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From the time we’re old enough to bathe ourselves, we’re taught to “scrub-a-dub-dub.” Wash cloths, loofahs, body brushes, and scrubs—pick your poison—at least one of these gets ingrained in our daily routines. Doctors warn that exfoliating our faces too often harms our skin, scrubbing off the “barrier” of natural oils that protect it from the outside environment. So why would the skin on our bodies be any different?
Newsflash: It isn’t. We should be using just as much caution with our body skin as our facial skin.
What is the concern with body scrubs?
When done in moderation, using gentle physical exfoliants on your skin is not a bad thing, according to Dr. Suzanne Friedler, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City. “There are times where you feel like your skin is kind of dull and dingy... where you want to get rid of some of that dead skin or make your skin a little brighter,” she says. “The key is really using products that are gentle and that aren’t going to tear the skin.”
The problem is, some body scrubs contain harsh ingredients that are more likely to cause injury to the skin. The “tears” that Friedler refers to are microscopic and can occur if the exfoliating particles are sharp or rough, or if you use a lot of pressure while scrubbing. These tears are disruptive to our skin barrier, the outermost layer of the skin that consists of cells and lipids and acts as a protective shield against harmful bacteria, fungus, viruses, and other microorganisms. And, like a normal cut, if those irritants gets into a microtear, it could cause an infection.
Any product using large or sharp particles, such as nut shells, are more likely to cause damage. Instead, look for gentle scrubs that use sugar, salt, jojoba beads (which resemble microbeads but are biodegradable). You can also make your own by mixing granulated sugar, sea salt, or leftover finely ground coffee into a moisturizing base such as oil or avocado.
Even if you use a gentler formula, you can still over-exfoliate. “I would caution about doing it too often because you do need a good, intact skin barrier to retain your skin’s hydration and oil,” Friedler says. “It shouldn’t be an everyday thing.” If you notice any kind of irritation—redness, inflammation, or a rash—Friedler suggests stopping immediately.
Are there alternatives to body scrubs?
While we don’t hear about chemical exfoliation—which uses gentle acids to dissolve the bonds holding dead skin cells together—as often as physical exfoliation when it comes to body skin, there are lotions and cleansers containing acids—glycolic, lactic, and salicylic, to name a few—that exfoliate in a gentler way. These are more foolproof because they do the work for you gradually, taking out the potential for user error. For best use, choose one chemical exfoliant, whether it’s a cleanser, serum, or moisturizer, and introduce it gradually—once or twice a week to start—to monitor for any irritation.
“Slow and steady wins the race. Always being gentler is better,” Friedler says. “And always follow an exfoliation with moisturization. Locking in that moisture helps to repair the skin barrier.”
Popular chemical exfoliants to try
Mario Badescu AHA Botanical Body Soap: For a daily body wash, Mario Badescu makes a soap that uses papaya and grapefruit extracts to exfoliate dead skin cells and oat protein to soothe sensitive and irritated skin.
Glossier Body Hero Daily Perfecting Cream: The ever-popular Glossier makes a lotion claiming to exfoliate with tamarind fruit, which contains alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), brighten with an evodia rutaecarpa fruit extract complex, and moisturize with cactus flower, prickly pear, and yucca extracts.
True Botanicals Resurfacing Body Mask: This mask uses lactic acid to exfoliate and remove the buildup of dead skin cells. Once or twice a week, massage the mask onto the skin, leave on for five to 15 minutes, then rinse off in the shower.
Popular physical exfoliants to try
Tree Hut Shea Sugar Scrub: This scrub from Tree Hut uses whole sugar grains to gently exfoliate the skin, shea nut oil to moisturize, and vitamin C to brighten the skin’s appearance.
Sol de Janeiro Brazilian Bod Buff Smoothing Scrub ‘N’ Mask: This product from Sol de Janeiro doubles as an exfoliating scrub and “detoxifying” clay mask. It uses Brazilian quartz crystal, tropical volcanic pumice, and rice grain to exfoliate the skin, and kaolin clay from the Amazon River to rid the skin of impurities.
Herbivore Coco Rose Coconut Oil Body Polish: This formula from Herbivore uses sugar to exfoliate, moroccan rose oil to boost hydration and reduce redness, and virgin coconut oil to moisturize with lauric acid, proteins, and fatty acids.
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