Face Scrubs: Everything You Need to Know
Many people like to use face scrubs as part of their daily skin care routines. Historically, we haven’t been big fans of the majority of scrubs for one significant reason: most of them are way too harsh and abrasive for skin (and we’ve evaluated hundreds over the last 30+ years). But we’ve always said that a gentle scrub used gently (yes, over-scrubbing is a thing!) can be a great option as an extra cleansing step for all skin types.
How can you tell if a scrub is gentle?
Reading ingredient labels alone isn’t the most reliable way to determine a scrub’s gentleness. Even if the ingredients sound mild, the particle size, shape—round is best— and the quality of the cut or how finely its milled each factors in.
Try testing the scrub on the back of your hand-- if it feels even a tiny bit scratchy, do NOT use it on your face (or body, for that matter). Another approach is to rely on brands you trust to only offer well-formulated products (that’s our mission at Paula’s Choice Skincare!).
Now let’s get to some of the most common myths about face scrubs. You’ll soon have the facts on the best type of scrub to use, which scrubs to avoid, and when to use a scrub in your routine.
Myth: All face scrubs damage skin, even if you’re careful.
Fact: Any scrub that contains large, irregularly-shaped particles damages skin by causing micro-tears in its surface. Common culprits include ground-up shells, fruit pits, or volcanic rock. Micro-tears gradually weaken skin’s barrier, making skin more prone to dry, flaky patches, redness, and signs of sensitivity. With daily use, especially if you’re zealously scrubbing with these ingredients, skin loses its ability to restore itself and look healthy.
This issue is made worse if the abrasive scrub also contains irritating fragrance, whether it’s natural or synthetic.
Although they’re few and far between, you can use a gentle, fragrance-free face scrub once or twice daily without worrying about hurting your skin.
Myth: You can scrub blackheads away.
Fact: If only it were that easy! Blackheads form deep in the pore, well beyond where even the best face scrubs can reach. A face scrub for blackheads might be able to remove the uppermost, visible portion of the blemish, but it’ll be back shortly. Think of it like using a lawnmower to remove weeds. The mower lops off the top portion of the weed, making it less noticeable, but doesn’t get to the root, which is what a leave-on BHA exfoliant does beautifully.
Another reason blackhead scrubs don’t work well, if at all: those black dots at the opening of your pores aren’t caused by skin being dirty and in need of a deep cleaning. The black coloration results from the mix of oil and dead skin oxidizing once it reaches the surface.
Myth: Scrubs can get rid of acne.
Fact: Just like with blackheads, you can’t scrub away acne. Treating acne requires more than one product and using a harsh or abrasive scrub on active acne breakouts is likely to trigger more redness and irritation, while doing zero to clear your skin.
A gentle scrub used with minimal pressure can be part of an anti-acne routine by providing extra cleansing, but you’ll still want to use proven acne-fighting products to get this issue under control.
Myth: Natural face scrubs are best.
Fact: Many of the natural ingredients used to formulate scrubs are terrible for skin. For example, salt, nuts, and fruit pits are all natural but each of these is too rough on skin. In contrast, some natural ingredients like jojoba beads, oatmeal, silica, and rice bran can be incredibly gentle and effective. But even then, it comes down to the overall formula, including how fine the scrub particles are, whether they’re formulated to dissolve during use to avoid overdoing it, and whether the formula also contains hydrating and soothing ingredients.
When creating The UnScrub, we went with the natural, dissolving bead approach. Our goal—create the world’s gentlest face scrub that delivers all the benefits of a conventional scrub, without the risk of skin abrasion. This scrub’s perfectly round jojoba beads are specifically designed to cleanse skin’s surface without scratching or tearing it, yet still works to provide thorough cleansing and removal of sunscreen and stubborn makeup.
Myth: If a scrub tingles, it’s cleaning deeply.
Fact: Some face scrubs contain ingredients like menthol, peppermint, and eucalyptus that tingle on contact and leave a cooling sensation after you rinse. Don’t mistake these sensations for deep pore cleaning! That tingling is your skin telling you irritated, so always avoid this type of scrub.
When and how should you use a face scrub?
No matter your skin type, you can use a gentle scrub once or twice a day or as needed, based on personal preference. During the day, you can just use it as your sole cleanser; at night, you can use it as part of double cleansing, before or after your favorite traditional cleanser. After rinsing and patting skin dry with a towel, proceed with the rest of your skin care routine.
How are face scrubs different from leave-on exfoliants?
Scrubs and AHA or BHA exfoliants have completely different benefits and work in very different ways. Scrubs simply refine the very surface of skin, they cannot remove the thick, built-up layers of dead skin that result from sun damage or a misbehaving pore lining. Scrubs also can’t diminish white bumps or other blemishes like leave-on exfoliants can.
AHAs and BHA can reach all the dead layers, help skin look younger, and hydrate beyond the surface. Plus, BHA can exfoliate directly inside the pore and improve how the pore works—no scrub can do that.
Should you use a face scrub and an exfoliant?
This is perfectly fine to do, especially if you love the extra-clean (but never tight or dry) feeling a well-formulated scrub provides. Remember, face scrubs are about extra cleansing and softening benefits. They don’t do the same thing that AHA or BHA exfoliants do; rather, their benefits complement each other.
References for this information:
Clinics in Dermatology, May-June 2012, pages 335–344
The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, September 2011, pages 22-42
Bulletin of National Institute of Health Sciences, volume 129, 2011, pages 93–99
Yonsei Medical Journal, June 2006, pages 293–306
About the Experts
Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:
The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!