10 Exfoliating Habits That Could Do Serious Damage to Your Skin

Updated: Mar. 01, 2017

Do you exfoliate randomly? Do you napalm your face daily? These are the exfoliating mistakes you're probably making—and the fixes you need to glow on.


You go for the burn

There are many ways to exfoliate, which is the the number one way to get that covetable glow, even in winter. Physical exfoliants (also called manual exfoliants) are the most common, and they work by mechanically sloughing off the dead cells that make skin look dull. They include loofahs, granular cleansers (like sugar scrubs), a sonic brush, and microdermabrasion, as well as plain old washcloths—basically anything with a texture that you use to manually scrub your face. Physical exfoliants are not inherently bad; it’s how we use them, or abuse them, that presents problems. “People use physical exfoliates for too long, or they press too hard, and they exfoliate their skin away. That’s like giving yourself a first or second degree burn,” says dermatologist Neal Schultz, MD. “People make the mistake of thinking that if a little is good, more must be better, but that’s not the way exfoliation works,” he explains. When you’re too rough, or when you apply intense pressure, you can actually cause your blood vessels to break under the skin. If you’re bent on using a physical exfoliant, apply it with a tender touch, and don’t use it longer or more often than directed.


You’re not sensitive to the needs of your sensitive skin

The second most popular type of exfoliant is chemical, but many people avoid them, assuming they’re harsh (maybe because of the word ‘chemical’?), especially for sensitive skin. But chemical exfoliants can actually be gentler than scrubs. “Chemical exfoliants very gently dissolve the ‘glue’ that’s holding dead cells on, causing them to fall off, and uncovering brighter, fresher skin,” Dr. Schultz explains. “They’re available in varying grades, and many can be purchased without a prescription.” The three most effective types are alpha-hydroxy acid, beta-hydroxy acid, and retinoids, according to Dr. Schultz, who prefers glycolic acid, a type of alpha-hydroxy acid, for most skin types. For women with sensitive skin, including those who have had sun damage, alpha-hydroxy acids such as glycolic or lactic acid, are excellent choices. They glide on easily, exfoliating skin without the need for manual rubbing. Try Hydropeptide 5X Power Peel Daily Resurfacing Pads with a non-irritating blend of glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid. Beta-hydroxy acids, such as salicylic acid, are excellent for people with coarsely-textured skin, acne, or large pores. Try Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant.


You’re not paying attention to your whole face

Your forehead, nose, chin, and cheeks all need to get exfoliating love if you want your entire face to reap the benefits. “It’s hard to get consistent results with physical exfoliation, because you don’t use the same pressure everywhere on the face,” says Dr. Schultz. Before you begin exfoliating, take a minute to really look at your skin. Problem areas can change from week to week, or even from day to day. If you notice rough, dull patches of skin, make sure to spend a few minutes on those areas. Dr. Schultz recommends that men exfoliate their noses, and foreheads, since those parts of the face don’t get shaved every day. “One of the reasons why men’s facial skin ages so well is that shaving is a natural exfoliant,” he explains. Here’s a tip you must use to nourish your skin during the winter months.


You break the (exfoliating) bank

There are tons of phenomenal exfoliating products, including tools, cleansers, and chemical treatments, but don’t assume that more expensive equals better. There are terrific options available at both the department store and the drugstore. Washing your face with your usual cleanser, but applying it with a washcloth, also provides the benefits of exfoliation. So do homemade sugar scrubs, like this easy-to-make recipe from Wellness Mama. Nab these five skincare tips that dermatologists use on themselves.


You mother your skin but ignore Mother Earth

The Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015 outlawed the manufacture and sale of products, including exfoliants, containing microbeads. These may still be on some stores shelves, but you should definitely avoid them, and if you have any in your vanity, throw them away “The microbeads, which may be made of plastic, don’t dissolve, and they’re so small, so they can go through all the filters in the water system and wind up in waste water, like rivers, and inside fish,” Dr. Schultz says. “That way, they can also wind up in people.” Products with dissolving beads are OK to use. Wondering if your product is on the list? Look for it on this list, compiled by Mother Jones.


You aren’t exfoliating often enough

According to Dr. Schultz, most of us can exfoliate every day, although there are exceptions. “The goal is to remove dead cells, which accumulate daily. If you exfoliate every day, you’ll get the most consistent results,” he says. Besides getting rid of dead cells, exfoliating also stimulates collagen production, which helps firm skin, and make new healthy, plump cells, as you’re removing the dead ones. As long as you’re not overdoing it with an overly aggressive technique or leaving powerful product on for too long, daily exfoliating is usually fine. If you experience any redness or unusual stinging, make sure to check with your dermatologist, especially if you are using a prescription retinoid.


You’re forgetting to moisturize

You must nourish your skin with moisture after cleansing or exfoliating. If you have acne-prone, oily skin, look for an oil-free lotion moisturizer made for your skin type. Try Tatcha Pore Perfecting Water Gel Moisturizer. (Here’s what your skincare routine should look like, if you have oily skin). Mature, or dry skin benefits most from richer moisturizing creams, like Bare Minerals Butter Drench Restorative Rich Cream. This is the best skincare routine for dry complexions.


You don’t use sunscreen religiously

Because exfoliation removes the outermost layers of skin, you may be more sensitive to sun exposure, making regular sunscreen use non-negotiable. A good option: Alastin Skincare HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36—it’s a great all-mineral sunblock (with antioxidants for extra protection from sun damage), plus a light neutral makeup so you can skip foundation. In general, all exfoliates can be used during the summer months and will not react poorly with your sunscreen.


You keep doing the same thing but expect a different result

As with any product, you may need to experiment with exfoliants before you find one that you love. You may also find that the product you enjoy most in hot weather doesn’t fit the bill for you when snow falls, or that you need a different overall skin regimen now than you did five years ago. Your skin changes constantly, and so does its needs. Exfoliation is meant to make your skin look bright, lustrous, smooth, and radiant. “If your skin looks inflamed, irritated, red, flaky, swollen, or is burning, you’re either not using a product meant for your type of skin, or you need to revise your application technique,” says Dr. Schultz.


You’re waiting for a certain age to start exfoliating

“Exfoliating is the best thing you can do for your skin,” Dr. Schultz says. “People should exfoliate from their teenage years until they’re 90, every single day. After age 90, feel free to cut back to every other day,” he adds, jokingly. The need to exfoliate begins in the teen years to remove the dead cells and oils that cause acne. It becomes even more important as you age, when cell turnover naturally slows down. The payoff? Less tired-looking, glowing skin. And the confidence that goes with it.