The sneaky ways to tell if you're overloading on products—and what to do it about.
Photo: Shutterstock/Olga Sabarova
Here's a beauty revelation that might shock skin-care junkies: Even the best, most expensive products can backfire if you use too many.
But for those of us on the hunt for the next must-have beauty product, it's hard to stop. At times I find myself layering on multiple serums, moisturizers, tinted moisturizers, and sunscreen. Every time I add just one more thing to my beauty regimen, I'm hesitant to let the others go. The result is a drawn-out, increasingly complex routine that incorporates everything on my shelf—until I start seeing more redness on my cheeks or my face starts to itch.
I'm not alone in wanting to use all of my "miracle" products at once. "It's definitely not uncommon to think 'if a little is good, then more is better,'" says Julia Tzu, M.D., founder of Wall Street Dermatology in New York. But this trend of product overload is actually causing extra trips to the derm, rather than fewer.
Many women don't think that layering on too many products can be the culprit until they've simplified their routine, she says. While it depends on what you're using, too many products (and active ingredients) have the potential to counteract each other or irritate skin. Other times, they may not absorb properly, causing clogged pores or breakouts.
Here, top derms weigh in on how to tell whether you're overdoing it, and when it's time for a less-is-more approach.
You're battling itchy, red, flaky, or sun-sensitive skin.
While there are lots of reasons for experiencing red, flaky, or itchy skin that's sensitive to the sun, loading up on specific combinations of products can make your skin especially prone to one or more of these reactions, says Arielle Kauvar, M.D., director of New York Laser & Skin Care. For example, using multiple forms of exfoliation at once—acids, a microdermabrasion brush, and retinoids—can irritate some skin types. Another culprit can be overloading on skin-care products that are meant to absorb into the skin (rather than say, a face wash), especially for dryer skin types. (Related: The Best Skin-Care Routine for Dry Skin) It's also not just about how many different products you're using, but the amount you're applying. "Overly generous application of products will increase the risk of a skin reaction," says Dr. Kauvar, who recommends starting with less than a dime-size amount for covering the entire face—or even less for those who layer on several products. (Be sure to still use sunscreen as directed.)
You don't keep track of active ingredients.
With more antioxidant, retinoid, acne, and exfoliating products on the market these days, women are more likely to overload their beauty routines by layering on products that have too many active ingredients, explains Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., founder of Capital Laser & Skin Care in Washington, DC. And since products have gotten more effective, it also means more potential for irritation if not paired correctly. "Since the ingredients are more active and effective than ever, they can also irritate the skin if overused or used in combinations that are not right for your skin type," she says. One common way to overload sensitive skin is to pair glycolic or salicylic acid containing products with retinoids—all ingredients that are commonly advised for anti-aging, she adds. Pairing vitamin C with a topical retinoid is another overly drying combination.
As a general rule, it's important to understand each of the active ingredients in your beauty routine. "The 'stronger' the product, the more conservative you want to be in terms of the amount applied and frequency of application," explains David Lortscher, M.D., founder of skin startup Curology. Looking up your products on the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep cosmetics database can also provide a clearer picture of possible irritants.
You don't alter your routine seasonally.
The number of products that can have adverse effects depends a lot on the season and environmental factors, adds Dr. Lortscher. "What you might be able to tolerate during humid summer months might be too much for skin that becomes dehydrated from indoor heating or dry winter winds during the winter months," he says. While a skin routine should ideally include a moisturizer, antioxidant, sunscreen, and topical retinoid in the evening, in general, he advises patients to use fewer, yet heavier, products when the air is colder and dryer. For example, a toner can be used more sparingly during the winter but integrated back into a summer routine when skin tends to be oilier. (Related: This Is What the Perfect Skin-Care Routine Looks Like)
Beyond talking to your derm about what's right for you, there are also skin-care apps, including Intelligent Skin MD, that can help you figure out a routine based on environmental factors and your skin type, says Dr. Tzu, who developed the app.
Your skin is shiny but not oily.
A telltale sign of overexfoliation, a common concern that sends women to the derm, is skin that's not oily to the touch but still looks shiny, says Dr. Lortscher. "The reason is that overexfoliated skin has lost more of the surface dead skin cells than ideal," he says. Resist the urge to exfoliate daily and pare down your products to leave some of the almost dull texture of cleansed skin that's not overcleansed and won't get shiny, he explains: "What we want is a bit of roughness to the skin surface, so the light scatters, and shine is avoided!" Feelings of skin "tightness" is another clue that you may be using too many drying products that are overexfoliating your skin, he adds.
Here's what to do if you experience a reaction.
Many women assume skin irritation is simply par for the course if they want results, says Dr. Tanzi. "People ignore the irritation when they start using too many products because they falsely think [it's] a sign that the aggressive skin-care regimen is 'working,' when in reality, it is just inflaming the skin," she says. (Related: What's Causing All That Skin Redness?)
Another common mistake: adding more products, instead of taking them away, says Dr. Kauvar. "People who are product 'junkies' will often attempt to counteract a reaction to one product by applying others, and it often becomes difficult to figure out the culprit," she says.
Instead, it's best to stop using your entire arsenal until you understand which products are truly beneficial to your skin: "If you develop a skin reaction to your products, it's always best to stop them all, give your skin a rest, and add back one at a time with a couple of days in between." And of course, if all else fails, go see your derm.