A skin scrub, also known as a body gloss, body polish, or exfoliant, is a treatment you can DIY at home, buy from a healthy source, or receive at a spa. Different scrubs can have different health benefits depending on what they're made of, so it's worth doing some research before you buy.
The Benefits of Skin Scrubs
Scrubs work differently from your typical array of lotions and body washes. A body wash is likely going to use natural or artificial ingredients to remove oils and dirt from the skin. A lotion restores many of those oils and helps rejuvenate skin. A body scrub, meanwhile, is a deeper cleanse for the skin itself.
The primary benefit of a skin scrub is exfoliation. You see, your skin is constantly shedding. Old, damaged, or dead skin cells break off and shed, while new, smooth, fresh skin cells emerge from beneath. As you get older, this process slows down. Newer skin is slower to produce, and older skin is slower to shed.
Exfoliation is the manual process of removing this outer layer of dead skin. You can do it physically, with an abrasive scrub or even a pumice stone or similar tool. This physically scrapes away the top layers of skin, leaving fresh skin beneath. Alternatively, you can do it with a chemical scrub, which dissolves the "glue" that sticks your skin together. These chemical scrubs can be organic or synthetic, and can have all manner of different properties.
Your body naturally sheds skin, but the human body isn't exactly a perfect machine. A lot of regular bodily processes break down over time, lose their utility, or simply become less effective. Exfoliation helps your body along.
As dead skin builds up over time, it tends to linger. If your body isn't shedding it naturally, and you're not removing it yourself, it can lead to a variety of different issues. Pores can grow clogged with dead skin, oil, and other bodily detritus. You can end up with rough spots, dark spots, dull skin, and even dark spots in some cases.
So what are the benefits of a skin scrub? In part, it depends on the ingredients of the scrub. In general, though:
- It helps unclog pores and keep them from clogging again. Regular skin scrubbing helps prevent the build-up of dead skin and detritus that clogs pores and leads to skin problems like blackheads.
- It helps facilitate other skincare products. Do you use a lotion or cream that reduces wrinkles or increases the supple elasticity of skin? It helps a lot to use a scrub beforehand, to remove dead skin that receives no benefit from such a treatment.
- It can help even out skin tone. Minor blemishes, discoloration, and small scars can be evened out or even smoothed away entirely in some cases. This isn't likely to help with birthmarks and large blemishes, but it can help a bit.
- It can help boost circulation. Some scrubs contain ingredients like caffeine, which help promote blood flow in the skin. This means your skin can more easily receive nutrients to keep it healthy.
- It makes your skin look more radiant. While this tends to be a subjective measure, people often describe skin treated with a scrub as "glowing." It's fresh, new skin rather than old, blemished skin.
- It makes you feel better. A good scrub can feel quite refreshing, and you may not even realize how much grime is embedded in your skin before you start using scrubs on a regular basis.
Those are the most common benefits of exfoliating scrubs on the market today. Others may be more personal or unique to specific kinds of scrubs.
Choosing a Healthy Scrub
Successfully using a scrub to improve the health and appearance of your skin means two things: picking the right scrubs and using them properly.
There's no one-size-fits-all perfect healthy skin scrub. Unfortunately, we can't just give you one recommendation as the best scrub you can buy. For one thing, there are hundreds of competing products out there. For another, the scrubs that work best for one person won't work well for another.
The first thing you need to do is determine if you want to use a physical exfoliant or a chemical exfoliant. Don't be scared away by the term "chemical" there; just about everything is a chemical.
Using a light physical exfoliant with your regular bath and body care program is a good idea. Simply using a loofah when you wash is usually fine. It won't get you all of the deep benefits of a chemical exfoliant, but it's a good place to start.
We also recommend using a chemical exfoliant around 1-3 times per week. How often you use it depends on the product you choose – always read the labels and follow the instructions – and how sensitive your skin is.
If you have a particular kind of skin condition, like sensitivity, certain chemical allergies, or eczema, you may be more or less sensitive to certain chemical exfoliants. For this reason, you should always test your exfoliants in a small area before using them across your body. For example, taking a small amount of a scrub and applying it to your inner wrist can show you if you're going to have a reaction to it.
Check to make sure that your skin is not stinging or burning, flaking, itching, or overly dry. Conversely, make sure it's not oily after treatment.
If you want to use a healthy scrub, you should look for specific kinds of ingredients in the scrubs themselves. Some are pretty basic, just creams or soaps that have abrasive particles in them. Others include chemicals that react with dead skin or skin oils in a way that facilitates manual, mechanical exfoliation. Here are some kinds of scrubs you can use to good effect.
1: Coffee scrubs. Coffee scrubs can be purchased in special formulas, or they can be put together at home, though you may have inconsistent results if you're not very careful with your preparation. Coffee scrubs include coffee grounds, which operate as a mechanical abrasive for the physical exfoliation. They also include beneficial ingredients like caffeine, which as mentioned above helps to facilitate blood flow in the skin. Unlike caffeine in supplements, you aren't absorbing significant amounts of caffeine in a scrub so it's not dangerous.
2: Volcanic ash. Skin scrubs that include volcanic ash – basically just pumice – are typically a bit more abrasive than similar scrubs, making them better for oily skin and as a once-a-week skin scrub rather than a regular treatment.
3: Sugar scrubs. Sugar – the actual, granulated sugar we eat every day – is widely available and is a common ingredient in DIY scrubs. Sugar scrubs are pretty abrasive but tend to include other ingredients to offset the damage and promote healing while also exfoliating your skin. Sugar is one of the most common options for those who want to make skin scrubs at home.
4: Hydroxy Acids. There are two types of Hydroxy acids: alpha and beta. There are several acids in each category which can have benefits for your skin. All such acids function by dissolving the "cellular glue" that holds your cells together. While this sounds damaging, at very low concentrations it basically serves to chemically separate dead skin from fresh skin without damaging the skin below. These aren't "melt through the floor" style acids here.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids include:
- Glycolic acid. This ingredient is naturally derived from sugarcane and is a deep penetrating acid. It's also one of the most effective Hydroxy Acids at stimulating collagen production, but can be one of the more irritating acids if used improperly.
- Lactic acid. This acid is typically derived from sour milk and is an ancient ingredient stretching back as far as the days of Cleopatra. It's gentler than Glycolic acid and tends to be most effective in low concentrations.
- Mandelic acid. This acid comes from bitter almond and wild cherry. It's a relatively new acid compared to others, and is better for sensitive skin than many other similar acids. It also has some antimicrobial properties which make it good for acne.
- Citric acid. Coming from citrus fruits like orange and lemon, this is an extremely common acid. It's antimicrobial and it smells great too. On the other hand, it's not as useful as some of the other alpha acids.
Meanwhile, Beta Hydroxy Acids include just one option: Salicylic acid.
- Salicylic acid. This is one of the more common acid ingredients in scrubs and is derived from the same plants we get aspirin from. It's a very deep penetrating acid and it dissolves skin oils more readily than other acids. This makes it great for oily skin and acne, as well as deep cleanses, but also means it can be too harsh to use daily.
There are some other BHAs, but they tend to be more caustic or dangerous and are used in other forms of medication or in industrial uses rather than in skin care products.
5: Synthetic scrubs. There are probably thousands of different synthetic skin scrubs on the market, with every single company trying to offer half a dozen different varieties for different skin types and ranges of ingredients. There are too many synthetic ingredients to cover here, so just make sure to research specific chemicals you may be concerned about. Not all synthetic ingredients are bad, but it's often easier – and occasionally cheaper – to opt for something more natural.
What to Avoid in Skin Scrubs
Don't forget that there are unhealthy ingredients in some skin scrubs that you want to avoid. As with any health product, always read the labels and look into the ingredients in the product before you use it. So what should you avoid?
1: Anything with plastic microbeads. Microbeads were a common ingredient in exfoliating creams and scrubs, because they're durable but still light on skin. The problem is, they're plastic, so they don't break down. Plastic microbeads are responsible for widespread environmental damage and the death of small wildlife, so it's best to avoid them whenever possible.
2: Scrubs that contain Retinol (also known as Vitamin A). Vitamin A isn't bad for your skin in normal doses, but it's a common ingredient in a lot of different skincare products, which means you might end up over-dosing your skin with it. This can lead to dry or sensitive skin. If your other products do not contain Retinol, it's fine for your scrub.
3: Anything with excess Benzoyl Peroxide. This chemical is commonly used in acne treatments and can be quite effective for acne, but is less useful for clear skin. If you're not coping with acne, Benzoyl Peroxide can cause dry skin and skin irritation.
4: Apricot Kernels. Also known as the pit of the apricot, these have been promoted to cure everything from dermatitis to cancer. Even when ground up, these tend to be sharp and abrasive above and beyond what you want in a scrub. While it's good as a physical exfoliant, it's TOO good, and can be damaging your skin along the way. Plus, they contain cyanide.
And, of course, one ingredient in every scrub: over-use. If you're going to use a skin scrub, make sure you're using it properly. Using it too often, using too much of it at once, using it too long or too quickly, and other over-use can damage your skin. Think of it like sandpaper: if you take a bit of sandpaper to a bit of wood you can polish that wood into a brilliant shine. If you keep at it, though, eventually you'll grind the wood into dust.