Not too long ago, I heard some alarming news about a beloved skin-care product: the always-reliable facial scrub. I spent nearly two decades assuming that a scrub was, at best, the secret to smooth, buttery skin, and at worst, a guy who thinks he’s fly and is also known as a buster. But then Paula Begoun, founder of Paula’s Choice and destroyer of dreams, told me this: “When you scrub skin with abrasive scrubs, they put micro-tears into skin. They make your skin more vulnerable to environmental damage, pollution, and sun damage.” That’s why she refuses to sell facial scrubs to customers, arguing that the damage from scrubs leads to inflammation, which in turn causes premature granny skin.
As a twice-a-week scrubber, I found this information disturbing. After all, aren’t scrubs good for you? Don’t they slough away dead skin cells to reveal radiant baby skin? Dr. Howard Lancer, a Beverly Hills dermatologist, thinks so. In fact, he advocates scrubbing every day so that helpful active ingredients in moisturizers can penetrate the skin more efficiently. “I have all my patients get in the habit of using a physical scrub — what I call polish — every single day, as it actually teaches the skin cells to turn over more quickly, mimicking the action of youthful cells.”
Begoun calls foul on this line of thinking, telling me that scrubbing to make ingredients penetrate better is like stabbing yourself only to stick medicine in the wound. Still, I was torn, especially since Dr. Lancer treats Beyoncé, and her skin looks so incredible that people regularly accuse her of Photoshop trickery.
Talking to Manhattan dermatologist Dr. Neal Schultz clarified a few things. He took the middle road, saying that scrubs aren’t necessarily catalysts to sad, wrinkly skin, but they are problematic. The problem is that the typical scrubber is totally unpredictable. The length of time the person scrubs and the amount of pressure applied while scrubbing are two variables that can lead to irritated skin. There’s also the matter of the granules, or the specific grains that make up different scrubs. Large, hard, and sandlike rocks, like the ones in St. Ives’s Apricot Scrub, are the most damaging because they are too abrasive for the face’s thin skin. Dr. Schultz says softer and smaller pastelike micro-grains are less likely to irritate, and plastic beads are best if you can overlook their habit of destroying the ecosystem.
I called another Manhattan dermatologist, Dr. Dennis Gross, who set the tone for our conversation by declaring his passionate aversion to scrubs. “Scrubs are a primitive way to exfoliate. It’s like using sandpaper on your face. If you look closely at the sandpaper surface, you’ll see lots of scratch marks, and that’s what happens on the skin.” He agrees with Begoun that the inflammation and irritation triggered by scrubs can accelerate the aging process. Part of the reason scrubs may be so popular, despite their insidious long-term effects, is that they’re cheap and the aging repercussions aren’t noticeable until years, even decades later.
That’s not to say that people shouldn’t exfoliate. Chemical exfoliants like glycolic and beta hydroxy (also known as salicylic) acid peels are universally preferred by skin-care experts. Like scrubs, they gently encourage skin-cell turnover, but unlike scrubs, they’re generally very expensive. Take Murad, for example. The brand’s Skin Polish (a scrub) retails for $30, but its Radiance Peel (a chemical exfoliant) packs a $55 price point. Scrubs are affordable and often deliver immediate results — they’re the McDonald’s, if you will, of skin care. But just as a juicy Big Mac delivers instant satisfaction but long-term negative consequences, so can scrubs. Begoun notes, “You might have heard that a scrub will help with collagen, but that’s like saying smoking a cigarette helps with relaxing. There are other ways to stimulate collagen without damaging the skin.”
So, yes, to some degree, scrubs cause cosmetic damage. The severity of that damage wholly depends on how well your skin is able to repair itself, the kind of scrubs used, and the frequency and intensity of use. Despite their intimidating name, chemical peels are, in fact, less damaging, so we’ve rounded up a few you should consider. Click the slideshow for the best scrub alternatives, including peels and chemical exfoliants.