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Fashionista Beauty Helpline: How Bad Is It Really to Use a Face Scrub?

Are those scratchy little bits completely ruining your face? We investigated.
Photo: Imaxtree

Photo: Imaxtree

Beauty editors and writers are used to getting late-night (or early-morning or literally 24-hours-a-day) texts with zero context and burning questions. No, we don't mean of the "U up?" variety. These inquiries are about skin freak-outs, product recommendations and makeup mishaps... and we've seen 'em all. With that in mind, we welcome you to our series, "Fashionista Beauty Helpline," where we address the beauty questions we get asked most frequently — and run them by experts who really know their stuff.

The beauty editor's "U up?"

The beauty editor's "U up?"

There was a time when a certain, not-to-be-named, very gritty facial scrub — made from ground-up walnut shells — was considered the gold standard of exfoliation. After that, microbeads — gentler, scrubby particles made from tiny, smooth spheres of plastic — took over for a bit because they were considered less harsh. Those, too, soon fell out of favor, even becoming widely banned due to their detrimental impact on the environment. Fast forward to 2018, and we're living in a time when coffee-, turmeric- and charcoal-based scrubs litter our Instagram feeds, each promising to be just the thing to deliver us from dullness, dryness, patchiness, breakouts and dark spots forever. 

But here's the thing: You probably shouldn't even be using a face scrub at all. This is a subject I get asked about all the time, so I turned to a panel of skin-care experts to find out why they warn against the traditional sandpapery products and favor a new, more modern take on exfoliation.

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A note that for the sake of this investigation, we limited our research just to the face, rather than the body. The skin on your face is thinner and more sensitive, so the same rules can't necessarily be applied to body skin and face skin equally.

First, a quick primer on the different types of exfoliation, as explained by Dr. Annie Chiu, a dermatologist and founder of The Derm Institute in Redondo Beach, Calif.: "Physical exfoliants include ingredients like jojoba beads, clay, sugar, salt — one even uses rubies," she says. "A physical exfoliant could also be a muslin wash cloth, a sponge or a brush like a Clairsonic. It could also be microdermabrasion, which should be performed in your dermatologist's office. These little bits physically scrub your skin clean; chemical exfoliants use acids to exfoliate. Most commonly, these are AHAs — glycolic acid, lactic acid and so on — and BHA (salicylic acid)."

As for which method Dr. Chiu recommends to her patients, she notes that, as with most things in skin-care, it's not necessarily a one-size-fits-all situation. "It depends on your face, your skin type and your needs." But with that caveat, she typically comes down on the side of chemical exfoliants, which she favors because they're less abrasive. "This makes them a better choice for those with sensitive skin, acne, hyperpigmentation or dry skin. I generally choose a chemical exfoliant over a physical one," she explains.

New York City-based dermatologic surgeon Dr. Dendy Engelman is of a similar school of thought. "Generally for the face, chemical exfoliants are the best option for ridding the skin of dirt and grime and not causing irritation," she says. "Physical exfoliation can be too harsh on the skin if not done properly or too frequently."

For those scared of the idea of using acids — I get it, I've seen "Fight Club," too — or for anyone put off by the word "peel," allow me and a chorus of doctors to set you straight. Peels don't necessarily make your skin "peel," per se, and acid-based exfoliators are, in fact, less harsh than their gritty physical counterparts. "Chemical exfoliants unglue dead cells to make them slough off the skin, versus irritating yourself with traumatic physical exfoliants which are a bit more likely to irritate," explains Dr. Chiu.

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New York City-based cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Sejal Shah echoes that perspective, adding that with face scrubs, there's a bit more room for human error. "I find that people often scrub too aggressively which can be damaging to the skin," she says. "Although it sounds harsher than mechanical exfoliation, chemical exfoliation is actually gentler on the skin because it doesn't involve scrubbing."

There are downsides to other types of physical exfoliators (brushes or cleansing cloths), too, notes Dr. Engelman. "If your skin is acne-prone, reusable devices like a brush or cloth can harbor bacteria, which can actually make your acne worse. This type of skin reacts best to chemical exfoliants. Exfoliating helps with acne lesions and cleanses pores, and acids like salicylic, lactic and glycolic fight oil and remove pore-clogging dead skin cells."

What's more, in addition to simply whisking away dead skin cells and debris on the skin, acid exfoliators have can have long-term benefits for skin. "Unlike physical exfoliants, over time, they smooth, brighten and even out skin tone because they also stimulate collagen production, firm up your skin and reduce wrinkles."

A crucial note, no matter what type of exfoliating you're doing, is that it is possible to overdo it, and your face isn't going to be happy with you if that happens. "Over-exfoliation causes irritation, inflammation like acne, makes you more susceptible to sunburn and you can lose moisture and disrupt the natural skin barrier," says Dr. Chiu, who recommends limiting exfoliation to once or twice a week. 

It's also important to soothe and protect skin post-exfoliation, and that means loading up on moisturizers and (of course!) sunscreen. "Look for product with ceramides, hyaluronic acid and peptides to strengthen the skin barrier," advises Dr. Engelman. (I personally love this one.)

If you're absolutely dead set on using a scrub (after all that, really?), be smart about which formula you choose. "Watch out for very large particles, like nut shells, [which] can be more harsh and cause micro-tears which can cause acne or irritation," cautions Dr. Chiu. "Look for fine particles, like sugar. Don't rub too hard and don't do it more than once or twice a week." 

But really, it's 2018 and we, as a society, have progressed beyond the need for face scrubs with a better technology: peels. You're not still walking around using your BlackBerry to BBM people, are you? 

Below, we've rounded up a selection of our favorite acid-based exfoliators.

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