Signs That You've Over-Exfoliated Your Skin — Plus How to Fix It

December 20, 2022
Alanna Martine Kilkeary
By: Alanna Martine Kilkeary | by L'Oréal
person exfoliating their skin with a towel

Exfoliating your skin and sloughing away dead skin cells from its surface can offer plenty of positive skin results such as reduced dullness and improved skin texture. But exfoliating too much or opting to use harsh physical exfoliators can actually cause more harm than good. Ahead, find out how to tell if you’ve over-exfoliated your skin and what you can do about it.

Signs of Over-Exfoliated Skin

According to board-certified dermatologist, founder of Kwan Dermatology and consultant Dr. William Kwan, you can spot over-exfoliated skin because it looks irritated, red and chafed. Over-exfoliated skin may also feel very dry, sensitive and experience breakouts. If your skin is looking worse after exfoliating — or after introducing a new chemical or physical exfoliator to your regimen — it’s likely that over-exfoliating is the culprit. 

We also spoke to NYC-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Marisa Garshick, who said to look out for these specific signs if you think you might be over-exfoliating. “The skin may appear red, flaky, or dry and be associated with stinging, burning or itching,” she says. 

Of course, always double check with your board-certified dermatologist if you’re experiencing these symptoms. 

What to Do if You’ve Over-Exfoliated

If you’ve taken a look at your complexion and think your skin is over-exfoliated, you’ll need to adjust your routine accordingly. “It is best to avoid any harsh active ingredients such as harsh soaps, abrasive scrubs, retinoids, benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and other exfoliants, as the skin may be more sensitive and more likely to react or become irritated,” says Dr. Garshick. Here, find more steps on what to do if you’ve over-exfoliated your skin. 

STEP 1: Take a Break From Exfoliating

First things first, no more exfoliation — at least for now. Dr. Kwan suggests giving your skin a break from exfoliation to allow it time to recover. If you keep going, it’s probable that your skin will only become increasingly irritated.

STEP 2: Switch to Gentler Formulas

Even if your skin can normally handle more potent products, over-exfoliated skin may not be able to. Play it safe and stick to Dr. Kwan’s recommendation, which is to use only gentle cleansers and moisturizers while your skin recovers. Try the CeraVe Cream-to-Foam Hydrating Cleanser for its formula made with hydrating hyaluronic acid and ceramides to help protect your skin’s barrier. We also love the Youth to the People Superfood Cleanser.

cerave hydrating cleanser, youth to the people superfood cleanser

STEP 3: Address Skin Irritation and Chafing

To help comfort over-exfoliated skin, try using a soothing balm like the La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Baume B5 or a protective ointment, like the CeraVe Healing Ointment.

When to Start Exfoliating Again

Only after your skin is feeling back to normal should you go back to exfoliating regularly again. Start small by incorporating an exfoliator into your routine once a week and build up your tolerance to a few times a week. A board-certified dermatologist can also help you determine how often you should be exfoliating based on your skin type — more on that below.

How Often Should You Exfoliate?

According to Dr. Garshick, this answer depends entirely on your skin type and what you’re using to exfoliate. “For example, some gentle exfoliating acids may be incorporated into cleansers designed for routine use, while exfoliants with high concentrations of exfoliating acids may be used two to four times per month. Those with dry or sensitive skin should be cautious when exfoliating to not cause additional dryness or irritation to the skin and to use products that are gentle on the skin.”

If you have acne or oily-prone skin, you may do better exfoliating every other or every day. Your dermatologist can help you determine what products to choose to exfoliate and how often you should be exfoliating. 

How to Avoid Over-Exfoliating

After you’ve properly taken care of your skin and helped to reduce visible signs of irritation caused by over-exfoliating, you can slowly start reintroducing exfoliation to your skincare routine. Try these five steps to get your exfoliating regimen back on track.

STEP 1: Weigh Your Options

There’s more than one way to exfoliate, and the option you choose could impact how your skin reacts. Selecting a product that isn’t right for your skin type makes it all the more likely you’ll see over-exfoliation or skin irritation. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, those with oily skin may be better suited to stronger physical exfoliation, while those with dry, sensitive, dark spot- or acne-prone skin may prefer a mild chemical exfoliator — one of our favorites is  the Lancôme Absolue Rose 80 Toner with salicylic acid. If you want to try something stronger, we love  the INNBeauty Project Down to Tone Toner, which has a six-acid blend plus antioxidants for brighter, more even-toned skin. Again, your dermatologist can help you choose the proper exfoliation product and routine.
lancome l'absolu rose toner, innbeauty project down to tone toner

STEP 2: Consider the Rest of Your Routine

It’s possible that the products you’re already using have made your skin more sensitive to exfoliation. If you’re using other active ingredients like retinol or benzoyl peroxide, make sure to alternate days when you’re exfoliating and using those ingredients so that you’re not increasing your skin’s sensitivity. 

STEP 3: Find the Right Frequency

The most important thing you can do when trying to avoid over-exfoliating your skin is to be cautious with how often you exfoliate. How often you exfoliate should depend on your skin type and the exfoliation method selected; the more aggressive the method, the less often you’ll need to exfoliate. 

To determine what’s right for you, start slow. Dr. Kwan typically recommends exfoliating only once a week. If you think your skin can handle more, gradually increase the frequency, being sure to look out for signs of irritation or over-exfoliation.

STEP 4: Be Gentle During Application and Removal

How you apply (and remove) your exfoliator matters. Whether you’re using a face scrub or an alpha-hydroxy-acid (AHA) or beta-hydroxy-acid (BHA), be sure to apply the product gently in small, circular motions. For a physical exfoliator for the body, the AAD says to only massage it into your skin for about 30 seconds. Then, rinse off with lukewarm water. 

STEP 5: Always Follow With Moisturizer or Oil

This tip may not prevent over exfoliation, but it will keep your skin looking its best after exfoliating. Because exfoliating can be drying, it’s a must to apply moisturizer afterward. We love the Skinceuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2, or the Kopari Beauty Moisture Whipped Ceramide Cream.

skinceuticals triple lipid moisturizer, kopari moisturizer

The 5 Best Gentle Exfoliators to Try

L’Oréal Paris Revitalift 5% Glycolic Acid Peeling Exfoliating Toner

Glycolic acid can help give you a brighter, more revitalized looking complexion. This toner, infused with the ingredient, works to slough off dead, dull skin cells and give your skin a boost with every use. It will also help decongest and minimize the appearance of large pores. This formula also contains soothing aloe to ensure that your skin doesn’t feel dry or stripped.

L’Oréal Paris Revitalift 5% Glycolic Acid Peeling Exfoliating Toner

La Roche-Posay Salicylic Acid Treatment 

Struggling with breakouts? Try this exfoliating treatment that works to clarify the skin. It has a combination of salicylic acid and glycolic acid to help reveal brighter, more even-toned and textured skin. The soothing niacinamide also helps keep your skin looking calm and smooth.

La Roche-Posay Salicylic Acid Treatment

IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores Glycolic Acid Serum

This potent serum helps reveal softer, smoother skin with glycolic acid. We especially love it because it contains hyaluronic acid, which works to help the skin retain moisture and keep it looking fresh, hydrated and soft.

IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores Glycolic Acid Serum

Mario Badescu Botanical Exfoliating Scrub

If you want to try an exfoliating scrub, opt for this pick. It has fine grounds of ivory palm seeds, plus aloe vera, ginger and ginkgo to help reveal soft, polished skin and won’t dry you out.

Mario Badescu Botanical Exfoliating Scrub

Biossance Squalane + Glycolic Renewal Mask

Give your skin a detox with this renewal mask that exfoliates with glycolic, lactic and malic acids. It also contains soothing squalane to ensure your skin stays nourished and peel-free.

Biossance Squalane + Glycolic Renewal Mask
Photo: Chaunte Vaughn

Read more

Back to top