How Much Exfoliation is Too Much?

Hi Kerry,

My skin has gotten a lot better since I started exfoliating. But sometimes I wonder if I’m overdoing it. How can I tell how much exfoliation is too much?

You can get too much of a good thing! Exfoliation threshold varies from person to person based on skin type and the products you’re using. Oily skin can generally handle more exfoliation because it has a stronger lipid barrier. But if you’re too heavy-handed with scrubs, acids, and exfoliating tools, your skin can start to show signs of irritation, no matter your skin type. Read on for a few telltale signs of over-exfoliation and what you can do to keep your skin healthy.

Signs of Over-exfoliation

Over-exfoliating disrupts your acid mantle—a layer of lipids that sits on the surface of skin and protects it from outside irritants. Physical exfoliation is the biggest culprit of acid mantle disruption, but overusing peels can also have this effect.

Skin with a compromised barrier will become red, itchy, irritated, tingly, and might even breakout more. If you’re really going too far with exfoliation, your skin can develop a waxy or plastic-like sheen. This happens when you’ve removed so much of the surface skin that you’ve exposed hyper-smooth, immature skin that reflects a lot of light. It might sound pretty, but in real life it looks a little freaky and is a telltale sign that your skin has had enough. If you have any of these symptoms, lay off exfoliating for at least 1-2 weeks to help your skin recover.

How Often to Exfoliate

Everyone is different, but my rule of thumb is generally 2-3 times per week for oily and acne-prone skin and 1-2 times per week for dry skin. The products you use also have a huge impact on recommended frequency. For example, some peels are gentler than others. Look to the bottle instructions for usage guidance, and look for peels like my TCA Multi-Acid Face Peel that don’t mess with your acid mantle. How can you tell? If it self-neutralizes (doesn’t need to be washed off), it probably isn’t disrupting your natural balance. Also, if you start using retinol, you may need to adjust your routine. Retinol also exfoliates skin and can cause irritation when layered with other exfoliators.

How to Prevent Irritation

One of the biggest culprits of irritation is face scrub. I say, ditch it right away. Try dermaplaning instead. Dermaplaning evenly removes dead surface skin without creating little micro-tears in the healthy skin below like a scrub can. When in doubt, start small by using your exfoliating products (you can safely layer a peel, dermaplaning, and micro-needling) just once a week and gradually work up to more frequent treatments to give your skin time to adjust. After exfoliating, apply a hydrating serum and moisturizer to help your skin replenish its lipid barrier.

Think you might be overdoing exfoliation? Let me know in the comments!