Scrubbing your way into trouble: how exfoliating scrubs can harm your skin

Dr Zara Kassam, PhD

Exfoliating scrubs – we’ve grown up believing they’re the key to clear, beautiful skin. But can they do more harm than good? Dr Zara Kassam PhD finds out.

Many of us have been utterly convinced, (well those of us who suffer the torment of hormonal changes), that in order to keep our faces free of oil and dead skin we must scrub ourselves regularly to keep lour skin looking fresh and blemish free.

There’s no doubt exfoliating is an important part of skincare and is often touted as a ‘detox’ for our skin, but some products can be detrimental to our skin – especially if they contain harsh, scratchy granules or are overused.


What do exfoliators do:

Exfoliators usually hasten the process of shedding dead skin cells or keratinocytes. There are two main types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. They both slough off dead skin—but they do so in very different ways.

Physical exfoliators include scrubs with beads, salt, sugar, or other tiny granules, sloughing sponges, or hand-held devices.

Chemical exfoliators contain acids like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), which loosen and lift dead cells, leaving new, vibrant skin behind. Commonly used types are glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid.

Both methods remove much of what’s known as ‘the horny layer’ of your skin – the outer layer where the dead cells accumulate. This process, called desquamation, promotes skin renewal and is vital for a healthy glowing skin. It’s especially important if you have acne or are aging as the skin’s renewal process has slowed down.



The downside of scrubs

But is there a downside? Could exfoliating too often cause damage or make existing damage worse.

Just like most things in life, too much is never a good thing. Over-exfoliating can do more harm than good – especially if you’re using physical exfoliators. Some can be too rough or granular for delicate facial tissues. Additionally some scrubs contain abrasive beads made of plastic or other  chemicals that can be very irritating or harmful to the skin (not to mention the environment).

Avoiding these is especially important if you have sensitive skin or acne. Harley Street Dermatologist, Dr Nick Lowe, says it’s best to resist “scrubbing with washcloths and using exfoliating products too often, as this will only make your skin look angrier.”

Instead Dr Lowe, the founder of the anti-acne skin care range acclenz,  suggests using products that contain salicylic acid and niacinamide as they help control oil production, smooth the skin and improve its texture.

He also says using a moisturising cleanser and oil free moisturiser is a must.

When it comes to exfoliating, it’s vital to understand the fine line between too often and not often enough. Exfoliating with a scrub every day can lead to:

  • Excessive dryness
  • Irritation
  • Redness
  • Broken blood vessels.

If you are going to use one, try not to do it more than a couple of times a week.


Ingredients to avoid

When using physical exfoliation there are certain ingredients you should avoid. Be wary if you see shells or fruit pits. Why they may be touted as ‘natural’ the particles may be quite large and rough and could cause micro-tears in the skin. This can make acne worse and it increases the risk of skin infection. As a result many dermatologists are not big fans of these types of physical exfoliators.

The shelves maybe packed with body and face scrubs full of things like sugar and salts but these too can take their toll on your skin, scratching and causing micro-abrasions.

And, the internet is awash with DYI recipes for exfoliators – some with oils that can make acne worse or irritate the skin such as coconut or olive oil.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to think why the top skin brands don’t have harsh abrasives in their range – they know they’re not great for your skin.

The alternative is trying chemical exfoliators – they aren’t as harsh to the skin barrier and have good evidence behind them when it comes to treating acne, skin pigment issues and reducing the visible signs of aging.














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