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Why you should think twice about exfoliating

Christina Kallery is a beauty writer living in Detroit. She has red hair, a British Shorthair named Freddie and an intimidating collection of products.

Exfoliation may not be the best answer to dead, dry skin

For years, the prevailing skin care wisdom has hailed exfoliation as the remedy for a host of complexion ills, including acne, dullness and aging. Accordingly, beauty sites, department store counters and derm offices alike are saturated with skin-sloughing aids from scrubs and powders to acids, retinoids and microdermabrasion treatments. However (probably owing in part to the growing interest in Korean beauty regimens) a gentler, more pampering approach to skin care is emerging — one that centers on protecting and nurturing the skin’s protective barrier, rather than stripping it. 

So, to slough or not to slough? We asked Dr. Ronald Moy, scientist, dermatologist, cosmetic surgeon and founder of the DNARenewal skin care line, to weigh in on the question. “The past trends of over-exfoliation have led to skin irritation, dryness and redness,” he asserts. “A gentler approach to skin care yields much better results by keeping the skin’s natural barrier intact while removing dead skin and dirt.”

How do you know if you’ve gone too far? “The most common signs of overdone exfoliation are redness, dryness, scaliness and even tenderness.” In our own case, extreme peeling and increased breakouts resulted after a round of Tazorac (while it’s an effective solution for many, it proved too darn harsh for our skin).

More: A DIY banana face mask your skin will love you for

If you have overindulged, start by taking a hiatus from exfoliation entirely and give skin a chance to recover. Choose gentle moisturizers, skin oils and products that contain ingredients like ceramides and niacinamide to help restore and protect the natural lipid barrier.

If you must exfoliate — or want to return to it after a break (there are benefits, after all) — pay attention to how your skin responds to a product and adjust your approach and frequency accordingly. For example, retinoids should never be applied if skin is damp since this will increase irritation. Instead, wait about half an hour after cleansing and layer a pea-size dab over moisturizer or even mix the two together. Start out by using the product only a few times a week and gradually build up to daily use if your derm recommends it.

More: I tried the bird poop facial that promises beautiful skin

In place of extreme exfoliation, Dr. Moy is a fan of milder formulas that still have active ingredients but are less likely to cause trouble — like those with low concentrations of glycolic acid. But even those can be saved for special occasions. “Using a cleanser and washing your face with a warm washcloth using circular motions is the most people need on a day-to-day basis.”

Try these:

DNA Night Renewal

Exfoliation may not be the best answer to dead, dry skin
Image: DNA EGF Renewal

This night lotion is infused with DNA repair enzymes to help replenish skin’s natural supply lost to aging or other damage. Other star ingredients include peptides and botanicals like soothing Spanish lavender. (DNA EGF Renewal, $130)

Elizabeth Arden Ceramide Capsules Daily Youth Restoring Serum

Exfoliation may not be the best answer to dead, dry skin
Image: Elizabeth Arden

Each capsule contains a skin-nourishing and skin-soothing serum infused with ceramides, essential fatty acids, vitamin E and borage seed oil. (Elizabeth Arden, $76)

SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2

Exfoliation may not be the best answer to dead, dry skin
Image: SkinCeuticals

The name comes from the ratio of barrier-boosting lipids in the ingredient list — 2 percent ceramides, 4 percent natural cholesterol and 2 percent fatty acids. Together, they help restore the skin’s lipid layer and boost hydration. (SkinCeuticals, $125)

REN O12 Moisture Defence Oil

Exfoliation may not be the best answer to dead, dry skin
Image: REN Skincare

A cocktail of oils, including rosehip seed, seabuckthorn berry, cranberry seed, ximenia oil and others, combine to nourish dry skin and protect against damage. (REN Skincare, $80)

Bella Schneider Beauty Royal Rose Oil Cleanser

Exfoliation may not be the best answer to dead, dry skin
Image: La Belle Day Spas

This lightweight oil cleanses and removes makeup without stripping skin. We love that it’s infused with antioxidants and barrier-boosting essential fatty acids. (La Belle Day Spas, $47)

CeraVe Facial Moisturizing Lotion PM

Exfoliation may not be the best answer to dead, dry skin

A trifecta of ingredients — ceramides, niacinamide and hyaluronic acid — teams up to hydrate and help repair damage. (, $11)

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