Can You Over-Moisturize Your Face? Here’s Why Derms Say Yes

Photo: Stocksy / ohlamour studio

If you've ever had a three-martini lunch on a weekday, you already know that too much of a good thing is a bad thing. The same goes for over-moisturizing. Your skin craves moisture, but if you over-moisturize, she'll be writing slurry emails to her boss (yes, you can over-moisturize your face).

There is a sweet spot, however. The way one martini gives you a little bit of confidence, the right amount of moisturizer can be the cure to so many skin woes like dryness, dullness, and even acne. "Our skin needs moisture to maintain the skin barrier," says New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Kiran Mian. But over-hydrating your skin could be the culprit behind inflammation, clogged pores, and breakouts. "Just how much moisture it needs depends on your skin type and other products you use." 

Experts In This Article

So, how can you find the right balance for your skin and avoid over-moisturizing? We tapped board-certified dermatologists Arash Akhavan, David KimBrooke Jeffy, and Dr. Mian for their tips to help us hydrate in healthy moderation. 

How do you know if your face is over-moisturized?

If you've been going hard on the heavy creams, oils, and moisturizing masks, you may have started to notice a few unwelcome side effects. "Using excess moisturizer when it's not needed can lead to issues like clogged pores and acne," Dr. Akhavan says, particularly if you have oily or acne-prone skin. You may also notice tiny, hard white bumps around your eyes —a.k.a. milia— that are very difficult to get rid of without a visit to a dermatologist (do not try to pop these; you're going to regret that). 

In addition to the classic signs, some people also develop a rash called perioral dermatitis, Dr. Akhavan explains, characterized by pink or red bumps and irritation around the mouth and nose. "The exact cause of this skin condition is not known, but many dermatologists, including myself, believe that excessive use of moisturizers and skin care products can play a role." 

Why do you even need a moisturizer?

"An adequately hydrated skin barrier is key to optimal function of the skin," Dr. Jeffy says. "Moisturizer helps reduce water loss from the skin, keeping it supple and healthy. A healthy skin barrier also helps protect us from environmental damage and ultraviolet light." If the skin gets too dry, you may notice redness, irritation, and, yes, even more acne (damned if you do, damned if you don't). Your skin will then produce excess sebum to compensate for the lack of moisture, and you may see congestion on your face. That's why finding the perfect balance is key. 

Can over-moisturizing cause clogged pores?

Keep an eye out for the telltale signs of over-moisturizing your face: clogged pores, inflammation, and acne. If you recently added a moisturizing step to your routine or switched from a lightweight lotion to a thicker cream, you can probably trace your newfound skin woes to that.

But if you've already drowned your epidermis in hydration, don't panic. You can fix over-moisturized skin. First, remove the suspected culprit from your routine. And if you're looking to reverse already clogged pores, Dr.Kim recommends an enzymatic exfoliator with lactic or glycolic acid to clear things up and get your skin back on track. 

And be wary of going cold turkey or "letting the skin breathe" for too long. "The skin needs to be hydrated appropriately to function," says Dr. Jeffy. If you need to scale back a bit, stop for a few days, and then rely on a hydrating serum for your moisturizing needs, supplementing with lotions or creams one or two nights per week as needed.

How do I know if my face is moisturized?

It helps to know what you should look like when you're hydrating your skin correctly. "Well moisturized skin looks hydrated, supple, calm, and soft," says Dr. Kim. "It won't be oily or too shiny." That means choosing a moisturizer that's right for your skin. "If you tend to be oily or have sensitive skin, a light lotion or gel moisturizer may be a better choice than a heavier lotion designed for normal to dry skin," says Dr.Jeffy. 

If you usually have dry skin, you can use something a bit thicker—in fact, your epidermis craves it. "If you have dry skin but use a moisturizer that is too lightweight and not rich enough, your skin barrier will be compromised and not adequately moisturized," says Dr. Kim.

Once you've found the right product, consider how much you use in one application. "It shouldn't feel heavy or greasy," Dr. Kim explains. Instead, it should thoroughly rub in and feel smooth and supple when you're done. Balance is key. Don't underdo it (you'll know because your skin will feel dry, flaky, and itchy), and don't overdo it, either.

How many times a day should I moisturize?

This depends on your skin type, but generally, experts say twice a day is standard for proper moisturizer use. "I recommend moisturizing at night when the skin is repairing," says Dr. Mian. "But for those with dry skin, moisturizing in the morning may also be helpful to keep their skin comfortable throughout the day." Look for a lightweight moisturizer with SPF built in, so you're not layering on too many products (which won't help with the congestion problem if you've been over-moisturizing). 

Final Takeaway

While slathering on moisturizer until you're goopy like a glazed donut seems like all the rave, it can actually work against your skin. Over-moisturizing your face is real, and since most formulas act as an occlusive (which seals everything into the skin), you can trap dead skin, dirt, and debris. An easy solve? Make sure you're cleansing and exfoliating your skin properly and daily (look for cleansers with enzymes and acids like glycolic to gently buff off dead skin), and look for moisturizer formulas that leave you feeling supple, not greasy. And remember, with all good things, finding the right moisturizer routine for your skin boils down to balance. 

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