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8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)

Whether you’re talking diet, politics, or skincare, all-or-nothing thinking leads in the wrong—usually destructive—direction. With skin, getting the balance right is an intensely individual process, and dermatologists report that many of their clients err on the side of overkill when it comes to exfoliating.

“People will come in thinking they’ve got extremely sensitive or dry skin, and when they tell me their skin routines, they’re doing at-home peels and scrubs, and using exfoliation brushes—all at once,” says top New York dermatologist Amy Wechsler. “Too much of a good thing is…not a good thing! You can really mess up your skin by scrubbing too much or too hard.”

The stratum corneum, the outermost layer of skin, serves as a moisture barrier for skin; keeping moisture in and invaders out is its key function. If that layer gets disrupted, not only can moisture get out, but irritants and even infectious agents can get in. Even superficially, a compromised moisture barrier makes skin look thinner and duller, with the potential to peel, crack, and flake.

When you disrupt the barrier with overzealous exfoliation, irritants that might not bother you normally—detergents, fragrances, allergens, etc.—suddenly have a pathway into the deeper layers of your skin, where they can cause redness, further dryness, and all manner of reactions. The detergents and fragrances built into most conventional exfoliant formulas are a particularly bad idea as a result: The exfoliation delivers the toxins and irritants directly into your skin. But even when using clean, nontoxic exfoliants, it’s crucial to proceed with caution. Especially because the resulting dull, uneven skin surface you get from overdoing it might make you think you need more exfoliation.

Many doctors warn patients to avoid exfoliating in common spaces, like the gym. One high-end gym in Manhattan is notorious for the number of MRSA infections its members have suffered from: The gym is next to a hospital, so many of its doctors work out there; micro-tears in skin from using a scrub in the shower leaves the scrubber much more vulnerable to infection.

Brushes—whether for body or face—can be incredible ways to exfoliate (and in the case of body brushes, invigorate the entire body and spirit). Firm (but not hard) pressure makes all the difference. The other thing to avoid is going back over a particular spot with the brush multiple times.

That said, the right amount of exfoliation actually helps maintain the stratum corneum. In fact, the benefits of exfoliating are especially pronounced for those with severe dry skin, which is most often treated with alpha-hydroxy acids to help normalize the process of the shedding of dead skin cells and the generation of fresh cells beneath them. As with most substances, the dose makes the poison.

To make sure you’ve got the balance right, look first at the sum total of exfoliating products you use: Alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids, prescription retinoids like Retin-A or Tazorac, over-the-counter retinols, some peptides, and enzymes like papaya and pineapple are all exfoliating, so many anti-aging creams, along with many acne treatments, are exfoliating in and of themselves. Many cleansers contain these same ingredients, too. If you’re using a treatment, a cleanser, a cleansing brush, and an exfoliant, all of them sweeping away skin, and you’re feeling like your skin is too dry or becoming sensitive, dial it back completely, then slowly re-introduce your favorite product, replacing the others with non-exfoliant versions.

Another factor to consider is that physical scrubs made with things like walnut shells or apricot kernels naturally have rough, irregular edges that can tear skin on a microscopic level, and more quickly induce dryness, redness, and reactions. Then again, chemical (this includes any exfoliant that’s not physical, from AHAs to enzymes) exfoliants can irritate some people’s skin—finding your perfect formula may involve some trial and error.

The benefit of regular, not-too-intense exfoliation, however, is nothing short of dramatically better-functioning skin. When we’re babies, our cells turn over and slough off easily, which is one of the reasons childrens’ skin looks so beautiful. As we age, that process gets slower: Dead skin cells create a rough, dull texture that both looks older and is more vulnerable to outside irritants. Properly exfoliated skin mimics that youthful smoothness, allows treatment ingredients (including plain old moisturizer) to penetrate better, for more profound results. Glowy, healthy skin is the result of many things, but a good balance between properly exfoliated and well-moisturized is absolutely key.

5 Powerful-Yet-Gentle Face Scrubs

8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)

goop by Juice Beauty Exfoliating Instant Facial

goop, $125

The Exfoliating Instant Facial instantly brightens and softens skin to reveal a glowing, smoother-looking complexion. Natural alpha and beta hydroxy acids sweep away dead skin cells; and plant-based cellulose beads exfoliate further, while releasing soothing vitamin B5, leaving skin supple, soft, and utterly revitalized. The Exfoliating Instant Facial is formulated with USDA-certified organic ingredients and contains approximately 86% total organic content.

8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)

Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser

goop, $78

This bestselling essential-oil-packed cream gently exfoliates skin with plant-based microbeads, leaving skin glowy, fresh, and moisturized. And the gorgeous bottle comes with an incredibly easy to use pump. Good for all skin types.

8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)

de Mamiel Brightening Cleanse & Exfoliate

goop, $64

This superfood powder for the face is made with healing clays, and plant and gem extracts that you mix with water to create a radiance-boosting miracle mask. It smells delicately of roses, relaxing the mind as it transforms skin, leaving it smooth and practically poreless with an incredible glow.

8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)

Tatcha Classic Rice Enzyme Powder

goop, $65

This whole line is based on the ancient rituals of geishas; this exfoliating cleanser smoothes skin with rice bran (Japanese sake makers originally discovered its skin-softening properties) and papaya enzymes; green tea soothes irritation and protects skin from free radicals. Good for normal and combination skin.

8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)

Goldfaden MD Doctor’s Scrub Advanced

goop, $98

Ideal for oily and combination skin, Dr. Goldfaden’s revolutionary, totally clean exfoliating treatment is said to rival in-office microdermabrasion procedures. Ruby crystals sweep away dead skin cells so antioxidant organic red tea, ultra-hydrating hyaluronic acid, and soothing seaweed extract penetrates skin for deep rejuvenation. The pleasantly foamy treatment reduces the appearance of fine lines, reduces pore size, and leaves skin radiant and healthy.

3 Super-Moisturizing Body Scrubs

8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)

Shiva Rose Sea Siren Body Scrub

goop, $65

For the most moisturizing, skin-silkening shower pretty much ever, this body-butter scrub is made with mineral-rich blue-green algae that’s wild harvested from the Cascade Falls in the mountains of Oregon. The algae—full of enzymes, vitamins, chlorophyll, amino acids, and fatty acids that feed your skin—is blended with rich butters and oils that hydrate and smooth skin like crazy. It smells gorgeously of lemongrass, an essential oil said to transform negativity, protect auric fields, and build courage, positivity, and psychic abilities. You’ll step out of the shower fully moisturized, faintly scented, and seriously radiant.

8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)

African Botanics African Muti-Mud Mineral Body Scrub

goop, $65

This luxurious body scrub, inspired by an ancient African spa ritual, deeply exfoliates with fine lava crystals to remove dead skin cells. A medley of oxygenating, mineral-rich volcanic clays—drawn from ancient volcanic lava formations—infuse the skin with rejuvenating nutrients, while cocoa, peppermint, marula, baobab and avocado oils work to improve skin’s texture and tone. A gentle massage in the shower or bath with this luxurious, instantly smoothing treatment leaves skin youthfully plump, glowy, and so very soft.

8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)

Herbivore Botanicals Coco Rose Body Polish

goop, $36

Virgin coconut oil and delicately floral Moroccan rose petals subtly scent and fully moisturize your skin as exfoliating sugar crystals smooth and soften. Shea butter and meadowfoam-seed oil plump and hydrate; rose clay and rose oils refine and treat—pure heaven.

…And One Great Dry Brush

8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)

The Organic Pharmacy Skin Brush

goop, $15

This genius, long-handled natural-bristle brush allows you to thoroughly dry-brush every part of your body—especially your back, which feels particularly amazing (and is uniquely hard-to-reach). It’s also the perfect balance of soft and firm, designed to gently exfoliate, improve circulation, condition skin, and boost the lymphatic system. Brilliant for detoxing, and equally brilliant for everyday skin-smoothing and energy-generating immune support.

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