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What to Do If You’ve Overexfoliated, According to Dermatologists

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist

I’ve had a strict multi-step skincare routine for about three years. My exfoliants, retinol, and vitamin C, are spaced out throughout the week so my skin doesn’t get irritated. But one fateful night, I made a rookie mistake. After washing off an AHA/BHA peel, I grabbed the wrong tube and applied a retinol cream instead of moisturizer. I didn’t realize what I’d done until the following morning when I woke up to dry, flaky patches all over my face.

Apparently, over exfoliating is a common issue. Dozens of Reddit threads are dedicated to overzealous exfoliators, and three of the four dermatologists I interviewed for this story said it’s a common problem among their patients. Irritation, splotching, redness, flaking, and dryness are indicators, but even if you’re not experiencing obvious signs, you still could stressing your skin. “Many of [my patients] mistake waxy skin, which is a sign of over exfoliating, for healthy, glowy skin when in reality their skin is actually very dry and irritated” says Dr. Marie Hayag, a board certified dermatologist and founder of 5th Avenue Aesthetics. (Healthy skin is more plump-looking than tight waxy skin.)

If you’ve over exfoliated, the first thing you need to do is, well, not much. Give your skin a week-long break from potent actives. “Stop applying skincare products with AHAs and BHAs, retinols, and scrubs,” says Dr. Hayag. Even foaming cleansers are out. Stick to the basics: a gentle cleanser, hydrating serum and moisturizers. We consulted Dr. Hayag and three other dermatologists for an easy step-by-step skincare routine that’ll repair your skin in about a week.

Start with a mild cleanser

$15

Since overexfoliated skin is dry and sensitive, you want an extra-gentle cleanser that won’t further irritate or strip your face. Hayag recommends CeraVe’s Hydrating Cleanser since it’s fragrance free, mild, and, even better, “contains key hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and essential ceramides.” We’ve even recommended it in the past in our roundup of the very best face washes, since its cream formula gives “dry areas the creamy, hydrating nourishment they need.”

Apply a strengthening serum

Dr. Hayag recommends this calming and restorative EltaMD serum. It contains a patented amino-acid complex that “strengthens the skin barrier and decreases redness,” she says. Plus it has more soothing and anti-inflammatory ingredients like vitamin B5, tiger-grass extract, and glycine. Dr. Hayag’s says to apply it morning and night.

Layer on a calming moisturizer

Weleda Skin Food Original
$14
$14

Applying moisturizers and emollients twice a day helps calm and remedy dry, flaky skin, says Dr. Hayag. Since overexfoliated skin is sensitive and a bit finicky, we’ve provided two calming moisturizers. Weleda’s Skin Food is the thicker and heavier of the two and can leave skin feeling a bit slick (which is in this case a good thing). Dr. Georgina Ferzli advises her patients to “put a layer on Mrs. Doubtfire–style like they have cupcake icing on their face, let it soak in while watching TV, have a glass of wine, or sleep in in it.” Repeat this for about a week, and she says your skin should feel “replenished.”

SkinFix’s Lipid Cream isn’t as thick as Weleda’s Skin Food and seeps into the skin easily. It’s full of ceramides, peptides, and hyaluronic acid for hydrating and supporting your skin barrier. Dr. Ferzli likes that it’s a “nice, bland, skin-barrier-focused moisturizer.”

Lock in moisture with Aquaphor

Aquaphor Healing Ointment
$10
$10

Aquaphor serves as extra protection to prevent moisture loss. Both Dr. Ife J. Rodney, a board-certified dermatologist at Eternal Dermatology, and Dr. Yoon-Soo Cindy Bae, a board-certified dermatologist at Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York, recommended this as a last step in your repairing skin-care routine. “It sounds counterintuitive because you think it might clog your pores,” says Dr. Rodney. “That’s why I stress just a thin layer of Aquaphor for your entire face twice a day for three or four days.” An occlusive agent like Aquaphor helps reinforce the protective skin barrier and allows skin cells to heal.

Dr. Rodney also suggests La Roche-Posay Lipikar Balm AP+ as a creamlike alternative to Aquaphor. It performs the same moisture-trapping function as Aquaphor but in a formula some people will find more tolerable. Rodney recommends a thin layer of this balm on top of your moisturizer.

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What To Do If You’ve Over Exfoliated Your Skin