What Exactly is Over-Exfoliation and How Can You Heal Your Skin?

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Exfoliation is an essential part of any skin care routine. No matter your skin type, exfoliation is a must for unclogging pores, clearing away old and dead skin cells, and stimulating cell regeneration. Not to mention, many also find it wonderfully satisfying to exfoliate – there’s nothing quite like the fresh and clean feeling of newly exfoliated skin.

However, there’s a darker side to exfoliation too. It may be good for your skin, but do it too much and you could be dealing with several skin issues as a result.

What is Over-Exfoliation?

Over-exfoliation is exactly what it sounds like – skin that has been exfoliated too much. This could either be because you’re exfoliating more often than you should be, or it could also be down to using exfoliants that are simply too harsh and aggressive for your skin.

Either way, over-exfoliating will damage the natural protective barrier on your skin’s surface, which can lead to a variety of different symptoms.

How to Tell If You’re Over-Exfoliating Your Skin

It’s not always easy to spot the signs of over-exfoliation, mostly because they’re so varied. It may take a while for you to connect all of the dots, but, if your skin reacts in any of the following ways, then over-exfoliation could be to blame:

  • Redness and irritation
  • A burning sensation
  • Inflammation
  • Small bumps, as well as severe acne breakouts
  • Increased sensitivities
  • Dry, rough, and flaky skin
  • A tight and waxy texture (this may look like a healthy glow at first, but it really isn’t!)
Redhead woman checking skin from irritation

Different skin types will experience different symptoms. For example, those with acne-prone skin are more likely to experience breakouts when they’ve been exfoliating too much, whereas those with dry skin will probably notice redness, roughness, and flakiness as their first symptoms.

Ignore the problem and continue on with your regular skin care routine and things will only get worse. Instead, you’ll need to take a step back, help your skin recover, and then slowly reintroduce exfoliants back into your life.

How to Treat Over-Exfoliated Skin

There are a few things that you can do to treat the symptoms of over-exfoliation, while also speeding up the skin healing process:

Stop Exfoliating

The very first step is to stop exfoliating. You’ll need to do this for at least a month, since this is how long it takes for your skin to produce new and healthy skin cells.

In addition to putting your exfoliant aside, don’t forget to also check for exfoliating ingredients in the other skin care products that you use. Whether it’s an abrasive exfoliating cleanser or a chemically exfoliating toner, many skincare formulas contain exfoliants, so you’ll need to stop using these too.

You’ll know that your skin has healed once it returns to the state that it was in before you started over-exfoliating.

Use a Gentle and Mild Cleanser

While it’s important to take an exfoliation break, your skin will still need to be cleansed daily. This can be a problem – your skin will be much more sensitive now, meaning that a harsh cleanser will cause more irritation while prolonging the healing process.

Look for a cleanser that contains natural oils and soothing ingredients. Don’t overuse this either – cleansing once a day is usually enough for dry or combination skin, whereas those with oily skin may need to cleanse twice daily. Anything more than this should be avoided.

Female friends in bath robes cleansing faces

Apply an Emollient to Strengthen Your Skin Barrier

As mentioned, over-exfoliation damages your skin’s protective barrier. It can take a while for your skin to rebuild this, so, in the meantime, give it a little extra help with some emollients. These are ingredients that form a protective film over the surface of the skin – just like your skin barrier does. By doing this, emollients help to trap moisture in the skin, which encourages the healing process, while also softening, soothing, and protecting the skin.

A hydrocortisone cream is a useful emollient to turn to. Technically, it’s a steroid as well as an emollient. This means that in addition to protecting the skin, a hydrocortisone cream will also calm inflammation and irritation.

If you would prefer to go with a more natural emollient, aloe gel is a great alternative.

Don’t Neglect the Sunscreen

No matter what, sunscreen is always important. However, it becomes even more so when dealing with skin that has been over-exfoliated. Why? Because removing your skin’s protective barrier leaves it less capable of defending itself against environmental harm, particularly UV damage.

So, if you know that your skin is suffering from too much exfoliation, it’s time to get more diligent about sunscreen use. Keep your skin covered with an SPF 30, even in the winter months. Do this when you plan on spending the day indoors too – UVA rays, which are the ones that will burn you, can easily penetrate through glass [1].

Woman holding a sunscreen lotion tub

Introducing Exfoliation Back Into Your Skincare Routine

Once your skin has healed, it’s time to add exfoliation back into your skincare routine. You’ll need to do this gradually – exfoliate just once a week to begin with, until you’re certain that your skin can tolerate an increase. If your skin starts to feel tingly or irritated at any point, cut back on the exfoliation once again and consider switching to a more gentle exfoliation method.

Remember, the amount that you exfoliate should depend on your skin type. Those with dry or sensitive skin may only need to exfoliate once a week, whereas those with combination or oily skin will likely need to exfoliate more often.

Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliants for Clearing Dead Skin Cells

When it comes to choosing an exfoliant, you have two main options; physical exfoliation and chemical exfoliation. Physical exfoliants are abrasive substances that you physically scrub against your skin to dislodge dead cells. On the other hand, chemical exfoliants are acids that dissolve the glue-like bonds that keep dead cells attached to the skin, therefore allowing them to be washed away.

This may make a physical exfoliant sound safer, but the opposite is usually true. Physical exfoliants are often too sharp. They scratch at the skin and cause micro-tears, severely damaging that important barrier.

Meanwhile, chemical exfoliation works in a gentler way. Exfoliating acids come in different strengths too, making it easy to customize your exfoliation session to your skin type. For example, alpha hydroxy acids are great for anyone with dry, sensitive, or mature skin. Glycolic acid is the most powerful – it can help to reduce the visibility of wrinkles while improving skin tone. Lactic acid is milder and also has hydrating effects. Beta hydroxy acids, such as salicylic acid, are better suited to oily and combination skin types, as they treat breakouts, unclog pores, reduce excess oil, and give you clearer skin.


Woman using body brush to exfoliate

How long does it take to heal over-exfoliated skin?

It usually takes about a month to heal over-exfoliated skin. However, some may find that it takes a little longer, sometimes two or three months. It all depends on how severe the damage is.

Is over-exfoliated skin permanent?

No, over-exfoliated skin isn’t permanent, so long as you stop exfoliating for a while and help your skin to heal. If you don’t, then your skin problems will only worsen with time.

What happens if you exfoliate every day?

Some people can exfoliate every day without any issues, while others will find that daily exfoliation leads to skin problems. It all depends on your skin type, as well as the exfoliant that you use.


Exfoliation is the key to healthy skin, but, as with most things in life, there really can be too much of a good thing. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially when your skin seems to be responding well to your exfoliation efforts at first.

Fortunately, it’s also an easy mistake to fix – your skin just needs some time and TLC to heal. Don’t let over-exfoliation put you off either – as with many things skincare-related, there’s always going to be some trial and error involved. Once you do manage to establish a healthy exfoliating routine, you’ll have healthier skin than ever before.


[1] https://www.skincancer.org/blog/sneaky-ways-youre-being-exposed-to-the-suns-uv-rays/

Avatar for Megan Foley

Megan has been a freelance writer and editor since 2016. In that time, she’s penned a diverse collection of articles for online publication, with a focus on skincare and beauty. From in-depth product reviews to concise marketing content, Megan is passionate about developing content that informs, entertains, and inspires.