I’m wondering how much is too much when it comes to exfoliating my skin. I’ve heard conflicting advice. Can it be overdone? What’s the correct way to go about this?
You’re right to think exfoliating can become too much for your skin! Of course, as with most things skin related, each individual’s needs are unique. But there are some guidelines to keep in mind.
Skin serves a purpose. It’s a protective covering and is designed to function as such. The outermost layer of cells may be dead (there is some new thinking to suggest it may not be dead after all), but it is there to protect. It guards us from the elements, including the sun, temperature extremes, and irritants. This can be thought of as your ‘barrier function’, and you want to keep it healthy.
But some people shed more skin cells than others. This is part of the problem with acne: too many skin cells being sloughed off, and becoming stuck in the pores. It can be the case with rough, thick build up, too. Each needs to be treated differently, depending on skin type and condition.
Many people should NOT be exfoliating
At least, not in the way they think they should. When skin is inflamed, the wrong type of exfoliation is not recommended. Inflammation can be due to acne lesions, rosacea, or general diffused redness. In these cases, what we call ‘manual exfoliation’ would only aggravate your inflammation. This is also true if you have visible broken blood vessels. Don’t scrub! Not with a scrub product, washcloth, spinning brush, loofah, or any other method of manual exfoliation you can think of. Microdermabrasion should not be performed on you, either!
Skin color is a major factor
If you have olive or darker skin, follow the advice above, whether you have inflammation or not. People with medium to dark skin color are at a much higher risk of hyperpigmenting (developing dark spots) from exfoliating and microdermabrasion. These dark spots or patches may not show up right away. The body produces more pigment in response to the perceived ‘wounding’ from exfoliation, and the dark patches will become evident later on. This is very difficult, if not impossible, to correct. So if this describes you, it pays to avoid manual exfoliation altogether.
If you have lighter skin tone and are free from inflammation, then light to moderate scrubbing is generally OK. By this I mean either a scrub product or spinning brush, applied without any pressure, could be fine two or three times per week. If you notice that your skin is sensitive to products applied afterwards, you experience stinging or burning (from water too), you continue to look pink, or you’re overly sensitive to the sun, then you’ll want to cut back or stop entirely.
Skin ‘peeling’ is good for most
Another option for exfoliation, that’s generally more appropriate for all skin types, is a gentle alpha-hydroxy acid skin peel applied topically. Lactic acid is the least irritating of all the acids and easily tolerated by most. My favorite is a cocktail of lactic and mandelic acids, because it combines exfoliation, hydration, anti-bacterial and anti fungal properties all in one product. This method should be monitored by a trained professional in order to achieve best results while avoiding unwanted side effects.
Non-manual (also referred to as ‘chemical’) skin peeling is the only responsible choice for those with inflamed, reddened, or darker skin tones.
Used properly and with strong sun protection from a mineral zinc/titanium dioxide sunblock, this is my favorite form of skin renewal.
When peeling goes bad…
If you overdo it, you risk sun damage because without a good barrier, your skin is more susceptible to UV rays. Mineral sunblock (at least 40 SPF), reapplied every hour, is required. Wear a big shade hat and avoid the sun.
You’ll also be more likely to experience stinging, burning, and itching due to an impaired barrier which needs time to heal. A heavy moisturizing cream free of fragrance and dyes will help things recover faster. Aquaphor, available in drug stores, is an alternative. You’ll lose moisture through an impaired barrier, so drinking more water, running a humidifier, and lowering the heat are all good ideas. Don’t pick at any peeling or flaking skin. Don’t try to scrub it off, just moisturize and baby it.
Remember, ‘all things in moderation’ applies to skin care too! Wait until your skin is completely healed before attempting to exfoliate again…and when you do? Less is more.