Do you feel cursed by sensitive skin that is prone to irritation, redness, and breakouts? You're not alone. Nearly 60-70% of women and 50-60% of men in the U.S report experiencing some degree of sensitive skin . But here's a shocker: our skin, biologically designed to protect our bodies, can become "sensitized" due to a compromised skin barrier often brought on by over-exfoliation.
While exfoliation can be beneficial under certain circumstances, such as addressing specific skin conditions or fading scars, overdoing it can wreak havoc on your skin's natural defense mechanisms.
Beneath the Surface: Understanding Our Skin
We've all heard the exfoliation mantra: to achieve that coveted, youthful glow, you must exfoliate and shed those old, lifeless skin cells. And true enough, post-exfoliation, your skin may indeed appear revitalized. But to grasp the implications of exfoliation, we need to delve into the science of skin regeneration.
Our skin's outermost layer, the epidermis, consists of five skin cell layers. The freshest skin cells are at the bottom, with the old, dead ones at the top in a layer known as the Stratum corneum. This layer, a protective shield of dead skin cells, gives our skin resilience, prevents dirt and bacteria from penetrating, and also retains vital skin nutrients, particularly water.
Being a continuously renewing organ (did you know that the skin is the largest organ in the human body?), the epidermis is ceaselessly replenished with new skin cells. These cells age, traverse through the layers of the epidermis, and eventually die upon reaching the Stratum corneum.
The Dark Side of Over-Exfoliation: Disrupting the Balance
By exfoliating, we essentially hasten the natural shedding process, thinning the layer of dead skin cells. Occasionally, this isn't a bad thing. However, constant removal of this protective layer exposes the more sensitive layers of the epidermis to environmental hazards. Over time, this repeated disturbance can lead to inflamed, sensitive, and dry skin.
Over-exfoliation disrupts the protective barrier that safeguards against water loss, leading to an abnormal rate of hydration loss. With the barrier compromised, irritants can penetrate your skin more easily, leading to dehydration and inflammation.
Over-Exfoliation Warning Signs
So, how do you know when you've crossed the exfoliation line? Ironically, the signs often mirror the initial problems that prompted exfoliation:
- Acne flare-ups
- Dry, flaky skin
- Wax-like skin texture
- Heightened sensitivity
If your skin suddenly reacts adversely to your favorite cleanser or moisturizer, chances are your moisture barrier is compromised. The first step towards recovery is identifying the cause of the skin's sensitized state.
Exfoliation Etiquette: The Do's and Don'ts
- Be Guided by a Professional: Avoid exfoliating unless a skincare professional recommends it. Over-exfoliation can be harmful and varies between individuals.
- Choose One Type of Exfoliant: Combining physical and chemical exfoliation in the same routine is a common mistake. If your cleanser contains exfoliating agents, such as salicylic or glycolic acid, don't follow it with a physical scrub, and vice versa.
- Exercise Caution: Physical exfoliants can be abrasive, so it's advisable to be gentle if you decide to use them.
- Simplify Your Routine: Combining chemical exfoliants can cause irritation. If you're using retinol/retinoids and exfoliating acids, apply them in separate routines to avoid over-exfoliation.
Healing From Over-Exfoliation
If you've over-exfoliated, don't fret. Your skin is resilient and can heal itself. The first step is to halt the overuse of products and provide hydration. Use gentle, acid-free cleansers, and apply fragrance-free moisturizers. Importantly, give your skin a breather from makeup during this reset phase to aid its self-repair.
To sum up, exfoliation, when done sparingly, can be beneficial. However, frequent stripping of your skin's protective layer can lead to long-term damage and hypersensitivity. If you're experiencing "sensitive skin," reconsider your skincare routine. You might be dealing with over-exfoliated, rather than naturally sensitive skin.
: Misery, L., Ständer, S., Szepietowski, J.C. et al. Sensitive skin in the American population: prevalence, clinical data, and role of the dermatologist. Int J Dermatol 51, 961–967 (2012).