The topic of how much is too much exfoliation was inspired by a client who has been coming to me for years. She had run out of cleanser and decided to purchase a salicylic acid cleanser containing exfoliating beads. I almost fell off my stool when she told she’d been using it twice a day. I was like whaat? So, I gently explained that using acids and beads twice a day may be too much.
How Exfoliation Impacts the Skin
Let’s look at skin cells. The point of skin cells is to prevent the outside world (such as, water, pathogens, and bacteria) from coming in while keeping everything essential encapsulated inside the body. The lifespan of a cell is based on your age. When you’re younger, a skin cell lasts about 15 days and as you age the lifespan gets longer, which is why it needs a little encouragement (aka exfoliation) to slough off. What you don’t want is for dead, compacted skin cells to hang around making your skin look dull. Once the dead cells are removed, either naturally or physically, the base (basal) layer of your skin is notified and it produces new cells. This constant activity keeps your skin looking rejuvenated and fresh.
What is Exfoliation?
Exfoliation is seen by many as a simple way to achieve smooth, radiant skin. As an essential part of any skin care routine, exfoliation helps to clear pores of dead skin cells and promote new cellular turnover. If exfoliation is so good for your skin, can you really have too much of it? Yes! Many people struggle with understanding just how much they need. The answer depends on what type of exfoliant you’re using and what type of skin you have.
Signs of Over-Exfoliation
How can you tell if you’re exfoliating too much? Signs of over-exfoliation include redness, irritation, acne, dryness, and increased oil production. When you remove too much skin, you greatly reduce your natural moisture barrier. This can cause your skin to become overly dry. In response to this dryness, your skin overcompensates by producing excessive amounts of oil. Increased oil in combination with a weakened barrier can trigger acne. Bacteria can enter the skin more easily and feast on the abundance of oil.
Exfoliants can be placed into two general categories: chemical and physical. Physical exfoliants or “scrubs” typically contain small, abrasive grains or granules. This grainy texture is meant to gently buff off dead skin flakes. When using physical exfoliants, great care must be exercised to avoid introducing micro-tears in the skin. This is why most skin care professionals do not recommend seeds and nut shell scrubs. However, when used correctly, a physical exfoliant is a great way to smooth skin without irritation.
You can make a DIY body scrub by mixing solid coconut oil with salt and possibly adding a few drops of your favorite essential oils. However, a salt scrub would not be a good solution for your face.
Chemical exfoliation removes dead skin cells in a different way. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) slough away dead skin by dissolving proteins that clog pores. Chemical exfoliants have the benefits of being gentle while penetrating deeper skin layers. This allows them to help regulate cell turnover.
AHA vs BHA
AHAs, such as lactic and glycolic acid, are water soluble. This allows them to exfoliate superficial skin. Glycolic acid is the most common AHA. You will typically find it in OTC skin products at concentrations of 6 to 10%. This concentration range is safe for daily use. Those with more sensitive skin should opt for lactic acid concentrations of 5 to 10%. Your local spa may use concentrations as high as 40% for skin peels. This can be done no more than every 4-5 weeks.
BHAs, on the other hand, are oil soluble. This is why BHAs such as salicylic acid can work beyond the skin’s surface, deep inside the pore. BHAs have the added benefit of reducing inflammation. You will typically find salicylic acid in many different concentrations ranging from 0.5 to 5%. Daily moisturizers and cleansers for acne-prone skin typically contain 0.5% salicylic acid. Spot-treatments are most often found in 2%. The Shelley Skin Care Adios Tonic contains 2.5% and can be used daily on the face and body to control oil and acne.
Enzymes are typically used by estheticians during a facial. These are activated by moist heat which is why we use steam. I think of enzymes as a “meat tenderizer” for the skin. It breaks down protein, thereby softening the skin and dissolving dead cells. When used properly, proteolytic enzymes can be both gentle and more effective than acid exfoliants. Immediately after using an enzyme is the best time to extract blackheads and whiteheads.
Microdermabrasion is a treatment that essentially sands your skin smooth. I’ve never been a fan of it. I know, I said it! Perhaps it’s because I’ve had many clients come to me for skin repair after going through several rounds of microdermabrasion. Although your skin can feel amazingly smooth afterwards, in my humble opinion, it’s too much exfoliation. The pen-like apparatus is similar to a tiny jackhammer. It blasts your skin with aluminum oxide crystals which over time makes your skin fragile and reactive. I also don’t think you should be inhaling aluminum particles.
However, when you combine microdermabrasion with a therapy called platelet-rich plasma (PRP), studies have shown that this is an excellent way to stimulate collagen and elastin growth.
IPL is a form of laser that has many benefits. One of the effects is an unconventional type of exfoliation. As the light passes over hyperpigmented spots they eventually become scabs and flake off. I have two posts on various laser treatments, one is called Beauty Without Surgery and Fillers and the other is Laser Hair Removal and Anti-aging Treatments.
Talk to an esthetician or dermatologist when deciding how often you should receive these treatments.