Exfoliation is one of the most important steps to your skincare routine (just ask any derm). It’s because when you exfoliate, there’s this instant gratification of your skin feeling softer and smoother. We all revel in those immediate results since many other skincare products seem to take their sweet time. So, it’s easy to see why people might go overboard with an exfoliator — whether it’s because you were scrubbing too abrasively with a physical exfoliator or doing too many acids in a row. More’s better, right? Unfortunately, you can have too much of a good thing and the worst part about over-exfoliation is that you don’t realize what you’re doing until the damage is done.
The signs are pretty easy to tell if you’ve accidentally over-exfoliated your skin: “Redness, burning, and irritation are all common telltale signs that you have over-exfoliated,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Kavita Mariwalla, FAAD. “My patients describe it as their skin feels a little ‘raw,’” she says. When your skin’s barrier is broken through it can even create micro-tears in your skin, adds Dr. Jared Jagdeo, a board-certified dermatologist and Ever/Body’s chief medical officer.
The good news: You’re not simply stuck with a red face. First thing’s first, if the irritation looks and feels serious, then it’s best to schedule an appointment with a pro, just in case. Meanwhile, there are derm-approved tricks and products you can rely on if you need immediate relief (or if you want to help heal a more mild case). Ahead, our expert recommendations for soothing over-exfoliated skin.
Do you have to quit your skincare routine if you’ve over-exfoliated?
Stomping the brakes on your entire routine is a gut reaction to seeing irritated, red, and angry skin since you might feel like you should cut out all of your current products in addition to the offending acids or scrubs. However, you shouldn’t ditch your whole lineup, since many products can protect and soothe rather than continue to buff and slough.
Your pared-down routine “depends on how severe the irritation is from over-exfoliating,” says Mariwalla. In general, she notes that anyone looking to heal over-exfoliated skin “should 100% avoid products with chemical acids, physical exfoliators, retinol/retinoids, fragrance, and alcohol that will cause further irritation.” If you want to make sure that your reaction is due to the exfoliator in question (and not, for example, an allergic reaction to another skincare product) you can try patch-testing it.
Your game plan will consist of a short, simple routine:
- Continue to wash your face every day — switch to a super-gentle, non-foaming cleanser, if you don’t use one already.
- “Applying moisturizer will help skin recover and strengthen its barrier from the damage,” says Mirwalla. “It would be best to use mild, non-harsh ingredients when treating over-exfoliated skin to avoid further damage.” Sunday Riley Ice Ceramide Moisturizing Cream is chock full of it). For an extra dose of comfort, place a cool, damp cloth on your skin for 10 minutes before you apply your moisturizer to help soothe irritation. Or apply an essence with soothing ingredients when you feel itchy.
- Your dermatologist might suggest you spot treat throughout the day with hydrocortisone cream or an emollient to reduce the redness in your skin.
- Continue to use ample SPF as part of your daily routine since it’s imperative to protect those new layers of skin. “Especially if you will be in the sun, applying sunscreen is a crucial step to prevent intensifying irritation/burning of the damaged skin,” says Mariwalla.
Are there other ways to nurse over-exfoliated skin?
It’s time to stock up on your fruits and veggies, and maybe download a water-tracking app while you’re at it. “Staying hydrated and eating healthy foods packed with antioxidants definitely help skin healing. When we over-exfoliate, we injure the skin barrier and there is increased water loss. By hydrating, we ensure that the skin is receiving enough water to heal and function properly,” says Jagdeo. (Though drinking water alone won’t speed up healing, it’ll only help.)
How long should you wait to exfoliate the skin after over-exfoliating?
Everyone’s skin is unique, but the general rule of thumb is that “it takes a full month for the skin to cycle once, so I would give it at least that amount of time before trying exfoliators again,” says Mariwalla. Once you’ve waited until your skin is fully healed, it’s important to fight the urge to hop back into your old routine the moment your skin starts to look back to “normal.”
We all want a lit-from-within glow and for our moisturizing products to sink in better, but there is a safe way to use exfoliators: Start with using chemical or physical exfoliators just once or twice a week and build up to more regular use as your skin tolerates it. Cut back on your exfoliating sessions as soon as you start to experience any negative reactions.
If you’re using a physical exfoliator, make sure you’re not scrubbing too harshly. If you simply can’t help it, consider switching to a gentler, chemical acid. Lactic acid is a great place to start if you have sensitive skin, while salicylic is a go-to for oily types.
Additional reporting by Christa Lee.