Listen up, guys. I don’t know what the heck you all have been doing to your faces, but judging from the number of questions about overexfoliation that have hit my inbox and Instagram DMs in the last few weeks, some of you really need to step away from the acids and scrubs. So uh…step away from the acids and scrubs. And settle down so we can talk about overexfoliation!
Some photos in this post feature products that were provided by Fifty Shades of Snail sponsors. These photographs do not constitute endorsement; products are shown to illustrate concepts. This post contains adult language, juvenile humor, and several Kpop gifs.
First, let’s cover some of the basics of exfoliation and overexfoliation for those who are newer to this sort of thing.
Exfoliation affects the outermost layer of our skin, the stratum corneum. Amusingly, the stratum corneum is also called the horny layer, which is how I’ll be referring to it from here on out.
The horny layer is composed of dead skin cells and natural lipids, arranged in a sort of brick-and-mortar structure with the dead skin cells as the bricks and the ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids as the mortar. This structure serves two purposes: to keep bad stuff out of our skin, preventing irritation and infection, and to keep moisture in our skin, maintaining optimal skin function.
The thing about the horny layer is that sometimes those dead skin cells build up in ways that are detrimental to our skin health or appearance. They may clog up pores and lead to closed comedones or breakouts. They may also just make skin feel rough or look dull. So we exfoliate to remove that excess dead skin.
When done with products and at a frequency appropriate to an individual’s skin needs, exfoliation is a great thing! It can keep pores clean and looking as small as possible. It can prevent some types of breakouts. It can also make skin softer, smoother, and brighter.
When done too frequently or with products too harsh for the skin it’s used on, on the other hand, exfoliation can lead to disaster. Your horny layer is very important! Compromising it opens the doors to a number of unpleasant consequences, and apart from using too-harsh, too-alkaline cleansers, overexfoliation is the easiest way to compromise your horny layer.
Common Signs of Overexfoliation
Story time. When I was a teenager, I, like pretty much every other teenager ever from about 1993-200?, kept a tube of the ubiquitous St. Ives apricot scrub in my bathroom. This notoriously harsh and abrasive scrub uses ground up walnut shell bits to exfoliate the everloving fuck out of one’s horny layer.
I used the St. Ives scrub because I wanted to get rid of skin flakes and my (in hindsight, very minor; at the time, seemingly life-ending) blemishes. I used it every single day. My skin kept getting rougher and flakier and the blemishes kept getting worse, so I felt like I had to use the scrub more and more often.
I see now that I was going about things in the wrongest possible way. The escalating skin problems I experienced weren’t a sign I needed to exfoliate more. They were a sign that I was exfoliating WAY TOO MUCH.
Below is a list of common signs of overexfoliation. If you’re overexfoliated, you may have just one or two of these signs, or you may have several. It depends on the individual, so consider whether your skin has changed lately, what kind of exfoliation you do, and how frequently you do it. And know that overexfoliation can happen very gradually over time. Just because you haven’t introduced a new exfoliant lately doesn’t mean your horny layer isn’t suffering.
- Increasingly rough or flaky texture
- Excessively smooth texture but thin- and tight-looking skin. I call this the Saran Wrap Sign, because it makes skin look like tightly pulled Saran Wrap.
- Increased sensitivity, particularly to products that have not irritated skin before
- Increased breakouts
- Increased redness
- Raw feeling
- Unusual oiliness: The lipids in the horny layer are leaking from their normal structure!
- Unusual dehydration/constant dry, tight feeling: The water your horny layer is supposed to hold in your skin is escaping! A compromised horny layer accelerates Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL). TEWL is not KEWL.
Thankfully, the problems caused by overexfoliation are not permanent. Once your horny layer heals up, your skin condition should return to normal. The important thing is to let your horny layer restore itself in peace.
Treating Overexfoliated Skin
The first and most important thing to do when your skin is overexfoliated is, of course, to put down the exfoliating products. Now is the time to discontinue exfoliation until your skin gets back to normal. If you’ve grown particularly reliant on your AHA, BHA, or scrub, the idea of skipping that skincare step may be panic-inducing, but it’s necessary. Just think of this as an opportunity to save some time in your skincare routine. Silver lining!
The second thing you’ll need to do to heal overexfoliated skin is to wait. I know this is probably an even more painful requirement than discontinuing exfoliation, but it is critical. Your horny layer needs to regain a healthy balance of dead skin cells and natural lipids, and that will take time. How much time varies according to the individual and the severity of the overexfoliation. Recovery time might be a week or two for a minor mishap but may stretch out to weeks or even months for more serious misadventures.
Third, make your skin as comfortable as possible during your time of healing. That means using a gentle, low-pH cleanser (if you have a non-foaming gel or milk cleanser that your skin likes, this would be an excellent option right about now) and stopping use of any products currently causing irritation. You can add things back in later, once your horny layer has returned to normal, but for now, avoid creating more problems with redness and sensitivity. Stick to the blandest portions of your skincare routine.
It’s particularly important to avoid retinoids while your skin is recovering from overexfoliation. While retinoids, contrary to common belief, aren’t exfoliants, they can contribute to increased thinning of the horny layer, and that is exactly what we don’t want to happen to your poor horny layer. So put the Retin-A, adapalene, Curology, and even retinol products away with your acids and scrubs.
Since TEWL is a common consequence of overexfoliation, do whatever you can to hydrate skin and seal hydration in. Many people swear by Vaseline as a sleeping pack for this purpose, since Vaseline is extremely simple, cheap, and low-risk for the majority of people. Personally, I can’t with the texture of Vaseline. Really, any moisturizer you have that seals in moisture well and doesn’t freak your skin out will work fine. If you have a face mist that isn’t bothering your skin, periodic spritzes throughout your routine and throughout the day can be helpful, too.
For bonus barrier healing, look among your current products for those that contain ceramides, cholesterol, plant oils, phytosphingosine, or squalane or niacinamide–the combo of ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids works well for strengthening a weakened barrier, and squalane and niacinamide have barrier-supporting properties too. If your stash doesn’t contain any of those things, however, it isn’t the end of the world. With patience, your horny layer will recuperate. Now isn’t the best time to start trying new things.
Absolutely make sure you’re using sunscreen every single day, rain or shine. You should be doing so anyway, particularly if you’ve been using AHAs, which are photosensitizing, but it’s extra important now that your horny layer has been compromised and newer skin is more exposed to UV damage. Just do it. Sunscreen, that is.
Then give your horny layer time to heal. In the meantime, think about how to avoid these problems in the future.
This section is pretty straightforward. To prevent overexfoliation, don’t exfoliate too much!
How much is too much depends on the person. Some people’s horny layers can handle multiple strong acids every day plus a weekly maintenance peel. Others are never able to increase their exfoliation frequency past once or twice a week. So when you start reintroducing exfoliation into your skincare routine, start very slowly. Use your exfoliating product once a week to start. See how well your skin handles that. Then increase frequency to twice a week and stick with that for a while, evaluating your skin’s tolerance. And so on. Learn your limits by working up to them gradually.
With physical exfoliation, use a soft touch. Gently move product around on your face; don’t press hard or deep.
As an extra preventative measure, consider the types of exfoliating products you have or are planning to buy and make sure you’re using them in an appropriate way. I hope the list below helps with that!
Common Types of Exfoliants and Their Relative Risk of Causing Overexfoliation
I have a ton of exfoliating products, as you probably noticed from the picture near the top of this post, but very few of them are in my (recently updated!) daily skincare lineup. I’ve cut back on my own exfoliation quite a bit this year. I do still like my occasional scrub, though.
Since everyone’s skin is different, I can’t provide a concrete “recommended frequency of use”-type guideline for each exfoliant type. Instead, I’ll note how often I would use each type of product if it were my main exfoliating method. Links go to reviews of examples of each product type.
Very Weak Exfoliators
Risk: Very low
These products and tools are extremely gentle and act only on the very uppermost parts of the horny layer. Basically, they’re good for sweeping away really loose and usually visible dead skin flakes and providing a softer texture. When I rely on these as my main exfoliating method, I use them daily without discomfort or overexfoliation.
- Konjac sponges
- Soft, non-grainy scrubs
- Enzyme-only exfoliating “peels”
- Peeling gels without any added scrubbing particles
- Weak AHA products (often “peeling pads”) that have undisclosed (read: low) concentrations of AHA and/or higher-than-optimal pH
While a step up in strength from the very weak exfoliators, with a more noticeable effect after a single use, these are still pretty gentle for most skin. When I rely on these as my main exfoliating method, I can use the non-foaming ones a few times a week. Foaming products I use more sparingly regardless of exfoliation due to fear of overcleansing. Either way, they keep my horny layer polished up without pain.
- Peeling gels and bubble packs with added fine scrubbing particles
- Scrubs with soft, smooth scrubbing particles, like rice
- Enzyme scrubs
Extra tip: To further avoid drying and irritation when using bubble packs and enzyme scrubs, substitute them for your foaming cleanser when you use them, rather than using them in addition to your foaming cleanser.
Moderate Strength Exfoliators
Here’s where people often start running into problems. Most of the products in this category are considered “daily use,” but that absolutely doesn’t mean everyone should use them daily. Their penetration and effect on the horny layer is much stronger. When I rely on these for exfoliation, I use them about 3 times a week. I also often only use them on certain zones of the face: BHA only on my nose, for example.
- 2% salicylic acid or 4% betaine salicylate BHA exfoliants at a pH between 3 and 4
- 5-10% AHA products at a pH between 3 and 4
- 5-10% PHA products
These are the kind of products that can really mess up your horny layer if not used carefully and sparingly. That St. Ives scrub I talked about earlier belongs in this category. I restrict my use of chemical exfoliants in this category to about twice a week and only use scrubs this strong once a month as an extra boost, never regularly.
- High-concentration or very low-pH chemical exfoliants
- Facial scrubs with a high density of scrubbing grains, or very scrubby scrubbing grains (most salt or sugar scrubs go in this category)
- Abrasive face towels
Beyond this category lies the scary realm of true chemical peels and dermabrasion. I don’t play with those, or anything else that will leave my face raw and thin after a single use, on purpose. If you choose to explore those options, please do so in a reputable clinical setting and follow instructions exactly!
I hope this post helps some of you with your overexfoliation problems. And if you’re in the market for a new exfoliating product, you can check out my chemical exfoliation and scrub categories for ideas!