Don’t get me wrong – gentle exfoliation is a great way to get rid of excess dead skin cells and get that radiant glow. But over-exfoliation can cause irritation and inflammation, as well as make your skin more susceptible to sun burns. The line between healthy exfoliation and over-exfoliation is pretty thin and blurry.
Gosh, some dermatologists don’t even consider Clarisonic to be an exfoliating device – just a cleansing device. If that’s not exfoliation, then what is? Dermabrasion? Madness!
The truth is, just before I cured my acne, I realized that my skin had been over-exfoliated for most of my life. Don’t blame me – I just followed the industry recommendations like most of us do: you know, use a scrub or some kind of scrubbing device 2-3 times per week, use salycilic acid to clear out the pores, etc. It turned out it was one of the main reasons why I had acne. So I tried to google over-exfoliation as a cause of acne. And guess what? I found nothing. Or at least nothing substantial.
So with this article I’d like to shed a bit more light on over-exfoliation.
A new crazy trend?
“The 1960s had cold cream, the 1980s featured alcohol-based astringents and now we have acids, enzymes and at-home chemical peels with potency unheard of just a few years ago.” (Reneé Rouleau)
There are so many different ways to exfoliate your skin and unfortunately I’ve tried most of them. That cream with AHA’s that started the whole acne ordeal when I was around 16. Super expensive scrubs that just caused me more breakouts the next day. The magical Clarisonic that gave me cystic acne for the first time. The hardworking BHA (a.k.a salycilic acid) that was supposed to clear out my pores but instead dried out my skin and gave me cysts. Even a simple muslin cloth was capable of rubbing my skin raw if used daily. I guess some skins are just more sensitive than others.
The tell-tale signs of over-exfoliated skin
I wish I’d seen the signs of over-exfoliation earlier and would have stopped. The thing is those signs are so similar to a simple breakout that many of us fail to recognize them. So what are they?
- Loss of moisture and uncomfortable feeling;
- Patchy and pealing areas of dryness;
- Blotchy and red skin;
- Increased sensitivity to your regular products and burning sensation whenever anything is applied;
- Skin feels hot to the touch;
- Annoying itching;
- Inflamed and angry-looking acne (it could be tiny red bumps, cysts or white pustules).
All the above signs of over-exfoliation can last from a few days to a few months before the skin regains its natural balance.
Trying to eliminate the symptom rather than the cause?
“Oily skin tends to expel an increased number of dead cells and if these are not effectively removed, they can block the pores, trapping any excess oil and bacteria with them. As we remove unwanted dead skin, regeneration of new, healthy cells is encouraged and we are left with an overall brighter and healthier looking complexion.” (DailyMail)
I have a major problem with a couple of points in this statement. I always like digging deeper, so this is what my digging produced regarding exfoliation. Oily skin tends to have a higher number of dead skin cells (or a higher number of any cells) because excessive oil production is often linked to an excessive amount of growth factor (IGF-1), which is closely linked to insulin. So what I’m trying to say is that it’s true that acneic skins tend to accumulate dead skin cells but just scrubbing them off isn’t going to solve the problem. It would be much more rational to start looking into the real reasons why so many dead skin cells are produced in the first place.
“Over the years, it seems that skin care has become more about “peeling away” the bad aspects of skin rather than improving and reinforcing skin’s resiliency and health.” (Men’s Science)
Next, the statement in the Daily Mail says that exfoliation promotes regeneration of new, healthy cells, but it fails to mention that one of the reasons why the skin produces those new cells is because of the trauma of exfoliation. Faster cellular growth is our skin’s emergency answer to all that scrubbing.
Often, products boast about the capability of increasing cellular turnover. Is that a sign of healthier skin? No! It’s the skin’s cry for help.
“The skin responds to trauma by sending support from the bottom up, diverting collagen, antioxidants and crucial nutrients from the dermis in an attempt to repair the damage to the epidermis, thereby creating a nutritional deficit at the underlying layers of the skin”. (Kasia Organics Salon)
Do you notice another pattern here? If exfoliation promotes growth of new skin cells, it means there will be more dead cells in the future – so that becomes a bit of a vicious circle on its own. The more you scrub, the more your skin will need to be scrubbed.
What does the industry say about exfoliation?
Just until recently most skincare gurus and dermatologists have been singing praises to exfoliation but more and more are starting to warn people of the dangers of over-exfoliation, especially with the cult popularity of products with Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA). However, manual exfoliants aren’t innocent either.
“As far as manual exfoliants go, such as scrubs with tiny granules, sloughing sponges, or hand-held devices, I find that many people over-use them and/or scrub too vigorously”, warns Dennis Gross, M.D., a cosmetic dermatologist in New York City (Beauty World News).
According to Dr. Marie-Catherine Planté, the Clarisonic brush is “essentially a skin torture device” (No More Dirty Looks). I couldn’t agree more! I can see why so many people find it addictive, it does feel good but for many of us the outcome isn’t so pretty. It seems to thin and sensitize the skin in the long term.
Products with AHA’s are “remarkably gentle and non-abrasive, when used correctly and penetrate into the follicle to remove dead cells rather than simply lifting the ones sitting on the surface like other exfoliators”. (Daily Mail)
Hmmm… not sure I agree with this either. How about the Oil Cleansing Method? It’s so much more effective and unclogs pores like nothing else. Why would one need to slather expensive chemical lotions that would make their skin extremely sun sensitive rather than use something as natural and cheap as the Oil Cleansing Method? Well, I guess where there is money, there is power (to wash our brains, of course).
6 reasons why over-exfoliation isn’t a good idea
- It causes inflammation by damaging the natural lipid barrier – if it doesn’t function properly, your skin gets dry, blotchy, itchy, inflamed, etc.
- It causes excessive dryness and loss of ability to retain moisture.
- It destroys healthy cells in addition to dead skin cells and your skin is left completely exposed to the environment.
- It accelerates aging due to continuous trauma and inflammation of the skin.
- It might increase your risk of getting age spots (hyperpigmentation) as over-exfoliation seems to overstimulate melanin production.
- It causes a thick build-up of dead skin cells.
“Repeated manipulation, friction and skin tampering can slow down the healing process, introduce bacteria and cause epidermal cells on and around blemishes to thicken, darken and get larger as the body struggles to defend itself from constant “self-assault”.” (Clinically Clear)
What to do if your skin is already suffering from over-exfoliation?
- Apply fresh aloe vera gel straight from a plant to soothe your skin.
- Avoid washing your face with water, just gently wipe with rose water. I’m not even talking about using harsh cleansers with sulphates – throw them away!
- Apply some nourishing and healing oil, such as avocado or olive oil.
- Avoid toners containing alcohol. You know my stance on it – go for natural floral water, such as rosewater.
- If any of the products you apply causes a stinging or burning sensation, stop using it.
- Don’t use any products with mint or menthol.
Find more of my tips on how to heal over-exfoliated skin in this blog post:
And if your skin has recovered enough to start exfoliating again, go for something really gentle – for example, a soft washcloth or a sugar and olive oil scrub. Don’t use scrubs containing sharp particles with jagged edges, such as apricot kernel or walnut shells. Also make sure you use slow and gentle movements – too much pressure is just as bad as irregular edges.
Just like everywhere in life, moderation is key in exfoliation. It’s better to be too careful than sorry. And yes, I’m going to repeat it once again – listen to your skin!
What’s your take on exfoliation? Have you ever experienced signs of over-exfoliation?
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