At 7 AM every day before work, “your friend” is already at it in the shower with that infamous St. Ives Apricot Scrub—the one that was the subject of a class action lawsuit due to its sandpaper-feel. He also scrubs the hell out of his body. You fear one day you’ll walk into his apartment and he’ll just be a speck of himself sitting in a chair, grounded down to a nub of where a person used to be. Yes, his skin looks great, but how healthy is it for my friend to sand off layers of his “dead” skin every day? How much of that skin is still actually alive, clinging to dear life in the shadow of that loofah?
Your friend may be a going too hard on his skin, which can have different results depending on what else he’s doing to it, especially. The outermost layer of the skin is called the epidermis, and within that layer are even more layers including the stratum corneum. The stratum corneum is often called the “dead layer” of the skin—the one all the Instagram tutorials tell you how to exfoliate off. More specifically, it’s skin cells on their way out in the overall skin life cycle that provide a barrier between the other layers of skin and the outside world. If your friend is using a synthetic vitamin A retinol or retinoid cream for anti-acne or anti-aging purposes, he could be headed for the opposite of the Virgin Madonna glow he's going for.
“If you’re scrubbing and getting down to the point where your skin is getting really red and irritated, that could potentially cause some problems, especially if you have sensitive skin,” says William Huang, associate professor and residency program director of the department of dermatology at Wake Forest School of Medicine. Your friend’s zeal for exfoliation and layering products can lead to more acne breakouts, redness, irritation, and post-inflammatory pigmentation (more commonly just called “blemishes”), on their face for several weeks or months.
The Worst That Can Happen
This regimen of scrubbing every day can lead to more severe damage, too. As your friend scrubs away that stratum corneum layer, Huang notes, he’s increasing the risk of bruising and, since scrubbing can open up his pores, bacterial or viral infections on the face. That includes the bacterial infection called impetigo, which is a contagious skin condition that causes red sores, he says. If your friend contracts a viral infection like herpes simplex virus, or cold sores, that could mean huge trouble for his skin every time he exfoliates.
“If they have that and they’re exfoliating all around their face, they are potentially spreading that virus to other areas of their skin, but also they’re creating little areas of damage on their skin,” Huang says.
In certain cases, exfoliating every day may also be a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a pattern of unreasonable behavior and fears where people engage in compulsions. People who wash their hands until they’re raw are often exhibiting signs of an unhealthy fear of germs; your friend exfoliating or washing his face excessively could be a similar sign.
What’s Probably Happening
Your friend is shedding skin already as part of skin's natural lifecycle, and exfoliating every damn day is not necessarily enhancing that process.
Huang says that when you exfoliate daily, “your body doesn’t have enough time to recover.” In general, people think a little bit is good, so more will be better, but in this case that’s not necessarily true. Huang also stresses that how much people exfoliate may depend on their skin type and sensitivity. But in general, “they don’t need to go super aggressive or scrub for several minutes at a time.”
What to Tell Your Friend
Like everyone else, your friend is seeking clearer, brighter skin, but more is not always better, and cutting back on the scrubbing could be the key to a more beautiful complexion. “The more aggressive the actual product is, like a St. Ives scrub or a different scrub that has either hints of a fruit or pulverized tips of a nut, that tends to be more aggressive than a chemical exfoliator [such as an alpha hydroxy product],” Huang says.
If your friend’s skin is getting red, puffy, and irritated after exfoliating, they need to put down—and slowly step away from—the sugar/salt/whatever scrub. “When you’re exfoliating, it’s like controlled damage to the skin; you’re supposed to gently be removing skin cells already on their way out. You’re just helping them along,” Huang adds.
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