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November 8, 2018

Over-exfoliation 101: How to Recognize the Signs & What to Do About It

Tight, red, burning skin plus more breakouts? Plying on the acids may not be the answer. In fact, that might be the problem. You may be over-exfoliating your skin. Here, how to tell if you’ve gone overboard with the exfoliation and how to get your skin back on track.


I am the self-professed exfoliation queen. I live and swear by the power of AHAs, BHAs, PHAs, and everything in between. Blackheads? No match for BHAs. Whiteheads and that pesky hormonal acne during that time of the month? AHAs! Do you have sensitive skin? Well, PHAs are gonna be your best friend.


But sometimes, we get a li’l too crazy with the acids. And then a sad thing happens called over-exfoliation.


I know, because I just had firsthand experience with it. For weeks, my skin just would not clear up. I had whiteheads all over my jawline and chin, and my skin was tight and dry. I couldn’t even use the Su:m37 Rose Cleansing Stick, the most gentle and nourishing cleanser pretty much ever without my skin stinging. And yet, I still kept using AHAs, thinking that this would solve the problem. The thing is, with oily skin like mine, typically the more exfoliation the better to avoid dreaded clogged pores and breakouts.



It wasn’t until I was in the shower one night that it suddenly dawned on me. What if this whole time I had been over-exfoliating? So I decided right then and there that I was going to stop using all of my acids cold turkey and slather my face in snails and centella to help it heal.


And what do you know? Within three days, my skin healed pretty dramatically. The whiteheads shrank and my skin started to return to its soft, supple glory. Within three weeks, my skin had healed completely. I was scared to give up my precious acids, but in the end it ended up being the best thing I could’ve done for my skin.


So let’s chat. Let’s talk about what exactly over-exfoliating is, how you can tell, and what you can do if you think you’ve gone a little bit too heavy with the acids.


What is over-exfoliation?


When you exfoliate your skin properly, it’s soft and glowy, but when you over-exfoliate, you damage that protective acid mantle layer of skin, which = disaster. Having a healthy acid mantle is imperative to keeping your skin looking and feeling its best, but when it’s been weakened due to exfoliating (chemical or physical), it causes a whole host of problems.




If you’ve been using AHAs and/or BHAs (or you’ve decided to scrub your face with St. Ives like a crazy person) for an extended period of time or very frequently (especially in high percentages), you’re at risk for damaging your skin.


How can you tell you’ve gone a little too heavy with the acids?


Some clear signs your skin is crying out for help:


1. More breakouts

2. Red, inflamed skin

3. Tightness

4. Shiny skin — not oily, but shiny, like Saran Wrap

5. Burning and stinging, even when using normal things like cleansers and moisturizers

6. Flakiness


skin is freaking out over-exfoliating


I had about five out of these six symptoms. Don’t be like me and keep using acids thinking that it’s going to help. It won’t.


OK, so what should I do next?


As scary as it sounds, you need to stop using ALL of your exfoliating products immediately. This includes any scrubs or brushes or Clarisonics or what have you. I know, I know, trust me, I nearly had a heart attack at the thought. But if you want your skin to be healthy again, you need to stop.


And then the repair process begins. Personally, I swore by these products as my healing go-to’s:


COSRX Advanced Snail 96 Mucin Power Essence

Pureforet Centella Multi Toner and Lotion

Swanicoco Centella Salve

tons of rosehip seed oil

Sulwhasoo Overnight Vitalizing Mask at night




Snail mucin is a natural anti-inflammatory ingredient, while centella has been proven to help wounds and skin abrasions heal faster. Rosehip seed oil helps seal in all of that snail and centella goodness while providing a healthy dose of antioxidants, and the Sulwhasoo mask is just a mood overall.




After your skin has started to heal, you can slowly start to reintroduce acids or scrubs back into your life. For me, I’m only using AHAs and BHAs once a week, which is just enough to give me that acid glow, but not enough to cause any damage. I foresee myself keeping up with this schedule for quite some time!


Have you been a victim of over-exfoliating? How did you know, and what did you do to get your skin back together? Let us know in the comments!



Sheryll Donerson got her start as a beauty writer by writing K-beauty reviews for her blog, The Wanderlust Project. These days, she's lifting heavy weights, eating tacos, drinking (too much) coffee and is 1/4 of the beauty podcast, Beauty Beyond Basics (or Triple Bees for short). You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @sheryllrenata.




I am so overexfoliated rn, I have more breakouts than ever before. I used Paula's Choice 2% BHA and on the website it says to use it literally twice daily and I did. I think I should have introduced it to my routine slowly like twice a week. I still don't think in the long run I could ever use it twice daily nor would it be beneficial.


Ditto. I used the PC 2% BHA in the morning and the AHA/BHA at night and since it said you could use it all the time I did the same thing. I started getting dryness on my forehead after years of this and figured it was just menopause, but at a facial I was told I was overexfoliating. I'd just restocked my exfoliants too!! I've realized in the past day or two that I'd made the mistake of switching from those to a Vitamin C formulation, and thinking the dryness that reappeared was due to niacinamide. Now I'm going to... Read more


thank you google for bringing me here!
i definitely have over exfoliated. i love the look of properly exfoliated skin, makes my makeup glide on so smooth, but I have gone over board the last little while with chemical and physical exfoliation :( now my face looks like it's got a permanent sunburn lol. sooo red and it just kind of hurts and feels irritated and inflamed. sometimes too much of a good thing becomes bad lol. OMW to recovery now! and once i feel my skin is healed up, i will bring down my exfoliation to once a week and... Read more


I've noticed that during the summer my skin can handle triple exfoliation now (like @leolouie), but I had to build up to that after really boosting my moisture barrier over a few years (I know, yikes!). Plus my physical exfoliants are really gentle, I limit myself to BHA and vitamin C in the summer, and I only use an enzyme serum at night. It makes such a big difference in my oiliness! Hope your skin heals soon!


I once over-exfoliated because my skin was sooo flaky (assuming it was the cold weather). No matter what I did, the flakiness did not go away. Out of frustration, I exfoliated like crazy. That caused my skin to be TIGHT, IRRITATED, and just everything bad. That's when I realized what I have done to my skin and stopped EVERYTHING (yup, everything). I only applied my moisturizing toner (Klairs, thank you) and my gel (Benton Aloe Gel). It was a scary experience...


I think I notice signs of over-exfoliating the most when I transition from warm weather to cold weather. I also got a bout of the flu a few weeks ago so in general my body was a lot weaker and more sensitive, skin included. Similar to Ruth’s experience, over the summer I had been using a PHA cream for night time use. I had assumed (incorrectly) that I could also use it for day in the colder months since it was on the thicker side, but completely forgetting that PHA is still an acid. I was also using a mist... Read more


Purito is THAT GIRL. The green level line has really helped my skin a lot. All that lovely centella is AMAZING


I just started the Purito snail and I like that it\'s a thicker texture than my other serums. It feels comforting for my skin now that the weather is cooler. I\'ve switched out my cleanser and am hoping the changes will get my skin back to normal. Can\'t wait to hear what you think of the Purito snail @Jerrica!


After a nice hiatus from major breakouts, I\'ve been noticing little pimples popping up here and there, in places I don\'t normally get them. They\'re not hormonal (on my chin) and they are small. This article reminded me that maaaayyyybe I\'m stripping my skin by continuing to use my summer cleanser with the slightly higher pH (7) well into fall at the same time that I added AHAs back to my routine. I\'m switching it out ASAP to see if it helps. Thanks Sheryll Donerson for the reminder! (This is why seasonal skincare switch-ups are important!)


It's SO important! Winter is coming with a force in Atlanta so I'm going hard on the oils and humectants!

Ruth Kim

I had a similar experience with a PHA cream that I was using nightly. Because PHA is considered a more gentle acid and also since it was in cream form, I totally thought it would be ok to use every day. BUT I developed all the signs of over-exfoliating, especially the stinging when I was using products that had never caused stinging before, and that shiny-like-Saran-wrap look 😂