How old were you when you first discovered exfoliating, and why did you immediately become addicted to it? For me, it was somewhere around 2013, back when Clarisonic facial exfoliating brushes were running the world. In ye olden days of the skincare and beauty internet, the words “skin barrier” meant absolutely nothing, and we attacked our faces relentlessly with harsh physical exfoliants that promised to deliver a healthy glow.
Suffice it to say that times have changed—we now understand barrier repair to be an essential part of a healthy skincare routine. However, we’re only human, and sometimes it just happens: We over-exfoliate, causing redness, irritation, or even infection. Thankfully, all is not lost if you’ve found yourself attempting to heal a weakened skin barrier. There are steps you can take to return to an actual healthy glow, restore moisture to your skin, and avoid future irritation. We brought in the big guns (a board-certified dermatologist) to spill everything you need to know about repairing your skin barrier after damaging it, plus a few tips for ensuring that you never fall down an over-exfoliating rabbit hole again.
Fatima Fahs, M.D.
Fatima Fahs, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist in Michigan. She is also the founder of Dermy Doc Box.
First, what is the skin barrier?
According to dermatologist Dr. Fatima Fahs, the skin barrier is our first line of defense against the outside world, whether it be infection, pollution, or temperature changes. “The skin barrier is made up of skin cells and the glue that holds them together: ceramides and fatty acids,” she explains. Basically, you can think of the skin barrier as the very top layer of our skin, protecting deeper layers of our body’s largest organ. Damage to the skin barrier can happen when that outermost layer is weakened through over-exfoliation, a harsh climate, or even stress. “Skin barrier damage occurs when this outer layer is weakened, and the skin cells are no longer held together in a nice, firm network—making the skin vulnerable and fragile,” Dr. Fahs says.
What to do if you over-exfoliated
First, determine the extent of your skin barrier damage
If your skin is feeling extra raw and sensitive, this is a sign that you might have damaged your skin barrier. “Over-exfoliation can lead to a damaged skin barrier because too many skin cells have been forcibly removed or disrupted,” Dr. Fahs says. “Some signs of damage include redness, stinging, and burning of the skin. In some situations, the skin barrier can be so weakened that infection is more likely to occur.” The first step to healing your skin barrier, then, is figuring out the extent of the damage. Do you have an infection, or are you simply experiencing a bit more redness than normal? Checking in with your dermatologist or waiting a day or two to see if the irritation subsides at all can be a good way to determine the extent of your skin barrier damage.
Next, simplify your skincare routine
According to Dr. Fahs, once you’ve realized that your skin barrier is damaged, the first step to repair is narrowing the products you use in your routine. “If you feel like you’ve gone too far, the first step is to simplify your routine for the next few days and remove all strong active ingredients like retinols and acids,” she says. Ditch the skin cycling for a few days to test how your skin reacts when you just give it a break from harsher ingredients and exfoliants—you might find that your barrier strengthens immensely just from removing those products from your routine.
If the problem persists, make some product swaps
It’s always good to have some extra-hydrating, gentler products in your arsenal just in case you accidentally run into the problem of skin barrier damage. First, Dr. Fahs recommends switching to a hydrating, non-foaming facial cleanser to avoid additional irritation; your skin will thank you for sticking to something gel-based instead of water-based for cleansing during these times. You can also choose an optimal moisturizer for repairing your skin barrier. “Avoiding thin lotions and products with high amounts of drying alcohol while your skin is sensitive can help reduce the sting that most feel when applying a moisturizer,” Dr. Fahs says. When your barrier is damaged, choose moisturizers that are ointment-based to avoid further irritation.
Once you’ve switched to a gentler cleanser and ointment-based moisturizer, Dr. Fahs says there are a few extra steps you can take toward barrier repair. She recommends seeking out products that will calm and soothe, with ingredients like dimethicone, colloidal oatmeal, and niacinamide. Dimethicone can act as a skin protectant to prevent water loss; colloidal oatmeal can calm inflamed skin; niacinamide can maintain healthy skin cells. Ultimately, when you’re seeking to repair your skin barrier, don’t be afraid to layer on the moisturizing ingredients: “Add on lots of moisturizer, and for an extra soothing effect, stick your moisturizer in the fridge to get additional skin relief!” Dr. Fahs says. Here are a few products to keep in your back pocket for those days when you’ve gone a little overboard with the exfoliation:
How to avoid future skin barrier damage
Prevention is the best way to avoid redness and irritation in the future, and Dr. Fahs has a few tips for steering clear of over-exfoliation once you’ve gotten your skin barrier back to normal. “The best way to avoid skin barrier damage is to avoid stacking too many actives at once,” she says. “For example, don’t combine exfoliants with a retinol, especially if your skin is on the sensitive side.” She also recommends adding new products to your skincare routine slowly, with at least a few weeks in between them, in order to ensure that your skin has time to adjust to new ingredients. Lastly, protecting your skin with a Vitamin C serum and sunscreen every morning can reduce skin barrier damage as you chase that healthy glow.