Are You Over-Exfoliating Your Skin? Here's How to Find Out

Plus, how to heal over-exfoliated skin and stop doing it.

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Exfoliation is an essential part of any skincare routine, no matter what your skin type, but there's a fine line between it being beneficial and harmful. If you jump to exfoliate at the sight of breakouts or dull skin, you may have experienced over-exfoliation.

Over-exfoliating happens to the best of us. From increased sensitivity and irritations, it can be uncomfortable dealing with this skincare woe. Fortunately, it's possible to get your complexion back on track with a few changes to your routine. We spoke with skincare experts for advice on treating over-exfoliated skin and preventing it from happening altogether.

What are the signs of over-exfoliated skin?

Irritated, sensitive skin commonly signals over-exfoliated skin. "One of the first signs of any skin irritation, including over-exfoliation, is that your skin will burn or sting when applying lotions to it," says Robert Finney, M.D., a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist at Entière Dermatology.

Taylor Worden, an esthetician and founder of Taylor Worden Skin, adds that other signs your skin is over-exfoliated are redness, dryness, irritation, burning, peeling, a raw tender feeling, sensitivity, a stinging sensation, rashes, and even breakouts.

How should you care for over-exfoliated skin?

The first step, according to Hadley King, M.D., a New York City board-certified dermatologist, is to stop using potentially irritating active ingredients, like retinoids, vitamin C, and hydroxy acids.

Next, take a break from exfoliating altogether. "If you have over-exfoliated skin that causes more dryness and peeling, it can be tempting to exfoliate the dryness off," says Dr. Finney. "Doing this will just perpetuate the cycle, so stop any exfoliation, including the use of microbeads and alpha and beta-hydroxy acids."

Switch to gentle moisturizing formulas with ingredients like ceramides, niacinamide, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, jojoba oil, and aloe vera. "Use a gentle cleanser (or just rinse with water!), use a thick moisturizing cream and sunscreen," says Dr. Finney. "Things that are anti-inflammatory, hydrating, or that help repair the barrier of your skin are necessary." If you don't have acne-prone skin, Dr. Finney suggests using a thicker ointment like Aquaphor ($5; to help soothe and moisturize your skin.

The best thing you can do for your skin is to cut back on extensive routines and stick to the basics—cleansing, moisturizing, and sun protection. "Less product is more for your skin to heal," says Worden.

How can you prevent over-exfoliated skin?

Start slow and listen to your skin. "Not everyone fits into the classic skin types, so pick an exfoliator that matches your skin concerns," says Dr. Finney. If you have acne-prone or oily skin, he recommends choosing an exfoliator with salicylic acid. Dry skin types benefit from looking for an exfoliator with hydrating ingredients in its formula. Those who are sensitive should look for poly-hydroxy acids, which is a gentle form of chemical exfoliation.

"When adding exfoliation into your routine, I generally recommend starting twice per week," says Dr. Hadley. "The frequency can be increased as tolerated if the skin is not too dry or irritated." Oily skin types can exfoliate up to three to four times a week, whereas sensitive skin may only need one.

In addition to skin type, other factors to consider when exfoliating are the weather. "Exfoliating is easier to tolerate during the warmer months, so frequency...changes with the seasons," says Dr. Finney. Ultimately, it's all about finding what works best for you.

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  1. Algiert-Zielińska B, Mucha P, Rotsztejn H. Comparative evaluation of skin moisture after topical application of 10% and 30% lactobionic acid. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2018;17(6):1096-1100. doi:10.1111/jocd.12485

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