Wondering how often should you exfoliate your face? Over-exfoliation is one skin-care mistake almost all of us make. We incessantly scrub off dry, flaky patches of skin in an effort to take care of it — and when we accidentally exfoliate too often or with a scrub that’s too harsh, it backfires big time.
What happens if you exfoliate too much? Your skin gets irritated, then your dry, flaky patches return and often get worse, explains Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. But gentle scrubs can remove flakes and make dull, thirsty skin glow again.
Dermatologist Ranella Hirsch agrees — convincing people that they’re exfoliating too much “is one of my great challenges,” laughs Hirsch, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine. “Overexfoliating is probably the single most significant cause of breakouts.”
Read on for seven tips from Zeichner and Hirsch for how to keep your skin flake-free — without harming it.
How often should you exfoliate your face? Well, the absolute maximum you should be exfoliating is three times a week. “Overexfoliate and you’re likely to create tiny cracks in the skin barrier that lead to more loss of hydration and inflammation,” says Zeichner. “You think you’re fixing the problem, but you’re actually making it worse.”
“For some reason, people think exfoliating means ‘torture my skin like it has secret government information.'” In particular, Hirsch shakes her finger at skin-care overachievers: “The person who is exfoliating too much is also putting on actives [such as Retin-A and salicylic and glycolic acid], is doing facials, is doing microdermabrasion. Each of those things on their own is good, but when you add every form of treatment together, it leads to injury.”
If you’re only dry in a few spots — say, around your mouth and chin, or on your eyelids — a scrub with sugar crystals is your best bet. “They’re mild and gently dissolve dead skin cells without irritation, which makes them great for the thin areas around the mouth and eyes,” says Zeichner. We like Fresh Sugar Face Polish, which also contains strawberry seeds for supergentle buffing.
While you can’t exfoliate every day, you can use a salicylic acid–based cleanser, like Mario Badescu Acne Facial Cleanser daily. “Salicylic acid is excellent at removing pore-clogging oil, and it doesn’t traumatize the skin like a physical exfoliant,” says Zeichner.
Hirsch insists that for the most part, skin knows how to exfoliate itself and that using just one exfoliator should be enough. And instead of having a set routine for how often you use your product, leave it up to your face. In other words, don’t exfoliate simply because it’s 7 a.m. — exfoliate because you feel like you need to. “You have to listen to your skin,” says Hirsch. “Something that’s right at one moment can shift in real time. Just listen and adapt.”
Zeichner suggests a sonic cleansing brush or an at-home microdermabrasion device, like the PMD Personal Microderm, which uses a tiny spinning disc of aluminum oxide crystals to slough away dead skin.
An exfoliant or peel with alpha hydroxy acids can remove dead skin cells and help stimulate collagen production to soften fine lines. Look for one with glycolic, lactic, citric, malic or tartaric acid on the ingredient list, like Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment. Still, even in the winter, alpha hydroxy acids can leave your skin sensitive to sunlight, so definitely wear sunscreen on the slopes and even your morning commute. If you’re using retinol or prescription tretinoin, skip acid-based exfoliants altogether. It’s way too much for your skin.
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