The Over-Exfoliation Epidemic: Drop Your Scrubs, Watch Your Acids

People. Love. Exfoliating. Exfoliating is addictive as exfoliators are one of the of the few types of products that give you an instant result. After exfoliating, you have the smoothy, bright skin that you dream of having 24/7. But you know what they say about too much of a good thing… Over-exfoliating causes more harm than good. There is an impossibly large number of ways to exfoliate the skin but the most common modes can all be separated into 2 categories.

The Two Types of Exfoliation

Mechanical exfoliation


When it comes to mechanical exfoliation at home, we are talking scrubs, exfoliating gloves and tools. Scrubs are comprised of anything that is a gritty paste that attempts to sand off the dead skin cells on the top layer of the skin and exfoliating gloves or brushes are (for the most part) glorified steel wool. Mechanical exfoliation takes place in salons and clinics through treatments such as microdermabrasion and blading.

Chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation is when acids, enzymes or vitamin A are used to prompt the skin to exfoliate off the dead skin cells itself. These ingredients are found in smaller doses in home skincare and much higher doses in salons and clinics From my description, you can probably tell which one I believe to be the preferable form of exfoliation… I’d usually describe the difference in mechanical or chemical exfoliants with my roof tile analogy. Mechanical exfoliation is like chipping the tiles off the roof, whereas chemical exfoliation drips through the gaps in the tiles, leaving the tiles themselves intact.

The Difference Between Mechanical and Chemical Exfoliation


The outermost layer of your skin, AKA the stratum corneum, serves the important role of protecting the skin. It is made up of cornified cells, meaning cells that have become keratinised through the process of keratinisation. The keratinisation process is when cells move up the layers of the epidermis, gathering keratin as they go.

Eventually, the cells rise to the surface and are fully keratinised and will slough themselves off in the following four to six week period. The purpose of exfoliation is to speed up and aid this process. When we use acids and vitamin A to exfoliate chemically, they prompt the skin to speed up this process. When we use scrubs and tools, they just slough off the dead skin cells from the top, leaving the skin exposed as it does not have the protective layer of keratinised cells.

Without this protective layer, the skin is exposed to the elements - without its raincoat, so to say - and this can sensitise the skin and allow moisture to seep out. Additionally, scrubs and tools cause tiny micro tears across the surface of the skin which can cause long term, cumulative damage. This is not what any of us want! However, even chemical exfoliation can damage the skin if it is overdone.

I myself have fallen victim to acid overload and left myself with marking that will take years to undo.

What Defines At-Home Chemical Exfoliation?

If you’re using products high in acids, like glycolic, salicylic, azelaic, lactic or mandelic acid, you are exfoliating your skin to some extent, regardless of whether these products are cleansers, toners or spot treatments. You may be using these acids to target ageing skin, due to the fact that as we get older, our skin’s desquamation (natural exfoliation) process slows down and the dead skin cells bundle together on the surface, stealing your glow. You may be using them to aid how your skin keratinises and put a halt to spots. Regardless of why you’re using them, you must be careful of how often you use them and something I call “acid load”.

Exfoliating products often contain blends of different acids to target more than one concern at the same time, such as the IMAGE Ageless Total Anti-Aging Serum (€81.00, available to Nerd Networkers), which contains a blend of glycolic, lactic and malic acid to target not only ageing but spots or the wonder product that is Skinceuticals Blemish + Age Defense  (approx. €88.00) which contains both salicylic acid and glycolic acid.

Overuse of Chemical Exfoliation Products

If you’re using multiple blended acid products, it can be very easy to tip the scales. Using a glycolic toner alongside a glycolic-salicylic cleanser with a serum fortified with lactic acid is far too much to be used twice daily or even daily on anyone’s skin, even someone who has used acids for decades. Many do not realise that their cleanser is an acid-based cleanser or that the toner or tonic they apply after is acid-based either!

My pal vitamin A, in the forms of retinyl palmitate, retinol or retinoids, is also a chemical exfoliant. Retinyl palmitate, as a less irritating form of vitamin A, can be used with a wide array of acids but retinol and retinoid use may mean that the usual acids you would use need to be adjusted! There is no one formula for how many chemical exfoliants you can use at once, which acids you should use or at which frequency.

This MUST be tailored to the individual, in my opinion, to ensure that the skin is not left stripped of its barrier and that you are not left with the typical symptoms associated with the effects of overuse of acids.

What about peels?

Peels are the in-salon chemical exfoliating treatment that consist of much higher levels of pure acids applied to the skin in a solution. You may have first become aware of them due to Samantha in Sex and the City, where she was left absolutely red raw for days after a peel.

I can assure you that peels do not literally peel off the skin, nor do they cause harm when they are carried out correctly. The reason that this much exfoliation is okay when a peel is carried out is because a) it is being carried out by a professional, b) the professional knows what to apply after, c) the professional will not lead you astray on how often you should have a peel (in most cases) and d) the ingredients are formulated in the solution in a different way as to how they are in at-home skincare.

Once again, it comes down to professionals knowing how much your skin can handle - unless you have trained in skin physiology and been trained in working with this type of exfoliant, you cannot know what is safe for your skin. So, if you ever see professional-grade peels being advertised for sale online, PLEEEASE do not buy them and use them!

How to Tell If You’re Over-Exfoliating

When it comes to skincare advice, I can put it out there but I cannot guarantee if people are paying heed to it. I can’t stop you gritting away at your face with a scrub or going at yourselves with acid but I can tell you how to know if you’re doing it too much:

Your forehead is like a marble countertop

  • A shiny, polished-looking forehead is a good sign that you’ve thinned out your stratum corneum
  • You may also notice more oiliness than before, as you have compromised the barrier function, leading to your skin drying out and then over-producing oil to make up for it

Your skin is tender and red

  • Your skin is sensitive to everything, you’ve got redness you’ve never had before and it feels a bit tender, actually…
  • As soon as your skin is in pain or red, discontinue use of ALL of your acids and exfoliants and speak to whomever recommended the product to you

You have unexplained rashes, scabs or your skin is bleeding

  • Speak to your consultant or GP ASAP and do not use any products containing acids or possible irritants

What to Do If You’ve Already Over-Exfoliated

Dealing with over-exfoliated skin (especially if it is a problem caused by short-term over-exfoliation) is easily managed - you’re looking to calm, soothe and nourish the skin AKA you’re probably looking at cosmetic skincare or skincare for sensitive skin for a while. MooGoo has a fab range of products for those with super sensitive skin and plenty of them would be ideal for those looking to counteract the effects of over-exfoliation, especially their Irritable Skin Balm (€15.85) or their Soothing MSM Cream (€15.95).

A super gentle (and affordable) option for your cleanser whilst trying to recover from over-exfoliation would be the Avéne Extremely Gentle Cleanser Lotion (€14.99) as it contains Avène thermal water to soothe irritation. All in all, it is about understanding the weight of using acids, retinol or retinoids to exfoliate. In products used as advised by a professional, they are safe as could be. However, if you take your acids into your own hands (and onto your own face), you could be facing a whole host of problems that will take you off all of your acids for a while!

A Nerdie Note on Body Exfoliation

Scrubs are not the worst thing ever for the body, although there are plenty of chemical exfoliators for the body too, which are always preferable in my opinion. I also love a good lip sugar scrub, especially a natural one that you can lick off... Such a tiny amount of sugar is not so bad for the skin the odd time (I tell myself).