Exfoliating Scrubs: The Good, the Bad, and the Totally OK

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It’s easy to assume that there’s not much room for interpretation in the world of skincare. You need to wear sunscreen, vitamin C is a holy grail ingredient, and regularly washing your face is highly recommended, despite what some may think. The majority of dermatologists consider these facts essential steps to your skincare routine. There is, however, one product that not all dermatologists agree should be in your lineup: exfoliating scrubs.

Many of us grew up with gritty scrubs full of crushed fruit pits or microbeads — the latter of which are now illegal in the United States — and still consider them a nostalgic, skin-smoothing staple to this day. And some dermatologists and estheticians would agree, so long as you’re using them correctly (yes, there is a right way). Meanwhile, others have sworn them off entirely, and strongly advise you do the same. What’s a skincare aficionado to do? Here, we investigate exactly what it is about exfoliating scrubs that makes them so controversial.

The Benefits of Scrubs

Exfoliating scrubs do have a benefit, in that they effectively remove dead skin cells that could otherwise clog pores and put a damper on skin’s radiance. They can also smooth the stratum corneum, which is the rough, outermost layer of skin. “If you’re thinning that out, any products can sink into skin more deeply,” says Emmy Graber, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston, Massachusetts.

Basically, an exfoliating scrub removes any impediments that could keep the rest of your skincare products from properly absorbing. “For example, if you’re using an acne cream with benzoyl peroxide and a physical exfoliator, the benzoyl peroxide can get deeper into the pores to kill bacteria,” she explains. She thinks of a gentle scrub as a supplement to more powerful treatments — versus a gritty, harsh scrub serving as a treatment all on its own. (The exception to this is retinol, which can be too irritating when combined with a scrub.)

[Editor's note: Retinol shouldn't be used by women who are pregnant, considering getting pregnant, or nursing. Please consult with your doctor before use.]

Finally, scrubs work quickly. “A facial scrub makes pores appear smaller instantly, removes dry skin immediately, and brightens skin, as it increases blood flow to the skin via the massaging action to give it a fresh, healthy look,” says celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau.

The Argument Against Scrubs

On the other hand, some dermatologists consider exfoliating scrubs to be far too harsh for skin — even if you’re not over-exfoliating, which is always a possibility. “Exfoliating scrubs are essentially like taking sandpaper to a wood surface,” says Dennis Gross, MD, board-certified dermatologist in NYC. “Although they may remove dead skin, you’ll see scratches if you look closely.” These little scratches are known as micro-tears — and they not only cause irritation, but create an entrance for bacteria, too.

Another concern is that the scrub’s effects are hard to control. There’s always the chance for human error: You could be applying too much pressure when you scrub, or using it too often. “Over-scrubbing can throw the skin off balance, possibly causing dryness and irritation,” Dr. Gross explains. “I prefer chemical exfoliation, because it results in an even detachment of the dead skin without abrasiveness as with scrub particles.”

Chemical exfoliants, also known as chemical peels, deliver a more even, reliable level of exfoliation, albeit in a different manner than scrubs. “When it comes to removing dry, damaged cells, chemical exfoliators with acids work to dissolve cells,” explains Rouleau. “Physical exfoliators, like a facial scrub, work to lift them off.” 

There are multiple types of chemical peels, including deep, in-office treatments and formulas that are ideal for deeper complexions, but the most important thing to know about chemical peels is that they’re capable of doing much more than removing dead skin cells. “When you use a peel daily, it jumpstarts the cell turnover process and stimulates collagen production,” says Dr. Gross.  Dr. Dennis Gross® Skincare Alpha Beta® Universal Daily Peel ($150 for 60 treatments) is gentle enough to be used each day, and delivers immediate, glow-y results as well as long-term brightening, firming, and smoothing benefits. 

How to Safely Use an Exfoliating Scrub

You can use scrubs if it’s your personal preference — so long as you keep a few things in mind. “Usually, I recommend that patients use scrubs with a natural exfoliator, like those that contain a rice grain extract [in the form of] a fine powder,” Dr. Graber says. One of our favorite examples in this category is Tatcha® The Rice PolishTM Foaming Enzyme Powder ($65), which is made with rice bran. Dr. Graber adds, “I don’t recommend ones that are made up of ground fruit pits, because they can cause tiny tears in the skin.” These microtears can eventually lead to the breakdown of collagen and cause your skin to look uneven. 

Instead, seek out another delicate option, like Rouleau’s Mint Buffing BeadsTM ($35), which exfoliate using tiny jojoba beads. Remember, microbeads are illegal in the states, so avoid any lingering products with this ingredient at all costs. They go down the drain and right into our water supplies — and in many instances, end up in the stomachs of fish and other marine life, and even onto our dinner plates.

If you’re using a scrub, do so with a light touch. “Let it gently roll over the face without adding too much pressure on the skin,” recommends Rouleau. And, whichever you choose, start slow. “I suggest starting it twice a week and then escalating to nightly use,” says Dr. Graber. It may seem conservative, but it’s better than risking irritation. Ultimately, however, the decision on what formula to use and when is up to you — just be sure to check with your dermatologist to see if your choice is right for your skin.

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