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by | Jan 30, 2010

When Less is More: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Mechanical Exfoliation

What are the risks and benefits of scrubbing? Too much pressure with any exfoliation method friction or scrubbing action can abrade and darken the skin tone and create microscopic tears if a scrub contains granules with irregular edges (crushed walnut shells or apricot pits

Manual Exfoliation

Washcloths vs. Scrubs vs. Astringent/Cotton vs. Buffing Pads vs. Sonic Brushes vs. Baking Soda/Water: Mechanical exfoliation (scrubbing) that requires friction and pressure can cause inflammation and hyperpigmentation, especially on darker skin, and sensitive, and fragile, thin or post-operative skin.

Who’s at Risk: People of color, sensitive, photo-sensitive and thin-skinned individuals, post-operative skin (laser, deep dermabrasion and peels) and those using or over-using shaving powder or other hair removal chemicals, retinoids, Accutane (isotretinoin), benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid. Because some active ingredients and professional treatments can cause temporary superficial flaking or peeling, the temptation to “speed up” the process by scouring off dead skin cells can be irresistible.

Manual exfoliation: Scrubs, sonic brushes, buffing pads, washcloths, towels, alcohol and cotton, picking, scratching, scraping while shaving, being shaved or removing shaving powders, microdermabrasion and/or using excessive pressure for any reason, can “over-process” the skin. Applying “active” products and unprotected sun exposure to UV rays on irritated skin can turn mild flaking into excessive scaling and prolonged inflammation. This can “activate” the melanocytes in the basal layer of the skin (the cells that provide your natural coloration) and incite an unnecessary increase in pigmentation problems, especially if skin is exposed to continued sunlight, scrubbing, rubbing, friction, pressure, picking, or product overuse. Repeated manipulation and tampering can slow down the healing process, introduce bacteria, and cause epidermal cells in blemished areas to thicken, darken, and get larger as the body’s immune system struggles to defend itself from constant “self-assault”.

Unwelcome Results: Side effects include temporary redness, burning, prolonged scaling, increased sun-sensitivity, a thick build-up dead skin cells, chronic pigmentation problems, including dark spots and an uneven skin tone. Symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to a few months.

Warning to People of Color: Abrasion caused by overzealous manual exfoliation (scrubbing too often, scraping the skin, using too much pressure, picking, scratching, rubbing with a towel) wearing tight clothes or footwear, exposure to sun and lack of adequate water intake can leave hyperpigmentation in its wake. You can’t scrub the “black” off the skin. Period.

Better Yet: Use products exactly as directed. Stop scrubbing. Stop over-using active home care products, back off if you get too dry, moisturize more often and be diligent with sunscreen use.

Safer Scrubs: Scrubs containing finely-ground meal (like cornmeal), papaya enzyme creams, and man-made jojoba beads won’t tear delicate skin, but don’t be over-zealous. Experienced skin care professionals can perform light skin peels or gentle enzymes with steam formulated for sensitive skin if you need to exfoliate. Exfoliants designed for home use are safe bets and can safely boost skin-smoothing results, but only if they are used exactly as directed, in the absence of irritation and direct sun.

©2014 Kathryn Khadija Leverette

The material on this website is provided for educational purposes and is not to be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.