What To Do If You’ve Over-Exfoliated

Caitlin S. Miller
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over exfoliate skin

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If your cleansing routine involves an exfoliant, listen up. Whether you use a scrub with granules, an acidic exfoliant, or an actual tool to get your skin squeaky clean, chances are you’ve, at one point or another, gotten yourself a little too clean. You know what we mean. Instead of skin feeling baby smooth, it’s raw, red, and quite painful. If you notice excessive dryness, redness, and some little bumps over your hair follicles, chances are you’re guilty of over-exfoliating. To remedy this painful occurrence, we chatted with Dr. S. Manjula Jegasothy, board-certified dermatologist and founder of the Miami Skin Institute to figure out exactly how to treat over-exfoliated skin.

The real causes of over-exfoliation.
Although they’re being phased out, granule scrubs—especially ones with microbeads—are still found in many beauty cabinets, but as it turns out, in addition to being harmful to the environment, they’re harmful to your skin! “I’ve never advocated for them in the past because they clog, enlarge pores, and cause breakouts,” says Dr. Jegasothy. She says chemical exfoliants are actually a better bet in the exfoliation world. Just be sure to make sure you have the right concentration: Too high of a concentration can cause pigmentation issues or even scarring. It’s better to stick with low concentration chemical exfoliants, she adds.

Surprisingly, sonic brushes are rarely causes of over-exfoliation. “One would have to use it constantly and for more than 30 minutes at a time to enact any real harm on the skin with a sonic brush,” she explains. “I often do recommend for my patients to use sonic brushes with their light glycolic or salicylic acid chemical exfoliant washes. There has been studies to show the two together remove makeup, sweat and dirt [more] than either one alone!” Plus, a sonic brush helps chemical exfoliants from collecting in the creases of your face (the most common areas for over exfoliation).

The secret side effects.
According to Dr. Jegasothy, over-exfoliation is bad for the skin because it causes a temporary or chronic inflammation of the surface skin cells and even hair follicles, which can then become infected by bacteria and become very difficult to treat with over-the-counter creams. “In other words, over-exfoliation can cause a chronic bad rash on your skin that you caused yourself!” she says. Plus it’s painful!

How to save your skin.
If you do over-exfoliate, don’t worry, your skin isn’t doomed. Simply back off! “Skip exfoliation to for two to three weeks,” says Dr. Jegasothy. “Wash with a very gentle cleanser, such as CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser ($11, ulta.com), which will restore the skin’s natural epidermal barrier, so that it does not become infected,” she adds. “If you have an inflammation of the hair follicles, Cortizone-10 ($9, walgreens.com) applied twice daily may be helpful and may resolve any redness or irritation within three to five days.” If your skin is bleeding or there’s open pus (gross, but important!), Dr. Jegasothy suggests using a topical antibiotic to avoid infection. And of course, if your rash or dry skin persists or worsens for longer than two weeks, visit your dermatologist.

How often you should really be exfoliating?
In general, dermatologists recommend exfoliating once a day, says Dr. Jegasothy. However, some with sensitive skin might only be able to handle exfoliation once or twice a week, she says. It also depends on your skin type. “If your skin is oily or you exercise often, exfoliation may be necessary daily,” she says. If you have mature, flaking, or dull skin, (often times caused by a buildup of dead skin layers caused by lowered hormones from menopause), exfoliating daily with a chemical exfoliant such as glycolic acid might be necessary. Unfortunately, trial and error is the best way to figure out how frequently you should be exfoliating.

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