8 Amazing, Clean Scrubs (and How Not to Overdo It)
Written by: Jean Godfrey-June
Updated: September 11, 2020
Whether you’re talking diet, politics, or skin care, 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 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 toxic ingredients 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; microtears in skin from using a scrub in the shower leave 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 shedding dead skin cells and generating 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 antiaging 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 reintroduce your favorite product, replacing the others with nonexfoliating 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 exfoliants (this includes any exfoliant that’s not physical, from AHAs to enzymes) 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 children’s 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 and 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 & Exfoliators
goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Microderm Instant Glow Exfoliatorgoop, $125/$112 with subscription
GOOPGLOW Microderm Instant Glow Exfoliator is inspired by the transformative brightening, smoothing effects of popular in-office microdermabrasion treatments. It’s a dual-action microdermabrasion exfoliator that delivers the benefits of both physical and chemical exfoliation, instantly polishing away roughness, smoothing uneven texture, and revealing a healthy-looking, glowing complexion. The air-whipped, almost marshmallow-like formula is densely packed with a blend of four powerful glow-inducing microexfoliating minerals (quartz, garnet, alumina, and silica) plus glycolic acid to help sweep away dry, dead skin cells and refine the appearance of pores for skin that is visibly softer, smoother, and more radiant.
Tata Harper Regenerating Cleansergoop, $84
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.
de Mamiel Brightening Cleanse and Exfoliategoop, $70
This superfood powder for the face is made with healing clays and plant and gem extracts; you mix it 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.
Dr. Barbara Sturm Enzyme Cleansergoop, $75
This cleanser-meets-exfoliator starts out as a fine powder, transforming into a soft foam when mixed with water. Especially brilliant for oily and combination skin, enzymes and cellulose gently polish away impurities to leave skin refreshed and baby-smooth. The vitamin C in the formula is great for glow, too.
Goldfaden MD Doctor’s Scrub Advancedgoop, $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, ultrahydrating hyaluronic acid, and soothing seaweed extract penetrate 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
goop Beauty G.Tox 5 Salt Detox Body Scrubgoop, $40
Smooth, exfoliate, soften, and hydrate your skin with the detoxifying power of five mineral-rich salts (Himalayan pink salt, Dead Sea salt, Celtic sea salt, New Zealand solar salt, and Epsom salt) and three ultramoisturizing oils (cold-pressed moringa, pure unfiltered rose hip, and organic extra virgin olive oils). Breathe in the holistic blend of essential oils—helichrysum, rosemary, grapefruit, and peppermint—as you sweep away dead skin cells, soften, and lock in moisture, leaving behind a velvety-smooth feel and a subtle, beautiful scent.
C & The Moon Malibu Made Body Scrubgoop, $64
For an incredibly skin-softening shower, this luscious body scrub is made with brown sugar to gently exfoliate skin. The sugar is combined with three rich, certified-organic oils (coconut, sweet almond, and jojoba, so the scrub is also intensely moisturizing), along with food-grade vanilla, which smells particularly fantastic. You’ll emerge from the shower super hydrated—most of us don’t even need to put on moisturizer afterward—faintly scented, and gleamy-limbed.
Herbivore Botanicals Coco Rose Body Polishgoop, $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
goop Beauty G.Tox Ultimate Dry Brushgoop, $20
Dry brushing is an essential—and energizing—skin-detox step. Made from pure, natural sisal, this brush exfoliates lightly and sweeps away dead skin to reveal glowing and smooth skin. Use it right before you turn on the water.