The Right Way to Exfoliate

If you’re a person with internet access and at least one social media account, you might have heard about a recent controversy over a new walnut scrub. If not, here’s the reason behind it: Certain scrubs, including many that contain crushed nuts and seeds, often do more harm than good.

That’s because harsh, abrasive granules, while effective at removing dead skin cells, can lead to micro-tears in the skin. “If you look under a microscope, it looks like sandpaper on wood,” says Patricia Wexler, MD, dermatologist and founder of Wexler Dermatology in New York City. “There are rough, etched tears made in the epidermis. Manual exfoliation can be inexact and aggressive,” she says. The chances of creating micro-tears can vary according to your skin type, level of sensitivity, and experience using it — which is why your best bet is not to use sharp particles in the first place. In addition to sensitizing the skin, those micro-tears can lead to inflammation and free radical damage, which are two big causes of pre-mature aging.

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Wexler prefers chemical exfoliants to manual methods, and notes that they’re typically the gentler option. “They are quick, easy to use, and offer great benefits for problem skin, whether it’s from acne, eczema, rosacea, dryness, or sensitivity,” she says. The most common are alpha-hydroxy acids (also known as AHAs), which include glycolic and lactic acids, as well as beta-hydroxy acids (a.k.a. BHAs, a solid choice for those with acne), and fruit enzymes. By sloughing away the top layer of skin, these ingredients boost radiance, smooth texture, and can even increase your skin’s natural exfoliation rate over time. Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask is formulated with powerful AHAs, plus amino acids derived from watermelon and hyaluronic acid to give skin a protective cocoon of hydration that protects your delicate complexion from any possible irritation.

For sensitive skin, fruit enzymes are her go-to. “Enzyme exfoliation is generally better for sensitive skin and is a good example of why I like chemical versus manual exfoliation,” she explains. “Enzymes digest only the dead skin cells attached to the upper layer of the skin, which means that you will not damage the healthy skin underneath.”

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That’s one of the big reasons our Glow Recipe Pineapple C-Bright Serum uses pineapple-derived bromelain enzymes to visibly brighten hyperpigmentation and even out skin tone. It’s effective enough to make dead skin disappear, but gentle enough that it won’t scratch or agitate the fresh, naturally glowy skin underneath. With that, who needs walnuts?

But, if you still can’t resist the deep-clean feel of a scrub, Wexler recommends using a very fine exfoliant to do it. “Sugar, with its tiny particles, can give a gentle exfoliation,” she says. Most exfoliating powders are also a safe bet, as they have been broken down into micro-grains which are much too fine to cause any major, damaging scratches on the skin.

Just don’t get too aggressive with your scrubbing and definitely don’t use it on any open wounds (like a popped pimple) or sensitive areas (like an active breakout). Also, avoid using a cleansing brush, loofah, or rough cloth with the scrub — it won’t provide a deeper clean, but will in fact cause more problems. “The brush, sponge, or cloth is also a breeding ground for bacteria,” explains Wexler. A cotton wipe or pad is ideal instead, as it’s both soft and disposable.  

Above all else remember: Exfoliators are meant to be a gentle way to remove dead skin cells at the surface. Scrubbing harder won’t make the exfoliation any more effective — if whatever you are doing to your skin makes it hurt, cease and desist immediately or risk causing permanent damage. Our motto is if you love it, don’t scrub it.

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