What is exfoliation?
We’ve all heard that exfoliating the skin is a critical step in our skincare routine. But, what exactly is exfoliation? What does it do for the skin? How do we do it right? And how do we do it wrong?
Simply put, exfoliation is the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. Regularly exfoliating your skin can prevent clogged pores from forming and dead skin from building up, leaving your skin looking brighter and healthier. Now it starts to get a little more complicated. There are 3 different types of exfoliation: desquamation (the skin’s natural exfoliation cycle), chemical exfoliation, and physical exfoliation.
Desquamation (the skin’s natural exfoliation cycle)
Did you know that our skin exfoliates itself naturally? Desquamation is a natural exfoliation process that takes about 28 days on average to complete. During desquamation, our skin cells are born, grow, mature, and finally, die and naturally shed right off. But, because a lot of people live in polluted, urban areas, there are many factors that can disrupt the skin-shedding process. Factors such as harmful UV radiation from the sun, free radicals from air pollution, and random particles of dust and dirt can throw your skin’s natural exfoliation cycle off balance. When this happens, you end up with a lot of dead skin cells, sebum, dust and dirt all over your face, which clogs your pores, making it unable to breathe, and ~ TA-DA ~ you’ve got whiteheads, blackheads and potential full-blown, inflamed acne on your hands.
SIDE NOTE: Some people’s desquamation cycle is much longer or shorter than 28 days. Most people with acne and folliculitis create and shed dead skin cells much faster than average, and those dead skin cells clump together with sebum, the body’s natural oil, to form clogs in the pores. That is why acne is largely an inherited condition, because it depends a lot on the genetically predetermined desquamation rate of your skin.
If done correctly, exfoliating the skin is an absolutely essential part of your skincare routine. Proper exfoliation has many amazing benefits, such as allowing skincare products to penetrate the skin deeper, unclogging pores, preventing acne, evening out skin tone, stimulating collagen production, reducing fine lines and wrinkles, and overall leading to healthier, brighter skin. Unfortunately, it’s fairly easy to overdo it with the exfoliators, whether it’s because of mixing different types of exfoliants together, applying too often, or scrubbing too hard with a manual scrub.
Before we get into what happens when you over-exfoliate and how to exfoliate properly, it’s important to understand the difference between our two types of exfoliators:
Chemical exfoliators vs. physical exfoliators
Chemical exfoliation: Chemical exfoliators contain gentle acids that remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin to make way for new, healthy skin cells. They also dissolve the sludge of dead skin cells and sebum that clog pores and create blemishes. Consistently applying a chemical exfoliator leaves you with clearer, brighter, healthier skin. Common chemical exfoliators include alpha hydroxy acids like lactic, glycolic or mandelic acid, and beta hydroxy acids such as salicylic acid. Other chemical exfoliators include retinoids and benzoyl peroxide.
Physical exfoliation: Physical or “manual” exfoliators are scrubs that contain some type of rough material like sugar, grain or ground up nuts. These small, rough beads are rubbed against the skin to slough away dead skin cells and remove the grime that sinks down into pores. Other physical exfoliators include washcloths, skincare brushes, or anything else abrasive that rubs against your skin.
What causes over-exfoliation?
You have five layers of skin on your face. The youngest, healthiest skin cells are at the bottom layer, while the outer layer is composed of dead skin cells. The ultimate goal of exfoliating the skin is to help slough off that outer layer so new, healthier cells can come to the surface.
It’s easy to over-do exfoliation, and then all its beneficial effects go out the window. You can over-do it by scrubbing too hard or too often with a physical exfoliator (very gentle scrubbing is all that’s needed), or by using chemical exfoliators too often, or using skincare acids with too high of a concentration for your skin type. Another common cause of over-exfoliation is combining too many different active skincare products together. Most skincare experts recommend using only one chemical exfoliator at the same time, or they recommend alternating applications between two different exfoliating products.
What is the skin barrier?
The problem is that over-exfoliation can actually remove too many skin cells and strip away your skin’s natural barrier. As mentioned earlier, your skin is made up of layers, each of which performs important functions in protecting your body. Your skin barrier or “Stratum Corneum” is the outermost layer of the skin and is essentially a wall of dead skin cells (corneocytes) held together by lipids (the skin’s natural fats) that functions to prevent unhealthy outsiders from breaking in - like UV radiation, pollution, bacteria, dirt, and toxins. This barrier also maintains proper skin hydration and balances lipid levels. If you over-strip your barrier through exfoliation, you can actually create a lot of concerns that proper exfoliation is supposed to help with: things like acne, flaking, and dry skin.
What is the acid mantle?
Your skin barrier is also slightly acidic, which helps to create a kind of buffer against the growth of harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi that could damage your skin and lead to infections and other skin conditions. The skin’s ideal pH is slightly acidic, about 5.5, so anything too alkaline (with a higher pH) can disrupt its ability to function properly. It’s important to know the pH of your skincare products because they can range from 3.5 all the way up to 8.2. It’s always best to cleanse and exfoliate with a pH that’s slightly more acidic than your skin’s natural pH.
The acid mantle’s main job is to keep the good stuff (such as moisture) in, and block out the bad stuff (such as bacteria and pollution). When the skin’s pH is off and/or it gets stripped from abrasive scrubs, it opens the door to inflammatory skin disorders including psoriasis, eczema, acne, premature aging, and even itching, burning, stinging skin that feels uncomfortable and becomes reactive to a lot of different products.
What does over-exfoliation look like?
So, now that you know what causes over-exfoliation and why it happens, let’s explore some of some of the main symptoms of over-exfoliation:
- Redness: Experiencing slight redness or pinkness is totally normal after physical exfoliation, but if your skin remains red for an extended period of time after either physical or chemical exfoliation, then you probably over-did it.
- Extreme dryness, flaking and cracking: Dry, flaky skin that’s not painful or irritated is actually a good sign that beneficial exfoliation is occurring. But, if the skin becomes painfully dry and feels raw, chapped, cracked, red or super tight, then those are signs that you’ve exfoliated and you’ll need to back off a bit.
- Acne: Over-exfoliation can weaken the skin so it can’t defend itself against bacterial infections which makes it much easier for pimples and congestion to form. Plus, if you use a physical exfoliator over active acne, you can actually spread the bacteria around on the skin, causing more acne to form.
- Increased oil production: When you over-exfoliate the skin, you strip away your skin’s natural barrier and deplete your skin’s natural oils. When this happens, your skin will respond by overproducing oil to try to balance itself and rehydrate, creating a greasy look to your skin.
- Shine: The skin may develop a tight, wax-like texture if you’ve been over-exfoliating, which is a sign that the exfoliation is wiping away too many skin cells and natural oils, allowing premature exposure of underlying skin. This symptom is harder to pinpoint because it can sometimes be mistaken for a healthy glow.
- Other skin concerns: Over-exfoliating the skin can bring on other skin concerns such as eczema, dermatitis, fungal acne and premature aging. This happens because when you over-exfoliate, you remove the only protective barrier that your skin has. This means that skin damage and inflammation happen much easier because you’ve scrubbed off your skin’s outer protective shield.
How to treat over-exfoliated skin
If you experience any of the symptoms of over-exfoliation, whether from scrubbing your face too hard or from applying too many acids, then the first thing you have to do is to stop exfoliating! Stop for about 4-7 days to allow your skin to recover to its baseline texture. It may take longer for some, so make sure you wait for the signs of over-exfoliation to completely fade.
Here are some other tips for treating over-exfoliated skin and for avoiding it in the future:
- Apply some ice or a cold compress over the affected area. This will soothe the burning sensations, calm the skin, and prevent further inflammation.
- Moisturize a lot. Even if you have very acne-prone skin, you should apply a non-comedogenic moisturizer several times a day to help rehydrate your skin and repair the protective barrier.
- Apply a soothing product that treats inflammation like aloe vera gel, hydrocortisone cream, panthenol (pro-vitamin B5), or a Vitamin C serum over the affected areas so your skin can heal faster.
- Eliminate skin care products like foaming cleansers (which are way too drying), cleansers or soaps that leave your skin feeling tight or squeaky clean, retinol products (which are too harsh to use on compromised skin) and any instruments like loofahs or buffers that feel rough on the skin.
- Avoid using products that contain high concentrations of alcohol.
- Reduce the concentration of your chemical exfoliator. You can do this by mixing it with a few drops of water or with a pea-sized amount of moisturizer, or by purchasing a new product with a lower percentage of active ingredients.
Products to use to repair over-exfoliation
The best thing to do is to keep your skincare routine as simple as possible. Using multiple face washes, oils or serums can really mess with your skin’s pH, causing more issues on top of the already-existing damage from over-exfoliating.
- Vitamin C or panthenol serum: soothes the skin and helps expedite the healing process.
- Hydrocortisone cream: used to treat swelling, itching and irritation.
- Aloe Vera: contains soothing, moisturizing, and cooling properties and is used to heal burns and inflammation.
- Hyaluronic acid: a powerful humectant (substance used to keep things moist) that can help hydrate the skin and resolve any tightness, flaking, or irritation that over-exfoliation may have caused.
- Peptides: peptides are amino acids that are the building blocks of certain proteins needed by the skin, such as collagen and elastin. When applied topically, peptides can boost collagen in the skin while decreasing inflammation and boosting moisture retention in the skin. This can help soothe and restore over-stripped skin.
- MSM: A compound found naturally in our skin, MSM can significantly improve redness, itching, inflammation, hydration and skin color in people with rosacea. MSM is known for reducing inflammation, and making the cell wall more permeable, thereby helping vital nutrients flow through. This can help restore damaged skin back to health.
- Sunscreen: wear sunscreen every single day to protect your compromised skin from even more damage.
When can you start exfoliating again?
Once your skin has fully recovered, start by exfoliating once or twice a week. If you don’t experience any issues, you can gradually work up to 3-4 times a week. Most people with blemish-prone skin get the best clearing results from exfoliating at least once a day, but it can take many weeks to slowly build up to that level of exfoliation.
You can also try testing different chemical exfoliants to see which one works best for you. For example, try using a gentle lactic acid or mandelic acid (both AHA’s) exfoliator for two weeks, then switch to a salicylic acid (BHA) product and note how your skin responds. Then, choose one exfoliator that works best for you and stick to a regular routine with it. In general, sensitive and dry, and aging skin types will love lactic, glycolic or mandelic acids, while younger, oily, or acne-prone skin does better with salicylic acid.
Final thoughts on exfoliation
The bottom line with exfoliation is to take it slowly, pay attention to your own skin, and watch for signs that you could be over-doing it. If you proceed with caution, then it’s way less likely that you’ll over-exfoliate your skin and have to pause your skin-clearing routine while you let your skin heal. There are so many amazing benefits to exfoliating the skin regularly, so it’s totally worth it to experiment and find a regime that works for you. It all comes down to just what kind of exfoliator you use, how often you use it, and what other products you use along with it.