Should You Use a
Face Scrub To Exfoliate
If You Have Acne?
To scrub or not to scrub, that is the question. One of our resident derms has the answer
Lately, it seems as though face scrubs are in need of better PR. Labeled harsh and abrasive, it seems like there as many face scrub detractors as there are options lining store shelves. I say, if you’re using one you love, having good results, and not looking to add any new active ingredients to your routine, carry on. Well formulated scrubs can be a great part of a balanced skincare routine for people who don’t have sensitive or reactive skin. I don’t, however, typically recommend them to those suffering from acne. I’ll tell you why.
First, face scrubs are only one kind of exfoliation
Exfoliating products are designed to slough off dead skin cells and debris on the surface of the skin, and there are two types. Face scrubs are physical exfoliants that lift the debris by rubbing it off—kind of like using a scouring brush on your pots and pans. Chemical exfoliants like retinol, glycolic acid, or salicylic acid, on the other hand, are akin to dish soap: They break up the gunk on the surface of your skin by dissolving the bonds that hold that debris together.
Is it OK to exfoliate if you have acne?
Exfoliants can be a great addition to a basic skincare routine for upping radiance, but I warn acne patients against adding a separate step just for exfoliation. That’s because many of the ingredients we use to treat acne—like retinol, glycolic acid, and salicylic acid—are already exfoliating your skin. You don’t really need to be scrubbing your skin on top of that. Plus, a lot can go wrong. I’ve seen patients come in with lots of small scrapes and nicks on their skin from scrubbing a little too vigorously. It’s not worth it. This is especially true if you have active breakouts with inflamed areas on your skin—you definitely don’t want to add to the irritation and further inflame your acne and trigger scarring.
Other common acne ingredients like benzoyl peroxide can be irritating so anything else you add to your routine should be very gentle and focused on restoring your skin’s protective barrier.
What if you’re already exfoliating—and now have acne
If you walk into my office with acne and you’re already using a scrub or a separate chemical exfoliant, I’d probably ask you to consider stopping or at the very least be very cautious. I’d ask you how often you use it, and bump it down from there. If you’re scrubbing two or three times a week, for example, you’d probably want to ease down to maybe once a week or once every two weeks. The last thing you want if you have acne is more redness and irritation. Of course, everyone's skin is different, and you should consult your doctor if you have questions.
What’s the best face scrub for acne?
At the very least, you should be using the gentlest formula possible. Unfortunately, there's no simple way to tell how gentle a product is simply by looking at the bottle. It’s trial and error. But a good rule of thumbs is to stick with the brands that you trust—those that have been clearly tested and do proper due diligence on their products to make sure they’re well-formulated. Then use them very sparingly and just in the areas where you need a little extra sloughing. But bottom line: I just don’t think face scrubs are worth the possible irritation.
About those microbeads in face scrubs
And I feel like I must mention the fact that we all should be aware of the impact of microplastics, which have been used in the past to make the tiny beads that create the gritty feeling in scrubs, on the environment. One study in Marine Environmental Research shows they’re incredibly bad for our planet—that they get into our waterways when they go down the drain.  These microbeads not only pollute, they can have an extremely detrimental effect on marine life. They were banned in the U.S by the Microbead-free Waters Act of 2015  (and replaced by alternatives like oatmeal and sea salt) but can still be found in parts of Asia and South American, so pay attention if you’re doing your skincare shopping overseas.
Jerry Tan, M.D.
Dr. Jerry Tan is a member of the Acne Store Board of Dermatologists and an adjunct professor of dermatology at the University of Western Ontario and in private practice in Windsor, Ontario. He is the principal of Windsor Clinical Research Inc., a research site for clinical trials, and the Healthy Image Center, a cosmetic dermatology treatment facility. Dr. Tan graduated from Queen’s University in medicine and trained in dermatology at the University of British Columbia and the University of Michigan. In 2009, he was awarded the Canadian Dermatology Foundation Lectureship Award for excellence in dermatology research. In 2019, he was named Dermatologist of the Year by the Canadian Skin Patient Alliance.
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