Exfoliation is a fickle thing. It’s like one day you’re basking in the glow of your own skin, then, seemingly overnight, you’re a red, splotchy mess.
That’s why it’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms of over-exfoliation before adding acids, scrubs, and actives into your routine. Trust me, knowing what to look for will save your skin from unsightly horrors like zits and wrinkles.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
1. Overly Smooth Skin
I have nothing against smooth skin—it’s something I strive for. But, when you’re exfoliating, be wary of overly smooth skin. It’s often the first sign that something’s gone horribly wrong.
Telling the difference between smooth and overly smooth can get tricky. And, since your skin looks so gosh-darn perfect when it’s over-exfoliated (at first!), you want to believe that it is, in fact, perfect.
Here’s a list of things to look out for:
- Skin that looks like plastic
- Makeup won’t stick to skin anymore
- Baby soft feel
- Airbrushed appearance
2. Shiny, Reflective, Glass-like Skin
There’s a good chance that you overlooked your smooth skin and passed onto the shiny phase.
Don’t feel stupid—we’ve all been there.
In truth, the shiny phase is pretty subtle as well.
Shiny, in this case, doesn’t mean oily. Instead, it means reflective—the way a bald man’s head is reflective. Light will bounce off of it as if it were glass. This type of glare isn’t normal (and powder won’t be able to fix it).
3. Crepey Skin + Fine Lines
This is when things start taking a turn for the worst.
At this point, you’ve weakened your skin’s protective barrier so much that it’s become dehydrated (learn how to fix it by reading my dehydrated skin guide here). That means it can’t hold onto moisture. So, now that you’ve depleted your skin’s moisture supply, your skin will start to shrivel up like crepe paper.
Not sure if you’re on this boat?
Well, you can check by pinching a section of your face. If you happen to see fine lines (in places where you shouldn’t have fine lines), then you’re probably suffering from over exfoliation.
4. All Around Tightness
Sometimes you might feel a little tightness after washing your face (which isn’t normal by the way, but that’s a story for another time). When you’ve over-exfoliated, however, your skin will often feel perpetually tight.
And every time you make a facial gesture (whether it be a smile or a frown), you’ll feel an extra bought of tightness. It’s like someone is standing behind you and pulling your face back.
5. Flaky Patches Around Your Chin And Nose
Up until this point, your skin has been quietly telling you, “Hey buddy, your kind of hurting me.”
Now that you’ve damaged your skin to the nth degree, it’s angry. Really angry. And, it’s not afraid to show it.
So, you’ll start to notice flaking. Mostly around your chin and nose. But, the rest of your face is fair game too.
6. Dried Out Skin
TEWL (aka transepidermal water loss) is kicking in full swing.
Your skin isn’t able to hold onto moisture anymore—the moisture that’s reaching your epidermis is stealthily evaporating. And, consequently, your skin is drying out.
Yes, this affects oily skin types too. For these skin types, you’ll often feel like you have a film of oil sitting atop a barren desert.
You might like: Oily Skin Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Being a Greaseball
7. Ramped-Up Oil Production
Through your journey in over exfoliation, you’ve stripped your skin of its natural oils. So, it’s reacting by overproducing these oils.
Not everyone will get oilier. Those of you with dry skin will most likely get drier. But, those with oily or combo skin are bound to go into grease-ball mode. Especially on your foreheads and noses.
8. Burning Sensation (When Applying Products)
At this point, you’ve majorly damaged your skin to the point where everything hurts. It’s so sensitive and reactive that applying anything to it (yes, even water) can elicit a painful response.
The burning sensation is usually accompanied by a throbbing sensation. It’s like you can feel your skin pulsing from deep inside your dermis.
9. A Plethora Of Closed Comedones
Arguably, this is the worst part. Or at least it’s the hardest to get rid of.
You see, when you breached the terms of service on your stratum corneum (aka your skin’s protective barrier), you agreed to let in bacteria, pollution, and the like. In other words, your skin has become a breeding ground for pimples. And not just any pimples–closed comedones. They’re like tiny bumps that sit on your skin.
I Over-Exfoliated, Now What??!!
The first thing you should do is ditch your exfoliant(s). That means the acids, retinols, Vitamin C’s, scrubs, Clarisonics, etc. have got to go.
And, if you’re using a towel to dry your face after washing, ditch that too. It has a rough surface, so it has the potential to damage your already-raw skin.
When you’re in recovery mode, the less you touch your skin the better.
So, your routine should focus on a super gentle kind of minimalism–a three-step routine is all you need.
- Use a hydrating or milky cleanser (Read my review for Cerave’s Hydrating Cleanser here.)
- Moisturizer (with ceramides)
- Slather on sunscreen
After sticking to a non-exfoliating routine, you’ll see an uptick in blackheads and clogged pores. It sucks, but you have to live with it until your skin bounces back.
Word of caution: If you’re burning, throbbing, and generally wincing in pain, you shouldn’t suffer in silence. Instead, go and see your local dermatologist. Sure, they might just tell you to use anti-itch cream. But, after a full-fledged examination, they can go one step further and prescribe you some of the good stuff. When in doubt, always seek medical attention.
Wrapping It Up
Honestly, it’s easy to get addicted to chemical exfoliants. And you inevitably start seeing results within the first couple of weeks. But, whatever you do, you must resist the urge to over exfoliate.
When all is well, slowly reintroduce acids back into your routine. But, be careful. If you’re reading this article, you’ve been burned by over-exfoliation. You don’t want to be back on that ride. Start by exfoliating once a week (and stay there if you have sensitive skin). Oily, hardy skin can maybe bump it up to two times a week.
If you’re curious about chemical exfoliants, check out my article on the pros and cons of salicylic acid.