Why you need to be careful of over-exfoliating

Drawbacks of exfoliating skin

Because you can get too much of a good thing

It’s been drilled into us that for healthy, smooth skin, exfoliating is an essential step in our skin care routine. 

Whether that’s through a manual exfoliation using a face scrub, or a chemical exfoliation using AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid or a BHA like salicylic acid, the sloughing away of dead skin cells is key to a glowing and refined complexion. 

But be warned: you can get too much of a good thing. We spoke to hop & cotton founder and cosmetic chemist, Ee Ting Ng to find out how much exfoliating is too much, and what happens if you take things a bit too far. 

What happens if you over-exfoliate?

“Our skin is a protective organ,” says Ng, “Our skin cells are there to protect us from the environment and excess oils. Now what happens normally when we get older is that the dead skin cells don’t come off enough, so we just look lacklustre and dry, and if you use the right amount of acids, it will take away the right amount of dead skin cells but still leave enough for your skin to be healthy and look great. But if you go over[board] and remove too many layers, the skin cells that are not ready to come up yet [from beneath the top layer] can be exposed. The ones right at the top are flat and tough and ready [for exfoliating]. The ones underneath are not.” 

When you over-exfoliate and reveal those layers of skin that aren’t quite ready to be exposed, you’re leaving your skin vulnerable to redness, inflammation and possibly even discomfort. 

Yeah, not fun. 

So how often should you exfoliate?

There are a few factors at play here – are you using a physical or chemical exfoliant? If a physical scrub, how fine or coarse is it? And what’s your skin’s level of sensitivity or resilience? 

If you’re using a face scrub that has medium to large-sized exfoliating particles, like Sukin Oil Balancing Pore Refining Facial Scrub, you shouldn’t be using it more than twice a week. As for a scrub that has finer particles – think as fine as table salt, like the ones found in Dermalogica Superfoliant – you could probably get away with using it daily (but it’s best not to just assume you can do this. Always read the directions for the scrub you’re using.) 

When it comes to using chemical exfoliants, like hop & cotton The Smooth Operator, you can also use them daily, but Ng stresses that it depends on your skin – some people have quite resilient skin and can tolerate daily exfoliation, while others may need to start off with a couple of times a week to build up skin strength.

Sukin Oil Balancing Pore Refining Facial Scrub

Dermalogica Daily Superfoliant

hop & cotton The Smooth Operator

At the end of the day, the frequency of your exfoliation really does rely on your skin and what it can withstand. 

“I always recommend to start slow and once you start seeing change, you’ll know if you need to exfoliate more. Or if it starts to feel rough or a little prickly, then you’ve maybe exfoliated too much,” says Ng.

Should you mix chemical and physical exfoliators?

When it comes to mixing your exfoliators, Ng says, “I would always avoid using a scrub and a chemical exfoliator together on the same day as I don’t think it is necessary. Scrubs and chemical exfoliants essentially clean into the roots to remove excess skin cells. With the scrub you are manually doing that. With a chemical exfoliant you just are leaving the acids to ‘chew away’ the cells in a non-dramatic way. [If you use both,] you can cause little scratches on the skin; you can’t see it but it does happen. There is no need to follow with a scrub if you are already using a chemical exfoliant regularly. Some people really love it, so I’d just say don’t do it on the same day and don’t try to exert any sort of force.”

Looking to into chemical exfoliants? Here are some of our favourite exfoliating serums.

How often do you exfoliate? Please share with us in the comments section below.

Image: @lilyaldridge

Carli is BEAUTYcrew’s Editor and has been since the site launched in 2016. She is currently on a quest to find the perfect medium-coverage foundation for combination skin, is trying to narrow down her mascara collection to just three, and is embracing the power of AHAs. You can find her words right here on BEAUTYcrew, and previously on beautyheaven.