When is Exfoliation Too Much?

It is the age of the skintellectual. We make informed purchasing decisions; we know our ingredients, we are less likely to fall for false marketing claims. And that’s great! But that doesn’t mean that in our pursuit of healthy skin, sometimes we don’t go a bit overboard.

Prime example? Exfoliation.

And we are not talking about apricot kernel scrubs. Oh no, please, we are smarter than that. It’s the chemical exfoliants we reach for and mess up our moisture barrier.

It is easy to understand why. Chemical exfoliants are one of the few skincare products that can give great results almost overnight. Acids treat and prevent blemishes and ease congestion. The skin is smoother and softer. Over time, they help fade sun damage and hyperpigmentation, resulting in brighter skin. The results can be addictive.

Repeat after us – more is not better. It is always better to err on the side of caution. Using a chemical exfoliant once, or at a maximum twice per week, is more than enough for the majority of people.

Stratum Corneum acts as a shield and keeps our skin healthy. It keeps out pollutants, bacteria, and other irritants. Likewise, it keeps the moisture in. If we keep attacking it with acids day in and day out, it is a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, a compromised moisture barrier can happen to any skin type.

How does chemical exfoliation work?

Desquamation is the process by which our skin exfoliates itself. The dead skin cells shed daily. For one reason or another, this process can slow down. Chemical exfoliants will accelerate the process. Chemical exfoliation works by loosening the bonds between the dead skin cells. In turn, the dead skin cells in the epidermis will loosen and slough off.

Alpha-Hydroxy acids (like Glycolic, Lactic, and Mandelic acid) are water-soluble, work on the surface of the skin, and cause the dead skin cells to slough off. They are most suitable for people with dry and dehydrated skin, as they can also work as humectants.

Beta-Hydroxy Acid is oil-soluble and as such, works deeper in the skin to refine the pores and break the bonds between the dead skin cells. BHA also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It is best suited for people with oily, combination, and congested skin.

Enzyme exfoliants are a great option for people with sensitive skin. This would include Papaya, Pineapple, Pumpkin, and Pomegranate enzymes. Enzymes work by scavenging the dead, dehydrated skin cells and breaking down the keratin.

How to tell if you over-exfoliated your skin?

The skin might feel taut and uncomfortable. Alternatively, people with oily and combination skin might experience an increase in oiliness. Flaking, peeling, and redness are other signs to look for. If you went well and truly overboard, when you apply skincare products, they sting on contact. Over-exfoliated skin is also prone to inflammation, which in turn can lead to breakouts. Last, but not least, and this is purely anecdotal (why yes, we might have over-exfoliated our skin once or twice) – when you over-exfoliate, the skin can get an unnatural waxy sheen to it.

What to do when you over-exfoliated your skin?

Stop all chemical exfoliants immediately. In fact, we would recommend to stop using any active ingredients.
Use a gentle low pH cleanser and products that soothe and repair the damaged moisture barrier. In moisturisers and serums, look for ingredients like Ceramides, Urea, Glycerin, and Sterols to help restore the skin. Hyaluronic acid replenishes. Avoid ingredients that can potentially irritate the skin like fragrance, alcohol, and essential oils.
We would recommend following this schedule for a month to allow your skin to return to normal.

Roberta Striga