I used to think I was cursed with sensitive skin prone to irritation, redness and breakouts. Turns out, I wasn’t alone. In the U.S, around 60-70% of women and around 50-60% men report having some degree of sensitive skin (1). But how is this possible? Isn’t skin biologically meant to protect our bodies? The reality is, what we identify as “sensitive” skin is oftentimes the result of “sensitized” skin due to a compromised skin barrier. The culprit is most often the result of overexfoliation.
Generally speaking, most dermatologists agree that an occasional exfoliation can be beneficial. Such would be the case if you have a particular condition or trying to fade some scars. But there is a threshold — crossing the line into over-exfoliation that can be one of the worst things you can do to your skin.
Skin Deep: What’s Happening Underneath
You’ve heard it a thousand times: in order to get that healthy, youthful glow, you’ve got to exfoliate! Out with the old, dead and dull skin and in with the new. Admittedly, the thought of being coated in dead material sounds pretty unappealing, and sure enough, after an exfoliation your skin may indeed look much better than it did before. Surely this can’t be a bad thing, right? To fully answer this question, we need to understand the science behind how our skin regenerates itself.
Our outermost layer of skin is called the epidermis, which contains five skin cell layers with the newest and freshest skin cells on the bottom, and old, dead skin cells on top (in a layer that is scientifically called Stratum corneum). The Stratum corneum is essentially a protective shield made of dead skin cells. It’s also what gives your skin its resilience, prevents dirt and bacteria from seeping in, and also retains vital skin nutrients. (Most importantly, water.)
As a constantly renewing organ (fun fact: the skin is the largest organ in the human body!), the epidermis is continually filling up with new skin cells in the bottom layer. As these cells age, they cycle through the layers of the epidermis and are eventually dead by the time they reach the stratum corneum.
Too Much of a Good Thing: The Dangers of Over Exfoliation
By using exfoliating products, we are essentially speeding up the natural shedding process, thereby thinning the layer of dead skin cells. This isn’t always a bad thing, however, by constantly removing this protective layer, we wind up exposing the more sensitive layers of the epidermis to the environment. Your skin can only handle so much, and by removing this built-in defense mechanism again and again, it can lead to inflamed, sensitive and dry skin.
When we over-exfoliate, the protective barrier that provides protection from water-loss slowly becomes compromised and hydration is lost at an abnormal rate. The built-in “shield” that keeps out irritant external compounds is no longer intact and irritants can seep into your skin with increased ease, causing dehydrated and/or inflamed skin.
Signs to Look For
So, how do you know when you’ve over-exfoliated? In a true game of irony, some of the signs your skin show resemble the original problems that caused someone to begin exfoliation in the first place:
- Acne flare-ups
- Dry, flaky skin
- Wax-like texture
- Abnormal level of sensitivity
Skin that suddenly cannot tolerate its favorite cleanser or moisturizer and burns when it comes into contact with previously trusty products is most likely skin that has had its moisture barrier compromised and is sounding the alarm for help. The first step towards answering this S.O.S message is to pinpoint what mistake led to the sensitized state of your skin in the first place.
Basic Rules for Exfoliating
Don't - unless guided by a skincare professional
There are different types of mistakes that one can make with exfoliation. Arguably, the most common scenario is simply overdoing it. Whether via scrubs or facial brushes, physical exfoliates are generally too rough and irritating for the face. Large and unevenly-sized granules of physical exfoliates (such as walnut or apricot scrubs) can actually cause micro-tears in the skin, which exacerbates common skin issues such as acne, hyperpigmentation or rosacea. Everyone’s skin is different so the frequency of exfoliation that will prove harmful will vary between individuals. Therefor unless given specific and personalized guidance by a qualified professional it’s probably best to avoid.
Stick to One Type of Exfoliant
Another common exfoliation mistake is attempting to combine physical and chemical exfoliation in the same routine. If your cleanser has salicylic or glycolic acid as a main ingredient, then it already has some exfoliating ability and should not be followed with a physical scrub. Alternatively, if you wash your face with a scrub, then you should not follow it with a serum that contains exfoliating serums.
We have already discussed that physical exfoliates can be over-abrasive to skin; therefore , it should come as no surprise that using two different physical exfoliates (like a scrub and a brush) will only increase the harshness of this treatment. Again, we are not recommending physical exfoliation, but if for some reason you choose to do so, be gentle.
Keep it Simple
Combining chemical exfoliants can have its own associated dangers, and it’s best to stick to one. Specifically, combining retinol/retinoids and exfoliating acids in the same setting can be a recipe for irritation. Retinol/retinoids are a topical Vitamin A, which aid in the speedup of the skin turnover rate from within the cell. Combining this characteristic with an exfoliating acid can easily lead to irritated, dry, and over-exfoliated skin. It is perfectly fine to use the two chemicals in different settings, such as using one ingredient during the morning and one night. However, using them back to back in the same setting can be high-risk behavior.
How to Heal Your Skin From Over-Exfoliation
So, you’ve fallen privy to the perils of over-exfoliation and are now struggling with inflamed and irritated skin. What now?
The good news is, skin is a resilient organ and quite capable of healing itself; therefore, your role during this healing period is quite simple: stop. Just stop. Stop the overuse of products. Stop using Retinol/retinoids, Vitamin C, AHA/BHA acids, or essential oils. Your skin needs a reset, so the only thing it needs from you is to do less and only supply hydration. Keeping with that train of logic, hydrating ingredients such as simple non-comedogenic oils, Dimethicone, or Glycerin are the only active ingredients that you should be providing for your skin. Wash your face with gentle and acid-free cleansers and apply fragrance-free moisturizers. And here’s the clincher: it is very important to not wear makeup during this reset process and allow your skin to breathe and repair itself, no matter how badly you want to conceal redness or breakouts.
That is it, my friends. I have personally committed almost all of the over-exfoliation sins, and my skin has begrudgingly lived to tell the tale. The bottom line is this: exfoliation can be beneficial when kept to a minimum, however, stripping the skin of its protective layer on a regular daily basis can only lead to long-term damage and overly-sensitized skin. Therefore, if you have “sensitive skin,” it may be wise to rethink your skincare routine and ask yourself whether you have actual sensitive skin or over-exfoliated skin.
Article By: Nazli Azodi