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Scrubbing Your Skin: Less is More

Manual Over-Exfoliation: How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Scrubbing

The debate has always been heated among skin care specialists and dermatologists as to the risks and benefits of scrubbing one’s face and body parts. Over-exfoliation causes microscopic tears and abrades the skin, especially if a scrub contains granules with irregular edges (crushed walnut shells or apricot pits), has a high pH, or if too much pressure is used. This can lead to severe hyperpigmentation with any method of exfoliation, friction or scrubbing action.

Washcloths vs. Scrubs vs. Astringent/Cotton vs. Buffing Pads vs. Sonic Brushes vs. Baking Soda/Water: There are pitfalls to every exfoliation method, friction, pressure and skin tampering technique, especially on black skin, darker ethnic skin, thin, post-operative and sensitive skin.

Are You at Risk?

Sensitive and thin-skinned individuals, people of color (black skin and ethnic skin), post-operative skin (laser resurfacing, deep dermabrasion and medical peels), microdermabrasion, and those using or over-using shaving powders (Magic Shave and other depilatories) and other hair removal chemicals, hot wax, retinoids, Accutane, benzoyl peroxide, BHA (salicylic acid), glycolic acid and other AHAs and sun-sensitive skin. Because so many active ingredients and professional treatments can cause temporary superficial flaking and/or aggressive peeling, the temptation to “speed up” the process by scouring dead skin cells off one’s skin can be irresistible.


Scrubbing: Over-exfoliation with grainy scrubs, baking soda scrubs, sonic cleansing brushes, buffing pads and loofahs.

Friction and pressure: Rubbing with a washcloths or towels, wearing tight, binding or poorly-fitting hats, clothing, boots and shoes. Using excessive pressure for any reason, can temporarily “over-process” the skin.

Tampering: Picking, scratching, patting cause injury

Shaving and depilatories: Scraping the skin while shaving or being shaved, chemical depilatories, and removing shaving powder, microdermabrasion and/or

Chemical over-exfoliation: Alcohol or strong astringents with a cotton ball, over-applying “active” products and

Sunlight: Exposure to UV rays on irritated skin can turn mild flaking into excessive scaling and prolonged irritation. especially if skin is exposed to continued sunlight, scrubbing, rubbing, friction, pressure, picking, or product overuse. Repeated over-exfoliation, manipulation, friction and skin tampering can slow down the healing process, introduce bacteria, and cause epidermal cells on and around blemishes to thicken, darken, and get larger as the body struggles to defend itself from constant “self-assault”.

Unwelcome Results: Over-exfoliation can activates the melanocytes that give the skin it’s coloration. Side effects include temporary redness, burning, prolonged scaling, increased sun-sensitivity, a thick build-up of dead skin cells, pigmentation problems, and an uneven skin tone. Symptoms can last anywhere from a few days to a many months once the practice is stopped.

Warning to People of Color with Darker Skin Tones

Abrasion and irritation caused by overzealous manual over-exfoliation, scrubbing too often, scraping the skin, using too much pressure, picking, scratching, rubbing with a towel, wearing tight headwear, clothing or footwear, exposure to sun and heat sources and lack of adequate water intake can leave temporary and permanent hyperpigmentation in its wake. You can’t scrub the “black” off your skin, or someone else’s skin! And, you can’t scrub, scrape or pick off thickened dead skin cells. The body will produce dark, thickened skin as it tries to heal and protect itself. Once the practice is discontinued, the skin improves dramatically.

What To Do Once the Damage is Done

Use home care products exactly as directed. To combat flaking, try sulfur mask, a mild, non-mechanical exfoliant that will “passively” dissolve dead skin cells. Apply a generous coat and allow it to remain on the skin for as long as it remains wet, without letting it dry out. Shower or rinse it off with warm water and gentle pressure from fingertips only. Stop scrubbing. Back off applying active home exfoliants until the skin can heal.and moisturize more often. Ask us about other methods to help exfoliate dead skin cells without traumatizing your skin.

Safer Scrubs: Scrubs that contain finely-ground meal (like cornmeal), papaya enzyme creams, man-made jojoba beads, and tiny marble spheres have a smooth, uniform surface, won’t tear delicate skin. Keep in mind that over-exfoliation by scrubbing, product overuse, friction of any kind, and/or applying too much pressure on even slightly irritated skin can still cause problems!

Sensitive Skin: Experienced skin care professionals can perform light skin peels and gentle enzymes formulated for sensitive skin if you need exfoliation without friction.

Note: Individual results may vary and require compliance to corrective home care products, diligent sun protection, professional treatments, and important lifestyle changes, all of which must be monitored and maintained on a longterm basis.

©2016 Kathryn Khadija Leverette. Reprinted with permission.

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