How to Know If You’re Exfoliating *Too* Much

Photo: Stocksy/Lauren Naefe

Let me tell you a little skin-care story: I recently dealt with a seriously frustrating bout of chin acne. Typically when a breakout happens on the chin, hormones are the culprit, but other factors could be at play too, including diet and even some skin-care products. Considering I've been diligently avoiding dairy for a year now, that I follow a well thought-out skin care regimen, and I'm on birth control, I was stumped.

Then, Angelina Umansky, a facialist and skin-care guru at Spa Radiance enlightened me. I was causing the problem by over-exfoliating.

"This is something that I'm seeing more and more in recent years," she tells me after treating my inflamed face. "The challenge for many of my clients is that they don't realize they're using multiple products with exfoliating agents."

Truth be told, it's easy to wash with an BHA cleanser and then slather on a rejuvenating enzyme mask, a nightly retinol, and a glycolic acid serum. The problem is that all of these ingredients do some sort of exfoliation on their own without explicitly saying it. But when you use too many on your face, it could lead to that feeling that your skin is ultra-dry.

"The challenge for many of my clients is that they don't realize they're using multiple products with exfoliating agents."

The result? An angry complexion with breakouts, redness, tightness, irritation, burning, and sensitivity to products, according to Umansky. Welp, I'm definitely guilty.

Keep reading to figure out if you're exfoliating too much, why that's a problem, and what you should be doing instead.

are you over exfoliating
Photo: Stocksy/Marija Strajnic

Too much is never a good thing

The main problem with over exfoliation, explains Umansky, is that "it starts to break down the skin barrier," which you want to keep plump and strong.

"There are so many hidden exfoliating agents in otherwise benign products, like creams labeled with words like 'renewal,'" Umansky explains. "Many people are using products that contain acids and retinol derivatives together, and since their skin could tolerate the combination at the beginning, they assume it's working."

The thing is, unless you know the indicators to look for on your complexion, it can be tricky to know that it's happening until it's too late. Because, while there are tell-tale signs of irritation and inflammation in skin, the full on redness really only happens when skin is fully agitated.

"Irritated and over-exfoliated skin loses too much of the stratum corneum, the upper layer of our epidermis," adds Melanie D. Palm, M.D., MBA, director of Art of Skin MD, dermatologist, and assistant clinical professor at University of California San Diego. "Exposure of deeper layers of the epidermis exposes skin nerves, recruits inflammatory cells, irritates blood vessels, and disrupts the normal turnover of the skin." Eek.

If a product (or a combination of products, for that matter) stops working, take a look at the labels. "Always check to see if your products include any acids, enzymes, or retinol derivatives," says Umansky. Too many acids can equate to a super irritated—not to mention dried-out—face.

are you over exfoliating
Photo: Stocksy/Michela Ravasio

How to calm things down

If you're dealing with an inflamed complexion, Umansky says to gradually nix the exfoliators. "I always recommend weaning off products slowly to avoid any negative reactions," she says. "Slowly taper off them until your skin starts to repair itself and the tightness wears away." On average, Dr. Palm says that it takes about two to four weeks for your skin to get back to normal.

Just because over-exfoliating causes your skin to freak out, however, doesn't mean you should stop exfoliating all together. Exfoliation is an essential part of a healthy skin-care routine, and it encourages the top layer of dead skin to be gone, so that your serums and oils can really get into your complexion to do their jobs. In other words, you've just got to be more mindful about how often to reach for the skin-sloughers.

It's also key to make sure your skin's replenished, since it's been stripped of its natural oils. "Look for products with hyaluronic acid, essential fatty acids, and B vitamins," explains Umansky. "A couple of my favorites are Patyka's Advanced Plumping Serum and True Botanicals' Pure Radiance Oil."

Once things are back to normal—and it'll get there, promise—you can start gently (key word, here) exfoliating again. "You shouldn't use more than one exfoliating product per day," says Umansky. "Make sure to integrate it slowly into your regimen and watch for any reactions." Dr. Palm adds that you can even reintroduce an exfoliant to spot treat problem areas (for me: that's my chin).

Think of it this way: When you get angry at a zit and pile on the harsh actives, your skin is going to rebel. You just have to be nice to it. "You need to have a relationship with your skin," says Umansky. "It tells you exactly what it needs." Time to get to BFF status.

You might also want to avoid these face masks if you have sensitive skin. Instead, opt for something gentle like this DIY aloe vera mask that tames inflammation.

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