Facial Scrubs: Are You Overdoing It?

Facial scrubs can be soothing and can give your face a soft, healthy glow. They can also make your face raw. Too many women are overusing their facial scrubs, giving them red, irritated cheeks. Are you over-scrubbing?

A patient came to me last week with a bright red, painful rash on her cheeks. She thought she was allergic to her new citrus facial scrub from Burt’s Bees; she was faithfully using it everyday.

She wasn’t allergic to her facial scrub. It was doing what it is designed to do: remove a layer of cells from her skin every time she used it. But at that point she was down to raw skin.

This is a classic case of too much of a good thing in facial skin care. Facial scrubs can be an easy, rather inexpensive way to exfoliate the dull scaly cells on your skin’s surface leaving you with softer, more vibrant skin. However, exfoliating has gotten a little out of hand recently.


Thanks to my wife’s subscriptions, I have noticed that several women’s magazines this month have articles touting the benefits of some apricot-and-citrus-lavender-dead-sea-salt-micronized-facial scrub. It’s too much.

Facial scrubs can exfoliate your skin chemically or physically. Chemical facial scrubs use salicylic, glycolic, citric, or lactic acid to chemically remove the dry dead scales on your skin’s surface.

Physical scrubs exfoliate physically by using ground apricot pits or almonds, sugars, salt, sand, or even tiny beads in microdermabrasions. These abrasives are often mixed in an oil base (such as olive oil if it’s homemade), and when you scrub the abrasive on your face, you physically remove the dull, scaly surface to reveal the healthy living cells beneath.

It is helpful to understand that although these dead cells can give you a dry, dull look, your skin puts those dead cells at the surface for a reason: to protect the delicate living cells below. A little exfoliating once in a while can be useful, making your skin softer and visibly brighter. But you must do this in moderation, that is once every two weeks (which is about how long it takes your skin to turn over).

Some people can tolerate scrubbing more frequently than this, but I suggest you start slowly and work your way to more frequent exfoliating if you so desire. You will notice at some point that using your scrub more frequently does not improve your complexion any further. That’s because there are no dead cells left on your skin’s surface. In this case, give your skin a break, and let it heal before you scrub it again.

Over scrubbing with physical or chemical facial scrubs will not clean your pores, reduce your skin’s oiliness, decrease your acne, or give you a permanent healthy glow. It will however make your skin red, irritated, and raw.

Remember, everything in moderation.

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22 thoughts on “Facial Scrubs: Are You Overdoing It?”

  1. I’m curious what scrub you recommend to your patients? I look for a scrub with small, evenly sized grit particles, and I have only found a few that I consider ok for use on facial skin.

    I remember back in med school, during our second year derm lecture they flashed up a picture of the St. Ives Apricot Scrub that it seems everyone uses. Then they showed a microscopic picture of the skin after using the scrub. The sharp and irregular particles had completely shredded the skin! I went home that day and threw away my scrub!

  2. I am curious as well!

  3. LasersMD-
    Citric acid is a great mild facial scrub / peel.

  4. i get those pesky whiteheads no matter what i do. i’ve stopped washing with towels and use benzoyle peroxide daily, but still have to scrub those chin whiteheads…eeek! they are sooo noticeable on dark skin

  5. I did over peel my face Dr.B. to the point that I stripped off my stratum corneum… will this come back? i aggravated my acne because of it. im with a derm now

  6. Hi. I was washing my face with a peeling milk face wash every day and had a micrdermabrasion while using it because i was having bad breakouts. The breakouts are gone, but my face is all red and it has been red for a few months. I am much more gentle now and using moisturizer. Will me skin ever rebuild itself? It has slightly improved with my gentle treatment. I cant afford a dermatologist. Please help

  7. ProEsthetics says:

    I hate to admit this because i should be able to solve this on my own but i have tried everything in the book. white heads! i use a particular line and it was the cause of it and i curse that brand, but i refuse to bash. i know people who love that line of products. anyway, i cant get rid of them. would you comment please

  8. I suffered from acne for almost my entire life – I was using proactiv, which I love. But after running out of their face scrub before my next shipment, I bought some clean and clear benzyl peroxide face wash to use in the meantime. It has 10% benzyl peroxide, but no “scrubbies” – I found that after using it for about a week, in conjunction with my regular proactiv lotion (I also quit using the toner except in the summer), my face cleared up. It’s been about 2 years and I have great, super smooth skin. I get a zit about once a month (hormones), but that’s it. I exfoliate about once a week now using a mask, biore pore strip, or a light scrub. I think like other posters, the scrubbing was causing the breakouts by irritating my skin. I also use plain old lemon juice as a toner a few times a week at night – just dab on, let dry, and apply regular routine of lotions (or potions as my husband calls them)!

  9. Hi! I’m wondering what’s the best way to cleanse my face in the morning or whenever I take a shower. I use a facial wash everyday, instead of a facial scrub. Is that a good choice? I do use scrubs, but only around 1-2x a week.

  10. solsekuin44 says:

    I use Queen Helene Mint Julep Mask twice a week.. So refreshing.
    And also Queen Helene Oatmeal N Honey Face Scrub. Smells yummy and kind to my skin.

    I have an oily skin, easy for me to get acne. But since I’m on medication (the dermatologist gave antibiotics, vitamin C and antihistamine), my face is in the best condition ever.
    The Queen Helene scrub (Oatmeal N Honey) is gentle to me I believe because it contains ground walnut powder (not totally crushed ground walnut). As for the mask, it contains sulfur and bentonite, which are good =)

    I try not to get over-excited with the scrub and mask. Scared that I’ll overuse them. Haha.. But seriously, they are cheap and effctive.

  11. I have permanent broken veins in my skin from scrubbing with a dermabrasion pad. I never use anything rough anymore. My skin does look dull tho. Perhaps a facial mask is better.

  12. Its true the larger the size of the particles, the more damage it causes to the skin!!

  13. Since I use a product containing 5% urea on my face (under the face cream), the whitehead problem is gone. I actually use an after-sun gel which does not contain much besides water, urea, glycerol, alcohol and a gel foundation (a polymer). My skin is dry to the point of ichthyosis, and no matter how much oil and cream I slash on, it always has this dried-up, flaky look and the pores block, causing plucked hair to grow in and whiteheads to form.

    But not any more! I use enough urea on my skin to fertilize a whole chinese province, but ingrown hair, cracked cuticles, cracked heels, flaky skin and clogged pores are a thing of the past.

    I just hope it does not make me smell like an incontinence patient!

  14. Recently I’ve had really dry skin, and I’ve been getting blackheads at the tip of my nose. I decided to try some natural treatments on my face and have been extremely happy..

    The first I found was making a paste out of baking soda and water for the blackheads. Noticeable difference afterwards. It seemed I had more blackheads after using it, but I guess because it pushes them out. I’ve done this two days now, and have just a few more blackheads to go and they’re gone! It’s great for acne too. I had one pimple and the paste seemed to just force the stuff out.

    The second thing I found was a sugar scrub; 2 tbsp of sugar and 3 tbsp of warm water mixed. It lightly and gently exfoliates the skin. I’ve only done this once this week, and my skin looks and feels amazing! I love it.

    The third thing I used was a honey and yogurt mask. Literally mixed 1 tbs of honey with about 2-3 tbsp (can’t remember) of yogurt, and applied it to my face. Kept it on for about 10-15 minutes and washed it away with a very warm/steamy wash cloth.

    I’ve done the baking soda/water paste and the honey & yogurt mask twice now, and I am so happy with my skin!!! After washing away the face mask, I put on a moisturizer and by morning any redness is gone, my face is so soft and smooth, it feels refreshed and it looks great!

    I’m sticking with the natural stuff and I will not spend another dollar on a face mask, scrub, etc.

  15. @Erika: Yes, it will come back. As cells on the bottom layers die, they push up to higher layers. Give it about 2 weeks. Until then, make sure to keep your body hydrated too so that your face will be more moist and before going outside use hypoallergenic overscrubbing with a scrub that is SUPPOSED to be suited for sunscreen. I am actually go through the same problem from daily use. No worries, just be patient.

  16. Hypoallergenic sunscreen* Whoops.

  17. i m a 22 yr old girl from India and I scrubbed my skin very hard few years back. I used natural scrubs only. But after that I have developed very very dry and hard skin. I have developed wrinkles too.
    Shown to almost every good doctor applied every cream dey recommended but dey did nothing to me. n now i m into depression because nothing is working.
    Whether this problem will ever be solved. What are the soltutions? Please help..

  18. Tanvi,
    I can’t speak to your specific skin condition. But, in general, over-scrubbing or over-exfoliating can irritate the skin, causing it to become dry, flaky, and red. Because it’s so dry, the skin can also appear wrinkled. The good news is that the damage is not permanent. With proper cleansing and moisturizing, the skin usually returns to normal. It’s important to know that even so-called “natural” scrubs can be irritating to the skin as well. Using gentle facial cleansers and moisturizers should help. However, if you don’t see any improvement, you might have an underlying skin condition that needs medical treatment. In that case, you should make a visit to a dermatolgist. Good luck to you.

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