How to Use an Acne Scrub
When I was a teenager, I had a bad case of acne. My well-intentioned and very cost-conscious mother told me that what I needed to do was to scrub my face. By this, she meant I should fill the lavatory with steaming hot water to make a big foamy lather of Dove soap. I was to use the same scrub brush she used to get the dirt off potatoes to use that foaming lather of Dove soap to get the acne off my face.
I don’t recommend this procedure for anyone. It didn’t work. I was able to get rid of the acne scars, but it took about 10 years.
An acne scrub really is a great way to get rid of whiteheads and blackheads1. But you don’t do the scrubbing. You don’t use a potato brush or a wash cloth or anything else to scrub your face. You let the scrub do all the work for you.
- An acne scrub does all the work of scrubbing. You don’t have to rub it in, on, or across your face.
- Any kind of scrub that makes big bubbles irritates your skin because big bubbles pull on your skin. The area under the bubble, however, gets less cleansing action.
- Any kind of scrub that makes little bubbles focuses the force of the cleanser on oil and dirt rather on the skin itself.
- Scrubbing your face with a brush or a washcloth won’t make acne better. Your skin will be clean, but your pores will stay irritated.
- Fiber usually does not do a good job of cleansing the skin. Polyethylene microspheres usually do.
- You can take scrubbing to the next level with alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy exfoliant peels. These are OK in a scrub you use every day, but don’t pay extra for them.
- One of the most effective scrubs uses corundum crystals to remove dead skin, excess oil, and fine lines and wrinkles as well as hardened sebum, Exposed Skin Care.
How a Scrub Scrubs
Acne scrubs are not big bubbles of detergent lather that blasts dirt and oil off your skin2. You can put detergents on your skin, but they can cause more problems than they fix. Any product you use to scrub your skin should have small, flat bubbles that don’t make your skin feel like they are doing anything.
If it’s strong enough to make your skin tingle, it’s damaging the walls of your pores and locking oil and bacteria inside3. Your acne scrub won’t “prove” it’s working. You have to wait a few days to see.
The way a scrub scrubs is by dissolving the oils on your skin without dissolving the skin itself. Detergents dissolve both skin oil and skin. As contrary to common sense as it may seem, you really want to use oil to get oil off your face. Like dissolves like. Oil dissolves oil. You want a cleanser that has oil in water or water in oil that dissolves the excess oil on and in your pores. And you want the cleanser to do all the work.
Don’t Do Any of the Work
Why not do some scrubbing of your own?
There are several problems with using a literal brush or a scratchy wash cloth on your skin. One reason you should not wash your face with a washcloth is4 that any dirt or germs on the washcloth gets transferred to the skin you are trying to clean. If you wrap a washcloth around a bar of soap, you will definitely get visible loose dirt off your skin. But you will force soap film into your pores, and that can give you zits, too. Also, vigorous rubbing of the skin can damage the walls of pores and leave the susceptible to infections like impetigo that are even worse than acne.
Scrubs that Cleanse, and Scrubs that Heal
It may look like your scrub is just sitting on your face, but there is actually active motion across your face5 as bubbles expand, contract, and collapse. These bubbles can drag tiny particles of abrasive cleansers across your skin to loose hardened sebum in whiteheads and blackheads. The emphasis here is on “tiny.”6
If you can see the scrubbing agent in your acne scrub product, it is not going to do your skin any good. It is too large to be rubbed across your skin by the action of bubbles.
Coconut fiber, apricot, mica, walnut seeds, oatmeal fiber, and various kinds of barks look like they could scrub your face but they really don’t. They cause tiny cuts on your face, which you can’t see. These cuts allow bacteria to get into your skin and this can result in inflammation, blemishes, redness and skin sensitivity. Some of these popular scrubs are so harsh on the skin that they cause your skin to look older than it actually is. If you continue using these scrubs on a regular basis, it will cause your skin to progressively get damaged and inflamed. Even if you cannot see this process with your naked eye, it doesn’t mean that it is not happening. The scrub will promote the release of free radicals which will eventually age the skin due to the oxidative damage7 it does to it.
For this reason, it is best to check the ingredients of the scrub and avoid any scrubs which have ground shells or seeds. Also, avoid any scrubs which have emulsifiers since they will cause your skin to dry and age. Emulsifiers work by binding together the oil based and water based ingredients in lotions and creams. This makes it possible to use these products without necessarily having to shake them first. However, after you have applied the oil on your skin and all the ingredients have been absorbed, the emulsifier is left on top of your skin.
The soapy residue it leaves damages your skin by:
- Interfering with the natural pH of your skin. It will cause the pH of your skin to shift from 4.5 -5.3, which is slightly acidic to 6-7, which is alkaline. Your skin will respond by trying to restore its natural pH balance, which will result in it secreting excess oil, which can lead to redness, acne or rosacea.
- Impairing the skin’s natural ability to protect and heal itself since it throw’s the skin’s pH off balance.
- Reducing the protective barrier of your skin, since it binds on the natural oils produced by your skin, so when you wash, you essentially wash away the lipids on your skin, leaving your skin dry and prone to wrinkles and aging
Before buying any product, check if it has an emulsifier8 and if it does, stay away from it. Emulsifiers can also be known with other names such as:
- Emulsifying wax
Microscopic polyethylene beads, on the other hand, actually break up hardened sebum. They just don’t produce dramatic results after just one use, and they don’t do anything to heal your skin.
The kinds of ingredients in scrubs that really work are those that don’t just get rid of dead skin and hard oils on your face but that also rejuvenate the lower layers of the skin9. These scrubs contain alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy acids.
In the concentrations you will find in over-the-counter products, alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acids loosen the “glue” that holds dead skin cells to the surface of the skin. They remove pressure on the skin that keeps it tight. They also remove pressure that keeps younger, healthier skin cells10 from moving to the surface of the skin.
When the skin senses that it has fewer layers of tough epidermis, it starts making a protein called collagen11. This protein is useful as building material for the skin. It makes the skin more resistant to distortion and injury even as the exfoliation of the upper layers makes the skin more attractive. And it reduces pressure on pores, letting them drain so existing whiteheads and blackheads can fall out of the skin and new whiteheads and blackheads are much less likely to form.
Just Being Natural isn’t Always Good
Just because a product is natural doesn’t mean that it is good for your skin. The Grapefruit Daily Facial Scrub has small bits of polylactic acid. Even though it is a gentle ingredient, it is not very good at exfoliating skin12 since it doesn’t do a much better job than a washcloth scrub. It has a strong fragrance, which is not very good for the skin, especially if used over a long period of time. The advantage of this scrub is that it can easily be washed off and it will leave your skin feeling softer and smoother. The disadvantages of using it is that it is likely to irritate your skin due to its strong fragrance, it is not any better than a wash cloth that with water soluble fiber. In addition, using a scrub which has AHA or BHA will get you better results than using this one, especially if you’re using a set of acne products like Exposed Skin Care to take care of other acne treating aspects.
What Are Some Good Acne Scrubs?
When you are choosing an acne scrub, it is usually a good idea to stay away from products labeled as being designed for “blemish-prone” or “very oily” skin. Most of the scrubs with this kind of labeling are actually too harsh for any kind of skin.
Also, it is a good policy not to pay more for a scrub just because it contains alpha-hydroxy or beta-hydroxy acids. These exfoliating acids will do your skin some good even in a scrub, but it is best to use a separate exfoliating product to get maximum benefits from the mild chemical peel. They are desirable in a product, but they are not all your skin needs in a scrub13.
Good choices include:
- Alpha Hydrox Foaming Face Wash. This product makes a creamy lather that is easy to spread over your face. It is strong enough to lift makeup, but no so strong that it irritates the skin.
- Olay Foaming Face Wash for Sensitive Skin. This product is safe for all skin types, and won’t irritate rosacea-affected skin.
- Zia Natural HydraClean Face Wash. Usually available in the men’s product section, this face wash can be used by either sex. It’s fragrance-free, and contains vitamins A, C, and E.
- Exposed Skin Care Microderm Scrub. This product contains corundum crystals that lift dead skin and help open pores. It also contains both aloe and chamomile to fight irritation.
- Stringer T, Nagler A, Orlow SJ, Oza VS. Clinical evidence for washing and cleansers in acne vulgaris: a systematic review. J Dermatolog Treat. 2018 Nov;29(7):688-693.
- Mukhopadhyay P. Cleansers and their role in various dermatological disorders. Indian J Dermatol. 2011 Jan-Feb;56(1):2-6.
- Draelos ZD. The effect of a daily facial cleanser for normal to oily skin on the skin barrier of subjects with acne. Cutis. 2006 Jul;78(1 Suppl):34-40.
- Voegeli D. The effect of washing and drying practices on skin barrier function. J Wound Ostomy Continence Nurs. 2008 Jan-Feb;35(1):84-90.
- Baking Soda and Acne: Benefits, Risks and Treatment Methods. Healthline. 2019
- Kaity, Santanu, Maiti, Sabyasachi, Kumar Ghosh, Ashoke, Pal, Dilipkumar, Ghosh, Animesh, Banerjee, Subham. Microsponges: A novel strategy for drug delivery system. Journal of advanced pharmaceutical technology & research. 2010/07/01.283.90.1
- Rinnerthaler M, Bischof J, Streubel MK, Trost A, Richter K. Oxidative stress in aging human skin. Biomolecules. 2015 Apr 21;5(2):545-89.
- Levin J, Miller R. A Guide to the Ingredients and Potential Benefits of Over-the-Counter Cleansers and Moisturizers for Rosacea Patients. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2011 Aug;4(8):31-49.
- Neill US. Skin care in the aging female: myths and truths. J Clin Invest. 2012 Feb 1;122(2):473-7.
- Moghimipour E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2012 Winter;7(1):9-10.
- Avila Rodríguez MI, Rodríguez Barroso LG, Sánchez ML. Collagen: A review on its sources and potential cosmetic applications. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2018 Feb;17(1):20-26.
- Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter Acne Treatments: A Review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012 May;5(5):32-40.
- Choi YS, Suh HS, Yoon MY, Min SU, Kim JS, Jung JY, Lee DH, Suh DH. A study of the efficacy of cleansers for acne vulgaris. J Dermatolog Treat. 2010 May;21(3):201-5.
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