Exfoliation promises us smooth and glowy skin. But if exfoliation has been giving you more and more of what you have been trying to get rid of, there is a chance you are doing something wrong. Well, welcome to the hamster wheel. You exfoliate to get rid of rough skin only to get rougher skin. That’s called over-exfoliation. And for me, it’s an occupational hazard, which I experience a little too often. And I’m going to tell you exactly how to heal over-exfoliated skin and do it fast. Some of these things may surprise you.
I over-exfoliate and damage my skin barrier on purpose. I use a lot of different skincare products, usually made with heavy actives, to test them out. Don’t do this at home but there are times when I use a retinol serum several days in a row to see if it’s as “gentle” as it claims to be.
Well, someone has to do it! Otherwise, how will I know and recommend it? So red, irritated skin is my day-to-day look. On top of that, I have rosacea. Any time my skin goes through an ugly phase from over-exfoliation, I take certain steps as suggested by pretty much any dermatologist.
But I did some things differently this time, which made all the difference for my skin! Because there’s healing and there’s healing fast. And for the first time, I healed my over-exfoliated skin very fast! I shared my exact steps and products at the end. Back to the topic at hand!
Exfoliation, in a sense, is controlled damage to the skin. So it’s not easy to understand if you’re doing it right. Physical scrubs, exfoliating toners, peel pads, and serums with chemicals and alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic acid or salicylic acid speed up skin turnover and induce skin renewal.
By gently removing the top dead layer of the skin, exfoliation stimulates cell renewal. As a result, you get healthier skin that looks brighter and feels smoother and softer.
It’s normal to feel a little bit tingly upon using an exfoliating product. But this irritation usually goes away once you wash off the product or once your skin gets used to it.
These are normal and expected. So where do you draw the line? Keep reading to understand what happens with over-exfoliation.
What Is Over-Exfoliation?
Over-exfoliation occurs when your skin can’t renew fast enough to replace what you’ve been removing from your skin. Your skin has its own schedule of getting rid of dead skin cells and replacing them with new ones. This is called the cell renewal cycle.
When you’re exfoliating, you are changing your skin’s own routine of “removal and renewal”. This is normal. But when you intervene aggressively by exfoliating too often or too harshly with a serum or toner, you upset the removal and renewal cycle.
You’re trying to remove faster than your skin can renew. In other words, your exfoliating serum is writing checks your epidermis can’t cash. This is a problem. Because your skin needs to maintain a certain amount of dead skin cells at all times for protection.
When that’s completely gone, the top layer of your skin becomes extremely vulnerable and exposed to all kinds of elements.
Think of it this way, when you’re pouring something through a funnel, you can’t pour at once. You need to stay consistent and let the funnel carry the liquid. There’s a balance between the incoming and outgoing. If you pour very slowly, it’ll take forever. If you pour too fast, it’s going to overflow.
What Are Some Signs of Over-Exfoliated Skin?
Over-exfoliation causes persistent problems for the skin. And these don’t go away fast even if you stop exfoliating. The problems linger.
So how do you know if you’ve over-exfoliated your skin? What are some signs of over-exfoliated skin? Redness, sensitivity, and dryness (1).
But these three are all interrelated with each other. Due to damage to your skin’s protective barrier, your skin is sensitive to anything and everything.
It’s more prone to bacteria, and allergens. When these pathogens find their way into your skin, they cause inflammation, which gives you redness all over.
And because of the lack of a protective barrier, your skin loses moisture consistently, which gives you rough, dry patches all over.
These are common signs you’ve over-exfoliated. In some cases, you might experience breakouts as well.
But what happens if you’re already dealing with these? I, for one, have rosacea. So how do I know if my redness is from rosacea or exfoliation? The answer will vary. But ask yourself these questions to find out if what you’re dealing with is due to over-exfoliation.
- Have I introduced a new exfoliant into my routine?
- How many times have I exfoliated this week?
- Have I used a retinol product this week?
- Is there a chance I used retinol and exfoliants on the same day?
- Did I use two exfoliants in the same routine?
Either way, the answer is always to take a break from exfoliation.
How To Heal Over-Exfoliated Skin
There are things you need to start doing and stop doing right now to recover from over-exfoliated skin. But it’s not the individual steps that help. It’s more of a holistic approach where all steps help cumulatively. Keep reading to find out how to heal over-exfoliated skin fast.
1. Stop exfoliating.
The first step in healing overly-exfoliated skin is to stop exfoliating. I know, it’s incredibly frustrating to start exfoliating only to find out that your skin is getting worse. But your skin needs to regroup and it needs time for that.
Think of a blister. A normal blister heals from the inside out until the skin on the outside becomes redundant and just sheds off. That top skin serves a purpose there.
It’s a temporary blockage to protect the skin against intruders like bacteria. It allows the underlying skin to heal. Because it can’t heal when it’s under constant attack.
When a blister pops prematurely, the revealing skin burns and looks incredibly red. And it takes at least 24 hours until it’s not that sensitive anymore. Do you know what happens during those hours? The skin forms another protective layer.
This is what happens with your face on a smaller scale. You need to let your skin do its thing and build a new protective layer. And exfoliation defeats that purpose.
2. Cleanse once a day.
Using a gentle cleanser when your skin is incredibly sensitive is a no-brainer. Obviously, do not use harsh cleansers or exfoliating cleansers during this time.
If you have a normal cleanser your normal skin doesn’t have a problem with, you don’t necessarily need to buy a new one just for this phase.
Instead, wash your face once a day. It doesn’t matter how gentle a cleanser is. We lose some level of oil from our skin every time we wash. Minimizing that, at least until your skin recovers, can help your skin to heal faster.
I normally double cleanse in the evening and cleanse once in the morning. As I haven’t been wearing makeup, I stopped washing my face in the evening. So whatever I put on my face in the morning (my morning is 1 PM these days) stays there until the next morning.
Gross? Maybe. But I like to let my skin get some of that expensive skincare before it wipes all over my pillow. So, either get a very gentle cleanser, preferably SLS-free, alcohol-free, fragrance-free, and non-foaming in cream form, or just wash your face once a day.
3. Simplify your routine. Or not!
It makes sense to simplify your routine to just a few basics. Because there’s a good chance some of the products simply don’t agree with each other, causing sensitivity. Mo’ products, mo’ problems.
And this sensitivity doesn’t really help your skin when it’s trying to recover. So get rid of all that is exfoliating or anti-aging like retinol. This is what I had been doing, which really reduced and calmed irritation and redness. But this time, I did not stop there.
I maximized my skincare routine! Yes, I stopped using my glycolic acid products and the retinols I’d been testing. But I replaced those with other things. I used as many skincare products as possible for the first time in my life.
I used several masks, serums, and creams in the same routine. They all had one thing in common; they were all anti-inflammatory. Anti-inflammatory skincare ingredients have a soothing effect on the skin, which reduces redness and helps the skin heal faster.
Vitamin C, though it can be irritating in higher concentrations, is an incredible antioxidant that has anti-inflammatory benefits. It soothes irritation and reduces redness. During this time, vitamin C derivatives are better as they’re gentler.
Green tea is another antioxidant that calms the skin and reduces inflammation. Similarly, colloidal oatmeal, chamomile, and aloe are great soothers (2) and replacements for exfoliants. If you have any of these, use them in your routine in the form of a serum, mask, or moisturizer.
4. Use a barrier-restoring moisturizer.
Because of the damage to the skin barrier, your skin loses water fast. To help it out, you can use rich creams to prevent transepidermal water loss. Moisturizers put an occlusive layer on top of the skin and create a barrier, which eliminates dehydration.
But here’s the thing, you need both water and oil. To cover water, you can apply a hydrating serum made with humectants like hyaluronic acid. And to cover moisture, you can apply an occlusive cream made with emollients like oils.
Vaseline is the mother of all occlusives. It’s the latest K-beauty trend called slugging that made people slather petroleum jelly all over. But it’s not really aesthetically pleasing.
Instead, use a moisturizer made with reparative ingredients. Ceramides and niacinamide are exceptionally helpful in moisturizers because they support the skin barrier function (3). Using these types of moisturizers will help a lot to heal over-exfoliated skin fast.
5. Use SPF.
As your skin is exposed and vulnerable to any kind of damage, you should pay extra attention to wearing sunscreen. Sun exposure damages normal skin, let alone already compromised skin.
It depletes your skin’s natural antioxidants. Without its protective barrier, your skin isn’t as resilient against damaging UV rays.
So as the last step of your routine, apply SPF generously. Even if you’re staying inside, use sunscreen to prevent incidental sun exposure from the windows.
Your skin can catch a break with sun protection. With oxidative stress out of the way, your skin can heal better and faster from over-exfoliation.
How Long Does It Take to Recover From Over-Exfoliation?
Obviously, your skin needs time to recover from over-exfoliation. And according to this study, “the skin recovery time is defined as time until the skin reaches its condition at baseline” (4). So you know your skin is recovered when it goes back to the way it looked before any sign of irritation started appearing.
So how long does it take? Depending on your age, the cell renewal cycle takes anywhere between 40-56 days (5). So by then, you have a whole new skin in a tippy-top shape. However, you don’t need to wait that long. Because the severity of your skin sensitivity diminishes day by day.
And this study on sensitive skin syndrome suggests that you can slowly re-introduce the product (your exfoliant) to your skin after two weeks (6). So if all goes well, you can gradually start exfoliating again after two weeks as long as you’re being careful.
How I Healed My Over-Exfoliated Skin
As I said, this was the first time I used this many skin care products in the same routine when my skin was sensitive and irritated.
But my skin never looked better! I’m going to list the products I used to heal my irritated, overly-exfoliated skin. But I think any product with similar formulations will do.
And as I said, I only did a skincare routine once a day. But trust me when I say that this one takes a lot longer than a typical skincare routine. I literally run errands and do some work between steps while waiting for the previous product to absorb.
Because with this much layering, there is potential for pilling, which is what happens when products pile up and rub from your skin. Let me put it this way, the sun is almost gone by the time I apply my SPF.
- In the morning, I start by cleaning with Youth To The People Superfood Cleanser.
- I apply a face mask on damp skin and wait about 30 minutes and wash it off. I love Fresh Rose Face Mask.
- Then I layer a toner for an extra level of hydration. For that, I use Fenty Skin Fat Water Pore-Refining Toner Serum. And I wait about 15 minutes until it fully absorbs.
- Then I apply another hydrating serum, The Inkey List Polyglutamic Acid Hydrating Serum, and I wait for it to set in.
- I move on to the vitamin C serum, which has a thicker, lotion-like texture. Sunday Riley C.E.O. 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum.
- And lastly, I use Fenty Skin Hydra Vizor Invisible Moisturizer SPF 30.
As I said, it’s all about the ingredients. Don’t worry too much about getting the exact same products. Any vitamin C serum or any hydrating and soothing mask will work! I don’t know what made me try layering product after product.
But my skin calmed down on the exact same day I started with this routine. The redness was completely gone the next day. And sensitivity faded away after about 2 days. And I felt comfortable using an exfoliating toner after 1 week!
In case you don’t know, some of these products contain fragrances too. Even that didn’t cause any problems. So don’t be scared to layer just because your skin is reactive. Try it.
Read Next: How To Exfoliate Sensitive Skin
- Duarte, I., Silveira, J., Hafner, M., Toyota, R., & Pedroso, D. (2017). Sensitive skin: review of an ascending concept. Anais brasileiros de dermatologia, 92(4), 521–525. https://doi.org/10.1590/abd1806-4841.201756111
- Wu J. (2008). Anti-inflammatory ingredients. Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD, 7(7 Suppl), s13–s16.
- Purnamawati, S., Indrastuti, N., Danarti, R., & Saefudin, T. (2017). The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clinical medicine & research, 15(3-4), 75–87. https://doi.org/10.3121/cmr.2017.1363
- Maul, J. T., Maul, L. V., Kägi, M., Cheng, P., Anzengruber, F., von Laue, M., Chen, Y., Kägi, M., & Navarini, A. (2020). Skin Recovery After Discontinuation of Long-Term Moisturizer Application: A Split-Face Comparison Pilot Study. Dermatology and therapy, 10(6), 1371–1382. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13555-020-00453-0
- Koster M. I. (2009). Making an epidermis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1170, 7–10. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04363.x
- Lev-Tov, H., & Maibach, H. I. (2012). The sensitive skin syndrome. Indian journal of dermatology, 57(6), 419–423. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5154.103059