Healthy Winter Skin: Stop Over-Exfoliating

I'm in our lab today working on some big projects we've got goin' on, sipping a cup of spicy and nourishing Edesia Tulsi chai with a bit of ghee and honey, finishing up this email for you on something I feel super passionate about: over-exfoliating.

This time of year, our skin tends to get dry and can feel dull, flaky, and rough. The beauty industry has told us that we need to slough off all those old dead skin cells to have fresh, dewy, glowing skin.

But ya know what? That's the perfect way to get locked in a cycle of lipid barrier damage.

Our skin already does this. It's actually really good at it. In fact, I invite you to think less about exfoliating and more in terms of encouraging your skin to shed on its own, which it does naturally! Sometimes it just needs a gentle reminder of how to do it effectively.

But when we exfoliate with a scrub or even a standardized acid, it damages the skin's lipid barrier, causing more dullness, water loss, and uneven texture, which we then try to fix with more exfoliation.

Let's step out of that downward skin spiral.

First, a little bit of skin anatomy…

Microbiome - The skin’s microbiome is a collection of living microbes and is a crucial component of our skin's protective outer layer (which is also composed of the acid mantle and lipid barrier). Just like the bacteria in our gut contribute to our immune system, our microbiome is the first line of defense against invading (bad) bacteria.

A healthy microbiome is about maintaining an ideal environment for bacteria to coexist and work together. It needs proper maintenance and nourishment to thrive. This includes feeding the microbiome with good nutrients (like whole plants and unrefined carrier oils) which helps to maintain the integrity and health of the microbiome.

Acid Mantle - Right below the microbiome, the acid mantle helps inhibit the growth of external stressors like other bacteria, fungi, viruses and pathogens in general as well as prevent cellular water loss. It’s a film with a slightly acidic pH of about 4.5-6 made up of sebum secreted from your sebaceous glands, sweat from your pores, flat dead skin cells knitted together, and various acids like lactic acid, urocanic acid, and fatty acids and is essentially designed to keep bad things out and good things in.

Along with your microbiome, your acid mantle easily gets stripped away by many commercial cleansers and exfoliants making your skin feel squeaky clean but leaving it vulnerable to pathogens, dryness, dehydration, and (gasp!) those pesky fine lines many of us try to avoid as we gracefully age.

Lipid Barrier - Visualize the outer layer of your skin (the Stratum Corneum) as a brick wall. Your skin cells are the bricks. Some are alive and some, called corneocytes, are dead skin cells. The mortar holding the bricks together is composed of lipids (or oils) and is responsible for maintaining skin hydration, firmness, and softness. A healthy and functional lipid barrier minimizes water loss and is pretty impermeable, which is good! That means bad stuff doesn't get in and the good stuff doesn't get out.

Why does any of this matter?

Because many commercial products (and poorly formulated natural products) disrupt your microbiome, acid mantle, and lipid barrier. Harsh cleansers, chemical irritants, poorly preserved products, over-exfoliating (this includes peels, not just scrubs), and tap water are among the things that can break down these three vital components of your outer layer of skin. When these components become vulnerable, your skin is less resilient and becomes vulnerable to water loss, inflammation, irritants, and pathogens.

All of which leads to skin that is either over-active (oily, congested, and acneic skin) or flaky, tight, dry, and dull. It can also lead to skin that we experience as sensitive but has really been sensitized by damaging the outer layer of skin.

What's the answer?

Do less. Your skin really doesn't need a lot to be happy. A slightly acidic pH and resilient lipid barrier do WONDERS to create glowing, healthy skin. And you know those dead skin cells? They aren't bad and your skin self-exfoliates, naturally letting them go when it's ready. Your skin knows what to do, it just needs good tools to support its natural processes. And we think plants serve that purpose best because plants and skin speak the same language!


1. Calm your nervous system with facial massage and gua sha. Stress often shows up on our skin in one way or another. Take a moment to touch your skin and show it some love.

2. Hydrate your skin with slightly acidic hydrosols and alcohol-free toners. Make sure to always follow up cleansing with a hydrosol since tap water tends to be too alkaline for skin.

3. Moisturize + Protect. Apply a facial oil or oil serum when your skin is still slightly damp from your hydrosol. This hydration helps your oils to absorb better. Some oils, as well as butters and beeswax, create an occlusive layer, helping more sensitized skin reduce water loss through the skin.

That's it. If you love a good face scrub and feel like your skin needs it, I invite you to stop exfoliating for a month and just see how your skin does with less interference, though a very gentle mask like the Soma Hydrating Mask just once a week can help with congestion if that's a concern.

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