The One Step in Your Routine That’s Damaging Your Skin Barrier

woman exfoliating too much

Whether you’re suffering from flaky skin, fine lines or just a general dullness, exfoliation is usually the recommended solution. And who hasn’t wanted to resurface their entire face in the hopes of revealing baby-soft skin? But tread carefully: In trying to get that glow, you might guilty of damaging your skin barrier. 

For the unfamiliar, the skin barrier (a phrase coined by dermatologist Dr. Peter M. Elias) is the outermost layer of skin cells and lipids that are responsible for maintaining skin hydration, softness and firmness. And while the skin barrier is certainly involved in preventing wrinkles and dryness, it’s also your skin’s first defense against damaging chemicals, environmental irritants and microbes—gross. So you could say it’s pretty important.

But according to aesthetician Renée Rouleau, too much exfoliation (or using overly aggressive products in general) can do more harm than good. And the symptoms of an irritated skin barrier can mirror the same problems (like flakes and dryness) you were trying to zap.

What should you look for to know if you’re dealing with a compromised barrier? Stinging and redness. Sure, an acid-based product might burn for a second or two, but prolonged stinging is a red flag for irritation and inflammation.

If you’re guilty of overdoing it (same), the first course of action is to scale back on the offending products—or eliminate them entirely, at least until your barrier can heal. That means physical scrubs, highly acidic toners and oil-stripping cleansers should go to the back of the medicine cabinet. 

And while you’re taking a break from exfoliation, reach for nourishing products instead. Think rich face oils, cream cleansers, moisturizers and skin-soothing ingredients like tiger grass. And when you return to sloughing off those cells with abandon (it’ll happen), try exfoliating every other day. Your skin barrier will thank you.

What Is the Skin Barrier…and Is Mine Damaged?


Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...