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Can over-exfoliating damage melanin-rich skin?

There’s a fine line between achieving silky-smooth skin, and compromising our skin integrity. But how do we know when we’ve crossed that line before it’s too late? We’re taking a look at how over-exfoliating can damage melanin-rich skin, and when to press pause on exfoliation. 


What is exfoliation and why do we do it. 


Exfoliation is an integral part of an effective skincare routine, as it helps to preserve a freshly luminous and smooth complexion by removing dead skin cells, dirt, and debris. Depending on the type of exfoliation used, enlarged pores can also be minimized, blackheads can be treated, and whiteheads can be prevented. Although exfoliation can be accomplished through several techniques, there are two main methods that are most commonly used within the beauty industry; topical chemical treatments and mechanical. 


  • Chemical exfoliation tends to consist of alpha and beta hydroxy acids (AHA’s and BHA’s), such as Salicylic and Glycolic acids. These ingredients work together to ‘unglue’ accumulated dead skin cells on the skin’s surface, making them easier to remove.

  • Whereas mechanical exfoliation can be accomplished through techniques such as cleansing beads, gentle wash towels, electronic brushes, or even diamond crystals administered via microdermabrasion.

While exfoliation alone can drastically improve skin luminosity and brightness, there’s an opportunity for even greater results when combined with other topical agents to enhance their penetration and effectiveness. Typically administered by a dermatologist, chemical peels and other active ingredients can assist in providing essential antioxidant protection, as well as effectively minimizing hyperpigmentation.


What should your exfoliation routine look like? 


The first piece of advice we have, is not to overdo it. Often we have the mindset of ‘more exfoliation = better results,’ which can lead to irritated, inflamed, and sensitized skin. This can be particularly detrimental for darker skin tones, with the added risk of unwanted hyperpigmentation caused by irritation and inflammation. 


Although the ideal amount of exfoliation per week differs from person to person, for those with healthy skin, mechanical exfoliation need not be done more than a couple of times per week. Gentle chemical exfoliation however, has a little more wiggle room. Aside from those suffering with irritated skin, the frequent application of skincare infused with gentle exfoliating acids can effectively increase cell turnover rates for an overall healthy skin cycle. 


When in doubt, if your exfoliation routine is leaving your skin feeling uncomfortable, flushed, or irritated afterwards, then there’s a high chance you’re overdoing it. 


Choosing the right exfoliant for your skin phototype and concerns. 


Selecting the right skincare routine for your specific needs can be tricky, and with no ‘one size fits all’ manual, there’s a lot of room for error. Luckily, we can offer some guidance on the matter. 


  • Time of year. In the dead of winter, harsh mechanical exfoliants may not be the best option, as they could strip much-needed moisture from the skin. However, this same exfoliation may be ideal in the middle of summer to offset increased oil production thanks to a more humid climate. 

  • Skin phototypes. Generally speaking, the darker your skin tone, the more wary you need to be about using aggressive exfoliation, as this method may lead to long-lasting hyperpigmentation caused by inflammation and trauma. 

  • Acne-prone skin. Those with oily skin prone to acne breakouts, going for a gentle chemical exfoliation such as Salicylic acid may be more beneficial, as it’ll help breakdown and treat comedonal acne.

  • Recalcitrant hyperpigmentation. Taking a combined approach to exfoliation may be the most effective remedy here; specifically the synergy of brightening actives and chemical peels to produce elevated results. 

  • Whatever exfoliation method you decide on, we wholeheartedly recommend performing a quick test spot on a small, inconspicuous area such as behind the ear. This ensures your chosen exfoliant can be tolerated for your skin type, and any uncertainty can be alleviated. 

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