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How to exfoliate: What to know about over exfoliating skin

Published: July 13, 2023

Written by: Emily Orofino

Young woman applying facial cleanser.

What is exfoliation?

Using a cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen are three “basics” for skin care recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. But many people also swear by exfoliating, a simple step that can make a significant impact. Exfoliating is the process of removing the layer of dead skin cells that sit on the surface of the skin. While exfoliation is best known for the face and body, you can also find products for scalp exfoliation (which aims to help remove buildup at the roots) and even lip exfoliators, which claim to remove flakes and dead skin.

What are the benefits of exfoliating?

Exfoliating can help fade dark spots, unclog pores and brighten skin, explains Robyn Gmyrek, MD, a dermatologist at UnionDerm in New York City. Removing the dead skin also helps to increase the absorption of other topical products applied to skin, including moisturizers and serums, making them more effective.

Is too much exfoliation bad for your skin?

More is definitely not better when it comes to exfoliation; in fact, over-exfoliating can end up leaving your skin dry and irritated. Keep reading to learn how to exfoliate correctly, plus what to do if you accidentally over-exfoliate.

The two types of exfoliation

Physical exfoliation

Not all exfoliation is created equal. “Physical exfoliation manually removes dead skin cells with something like a washcloth or loofah, or a scrub,” says Geeta Yadav, MD, a dermatologist and founder of FACET Dermatology in Toronto, Ontario. You’re actually buffing off the dead cells. Physical exfoliants, such as face scrubs, rely on any number of ingredients to do exactly that; for example, the Differin daily brightening exfoliator for face uses jojoba beads that dissolve in water, while Cetaphil extra gentle facial scrub uses micro-fine particles. For a body exfoliator, consider Differin acne clearing body scrub with 2% salicylic acid, which uses exfoliating beads made of vitamin E (which also dissolve in water) or Dove exfoliating body polish body scrub. Another option is exfoliating gloves, which you can use in the shower to buff skin from head to toe.

Chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliants, on the other hand, use ingredients such as alpha hydroxy acids (which include glycolic acid and lactic acid), beta hydroxy acids or polyhydroxy acids to help dissolve the bonds securing the dead cells to the surface of the skin in order to remove them, Dr. Yadav explains.

You’ll typically find these in cleansers, toners, peel pads or leave-on treatments, like CeraVe skin renewing glycolic nightly exfoliating treatment. They’re also found in body washes, such as CeraVe body wash with salicylic acid and Neutrogena Body Clear body wash.

How often should you exfoliate your face?

According to dermatologists, it’s hard to pinpoint a universal guideline for how often you should be exfoliating. “It depends on both your skin type and the aggressiveness of your exfoliation method,” says Dr. Gmyrek. People with more sensitive skin may need to exfoliate less often than, say, those with oily skin.

But, in general, once you find the best exfoliator to address your concerns, it’s a good idea to start using it once per week, gradually increasing to two to three times per week, she says. Follow the directions on the particular product you pick and pay close attention to how your skin responds.

Signs of over exfoliation

“Over-exfoliating is very common. If some is good, then more must be better, right? No!” says Dr. Gmyrek. In fact, too much exfoliating can strip the skin of its natural oils and lead to excessive dryness, which can — ironically — trigger the overproduction of oil and lead to breakouts, she notes. “Over-exfoliating damages the skin barrier, which helps keep the skin balanced, nourished and protected from environmental factors,” agrees Dr. Yadav.

Redness, dry skin and flaking, as well as breakouts, can indicate that you’ve gone too far. And if you’ve really done a number on your skin, you may notice a burning or stinging sensation when you apply any product. “This means that there are breaks in the skin and the barrier is compromised,” Dr. Gmyrek says.

What to do if you over exfoliate

If you find yourself with any of the symptoms mentioned above, immediately stop exfoliating, advises Dr. Gmyrek. That also means double-checking to make sure that none of your other skin care products contain exfoliating ingredients, such as retinoids or benzoyl peroxide, which is often found in acne-fighting products.

You can streamline your routine and use only a gentle, sulfate-free cleanser (sulfates are common cleansing ingredients but can dry out the skin) and a simple moisturizer that contains ingredients such as soothing colloidal oatmeal and ceramides to help heal the skin barrier, she suggests.

Exactly how long to give your skin a break depends on how aggressively you’ve over-exfoliated, but consider waiting at least a week, Dr. Yadav advises. When you do start back up, ease your way in by exfoliating only once per week, gradually increasing the frequency if your skin can tolerate it.

Those who are going gently back into an exfoliating skin routine can also keep an eye out for products suited to the task. One option to try: CeraVe SA cream for rough & bumpy skin, which pairs salicylic acid with hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and ceramides, which help repair the skin barrier.

This content is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Consult with your health care provider before taking any vitamins or supplements, and prior to beginning or changing any health care practices.