!) or experiment with anything that isn’t tried-and-true. Even if snail works wonders for your BFF, don’t even think about adding it to your regimen if you haven’t already made sure it works for you too. I know that might be difficult for some of you, but trust me! It’s better to play it safe right now.
Finally, shop your stash for anything with ingredients like ceramides, aloe, centella, snail (if that works for you!), gentle moisturizers like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, or rich, nourishing facial oils. You want to give your skin as much pampering as possible, and these ingredients can help build your moisture barrier back up to a healthy state.
Also, remember to be extra cautious about sun exposure. Your skin is in a fragile state, and it’s all too easy to accumulate extra sun damage while it’s healing. Wear extra sunscreen! Reapply often! You’ll be glad you did.
It’s All About Balance
Ultimately, if you overexfoliate, remember that your skin is excellent at repairing itself. The tips I mentioned above will help to support and speed up the process, but as long as you stop exfoliating when you realize you’ve overdone it, your skin will bounce back!
And don’t think that it has to be an “all or nothing” approach. Once your skin is back to baseline, you can slowly (s l o w l y!) add acids back to your routine. Finding the right balance between nourishing and exfoliating is the key to healthy, happy skin.