If you're seeing red, flaky skin post-scrub or toner, something might be amiss.

By Elizabeth Swanson
November 29, 2019
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It's true that exfoliation is one key to having great skin: It creates a perfect canvas that allows for better product absorption and makeup application. "You could be investing in the most expensive, amazing skincare products, but if you don't exfoliate, those ingredients won't penetrate to make any difference at all," says celebrity facialist Joanna Vargas. When exfoliation leads to red, flaky skin, however, something's amiss—and something that Vargas sees far too often. "Somehow women have gotten the impression that the more they use retinols, glycolic acids, and scrubs, the better," she adds. "But the skin can only take so much. It thins over time with all of that stuff, and I think we can all agree that once you reach the point of inflammation, you can't really expect anything good to result." Here, reasons why your exfoliator could be making your skin worse—and what to do about it.

Related: Your Ultimate Guide to Exfoliating

The beads in your mechanical exfoliator are too rough.

Mechanical exfoliators—or scrubs with granules that manually slough off dead skin cells—can be too aggravating for certain (if not all) skin types. Says Dr. Lamees Hamdan, CEO and founder of Shiffa, "My view is to ditch the mechanical exfoliators altogether. If the beads are too soft, they won't exfoliate properly. If the beads are too harsh, they will cause micro scratches in your skin." They can also make pores appear bigger, she adds. Instead, she recommends gentle daily exfoliation with a muslin cloth, which you can use to remove your cleanser. "The fine cloth texture provides a great cleansing and exfoliating action on your skin," she says. The Organic Pharmacy Organic Muslin Cloth ($8.50, dermstore.com) or Shiffa Organic Muslin Face Cloth ($20, lordandtaylor.com) are both good options to try.

You're using a chemical exfoliator—and not wearing sunscreen.

Chemical exfoliation uses salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acids to remove dead skin cells, increase cell turnover, and add radiance (all good things!), but they can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun. So, if you're exfoliating and not protecting yourself with sunscreen, your skin will be more prone to ultraviolet damage, Hamdan says. Make sure to finish off your skincare routine with SPF on top; Drunk Elephant's Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30 ($34, sephora.com) is feather-light and works well under makeup.

You aren't using calming, reparative products post-exfoliation.

Exfoliation should be followed with calming, moisturizing ingredients—a step that those with oily or acneic skin, particularly, may be skipping. "Moisturize effectively afterward with a product that is quickly absorbed and doesn't aggravate any acne or pore issues you may have," Hamdan says. She recommends lotions with calming chamomile, such as Joanna Vargas Daily Hydrating Cream ($75, shop.joannavargas.com) and Eminence Calm Skin Chamomile Moisturizer ($59, dermstore.com), which is also relaxing and anti-inflammatory. Other ingredients like calendula and arnica will help as well, along with avocado oil, green tea, and olive oil. The Shiffa Healing Balm ($106, bloomingdales.com) contains all of these soothing components and more.

You're exfoliating too often.

Whether you're exfoliating mechanically or chemically, Vargas recommends this step twice per week during the summer and only once per week come the winter. Anything more than that—especially during the harsh winter months—can aggravate and strip the skin, making it more sensitive and prone to redness and irritation. Adds Hamdan: "During the winter, the environment both indoor and outdoor is usually harsher on the skin. Although your skin can't take too much exfoliation, if you don't exfoliate during winter, it can look dull very quickly."

 Your sensitive skin just can't handle it.

Even if you're using a chemical exfoliator just once a week, if your skin is ultra-sensitive, it may still get irritated and inflamed. In this case, Vargas recommends switching to a fruit enzyme exfoliator, which ever so gently removes dead skin cells without harming the rest of your skin. "You won't inflame the skin, but you'll still get some nice cell turnover," Vargas says. The Joanna Vargas Exfoliating Mask ($75, shop.joannavargas.com) or the Herbivore Brighten Pineapple Enzyme + Gemstone Instant Glow Mask ($48, sephora.com) will help do just that and are safe for those with more delicate complexions.

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