Does Skin Care’s Most Controversial Product Really Deserve All The Hate?

The experts say... maybe not.

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Woman using face scrub
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If you’ve spent any time on skincare Twitter, you know that face scrubs are branded as skin’s enemy number one. Following the extraordinary rise of St. Ives’s infamous apricot scrub in the early 2000s and the subsequent lawsuit claiming the product creates skin microtears, inflammation, and advanced aging, physical exfoliators are more divisive than ever.

Yet while many skin experts denounce them at every turn, consumers are simultaneously white-knuckling their favorite products. Sure, the internet was appalled when Kylie Skin released a walnut scrub in 2019 — however, it is one of the brand’s most reviewed products with a glowing 4.5-star average rating on its website. Dermalogica’s Daily Microfoliant is a longtime skin care fan favorite and Paula’s Choice The UnScrub Gentle Cleansing Scrub recently won a coveted Allure Best of Beauty award in 2019. So, as both brand and consumer interest in scrubs show no signs of dwindling, it begs the question — are they really that bad?

“I used to be against them for clients because most [people] were using them improperly,” says NYC-based esthetician Sean Garrette. “But if you are someone who has rough texture on the skin, [scrubs] help with texture and smoothing, especially for guys who shave like myself. I use them a lot for ingrown hairs in my beard area.” Jessica Houston, lead esthetician at BEAUTYBEEZ in Los Angeles, is less forgiving. “Anytime someone asks me about exfoliants, I never go straight to physical exfoliants,” she says of her recommendations. “I do understand the gravitation towards an actual scrub. I just don’t know if that’s the best thing to recommend people put on their face. They can be effective but you have to get the right kind.”

While skin care professionals overall still tend to side-eye the entire category, they admit there are some benefits to physical exfoliants — with a few caveats.

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Best Practices For Using A Scrub

Humans have a bad habit of being rougher on their skin in an effort to make a product ‘work’, increasing the risk of an already potentially damaging ingredient. Like with many other skin care ingredients (retinol, acids, etc.), scrubs in the wrong hands and with the wrong usage can lead to disastrous results. But with a little guidance and a light hand, they can also work wonders for your skin.

To start, the experts agree that walnut scrubs (which have grown in popularity over the last few years) aren’t doing you any favors. “Any ‘pit’ scrub is going to be really abrasive [for the skin],” says cosmetic surgeon Dr. Kevin Sadati. “You want to use something that is mild such as rice and oat powder.” The right kind of physical exfoliant strikes the precarious balance between truly polishing skin without creating undue damage.

Garrette notes that the danger of scrubs lies in both the product itself as well as usage. While the walnut bits in popular scrubs are too jagged for even the gentlest touch, it's crucial to use light pressure when using a physical exfoliant and let the product do the heavy lifting.

“A physical scrub is really using that action to lift up dead, rough skin and texture,” says Garrette. “Physical exfoliants aren’t perfectly round — that’s how they pick up dead skin. If the product is a round jojoba bead, that’s going to melt in water and it’s not useful for exfoliating.” Diatomaceous earth, ground bamboo, volcanic sand, and microcrystals are becoming the scrub material of choice in newer product launches, all of which are gentler on your skin.

Choose A Hybrid Exfoliating Product

Physical exfoliants bolstered by the power of enzymes and exfoliating acids offer a more comprehensive treatment that relies less on manual buffing (which can be too harsh for the skin), and can reduce the risk of irritation. That’s why looking for a product that contains both physical and chemical exfoliating ingredients can offer the best of both worlds.

“Start off with a milder texture but the acid is a little stronger,” says Houston. “That will help with long-term results instead of just that immediate gratification [like softer skin]. If you use it correctly, you will see improvements in concerns like hyperpigmentation.” If uneven tone is one of your primary concerns, in addition to texture issues, a chemical or hybrid exfoliating product will offer the best results. Adds Houston, “If you use just a scrub you’re not getting all the benefits of exfoliation.”

Lactic acid and exfoliating enzymes are two common ingredients that you’ll find in hybrid exfoliating products, which can help to gently resurface and risk minimal irritation.

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How To Know If You’re the Right Candidate

Everyone’s skin is different, which means that not every product and ingredient is right for you — this applies to physical scrubs as well. “People with rosacea should never use facial scrubs, or anyone post-laser treatment,” says Dr. Sadati. “Anyone with skin inflammation should also stay away from scrubs.” As a general guide, it’s wise to avoid anything exfoliating (chemical or physical) after an aesthetic procedure, like lasers, to avoid irritating your already sensitized skin.

Additionally, people with active acne, eczema, or generally sensitive skin should stick to enzymes and gentler chemical exfoliants, like lactic acid. Exfoliating acids and enzymes break down dead skin cells and encourage the natural turnover process rather than physically pulling them away from the surface. Those with more resilient, balanced skin or visible flakes are better suited for testing the waters with scrubs.

Above All — Don’t Overdo It With Scrubs

The number one rule with an exfoliant, but especially physical formulas, is to not go overboard with how often you use it (or how aggressively you scrub). “Just because you see the results that you want after a couple of uses that probably means your skin likes where it is,” warns Houston. “If you keep trying to use it it's probably going to have the opposite effect. Start off maybe two times a week.”

It’s also crucial to have the right follow-up routine. “When you overuse a scrub you're going to naturally dehydrate your skin,” says Garrette. “You want to make sure the rest of your routine is hydrating. Niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, beta-glucan — just [add] soothing ingredients. Make sure you're protecting your skin with SPF in the morning and a nourishing cream at night.”

For the best results post-scrub, keep your routine (and pressure) gentle. “With skin care, it all has to be simple,” says Houston. “A little bit goes a long away. Start off small and then gradually incorporate [new products, like a scrub].”

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“This has salicylic acid and an enzymatic complex like papaya and pineapple enzymes,” says Garrette. “So it's kind of working on a chemical level and also helping smooth that texture with the micro exfoliating crystals.”

“I’m always looking for [a physical exfoliant] that has some type of chemical or enzymatic component to it,” says Garrette. “This has enzymatic exfoliation properties as well as the physical.”

“I use this in my facials if you have hyperpigmentation or if you have an uneven look to your skin for an overall smoother finish,” says Houston.

“This is actually one of my favorites,” says Houston. “I’ll use it two times a month when I see roughness on my T-zone or chin if I want a more even skin tone.”

“If you’re going to use a scrub, use something mild and gentle because they can often be very uneven and abrasive,” says Dr. Sadati. The Stemology skin polisher uses both rice and oat powder for a more gentle exfoliation.

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