When the OG scrubs (aka physical exfoliators) arrived in the ’80s and ’90s, they were wildly popular. Remember St. Ives Apricot Scrub? Sure, some of those skin smoothers felt like sandpaper, but the results were instant and addictive: A single sloughing session could leave skin noticeably softer, smoother, and more radiant.
The problem was that radiance could morph into chronic redness and irritation. “Formulas that contained pointy, uneven nuts or shells abraded the skin and caused tiny tears,” says Diane Berson, MD, a New York City dermatologist. And less irritating formulas, thanks to the use of smooth plastic microbeads, were found to be harmful in their own way, as they didn’t break down and found their way into waterways, fish—and humans. In 2015, Congress banned their use in all cosmetic rinse-off products.
Scrubs didn’t disappear after that, but they lost their status as a skincare essential—at least until recently. In the past year or so, a new generation of physical exfoliators has emerged, boasting gentler, biodegradable ingredients that promise to slough safely. Burt’s Bees Gentle Face Scrub utilizes smooth carnauba wax beads; Versed Day Maker Microcrystal Exfoliator employs uniform microcrystals, and Coola Pacific Polish Gentle Sea Salt Facial Exfoliator uses salt granules.
It’s still prudent, however, to cleanse with caution. “Scrubbing with too much vigor, regardless of the ingredients, can be traumatizing to the skin,” Dr. Berson warns. Julia Tzu, MD, a New York City dermatologist, tells her patients not to exceed scrubbing three times a week, adding, “Don’t overdo it. I try to stick to no more than 10 to 15 seconds.”
This article appears in the March 2022 issue of ELLE.
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