Sugar scrubs are a decadent way to exfoliate. From the unmistakable aroma to the rich texture, a sugar scrub evokes a sense of ritual in your beauty routine. But with that being said, you're probably using them all wrong. Here, a dermatologist and aesthetician weigh in on exactly how to use a sugar scrub (the correct way) and debunk whether or not scrubs are safe for your face, lips, and body.
How Do Sugar Scrubs Work?
"A sugar scrub works by physically and manually exfoliating the skin," says Joshua Ross, celebrity aesthetician and founder of West Hollywood’s SkinLab. When it comes to exfoliating, there are two ways to get the job done: chemical and physical. Chemical exfoliators contain ingredients like glycolic, lactic, or salicylic acid to clear out pores and give you a smoother complexion. Physical exfoliators (like sugar scrubs) are made from tiny granules that do the heavy lifting, buffing away dead skin and encouraging cell turnover without (hopefully) leaving your skin raw or red.
Is It Safe For Your Face?
In short, no. Although there are facial sugar scrubs on the market, Ross isn't the biggest fan. There's no real difference in ingredients between body and face sugar scrubs, but "it’s more about the amount of grit and particles," says Ross. "A body scrub will have larger particles and a face scrub will have smaller ones."
There isn’t a sugar scrub I would recommend for the face, as I think people are better off with a washcloth or a mild chemical exfoliation.
However, even tiny granules may damage sensitive facial tissue, which is why Ross dissuades the use of sugar scrubs for the face. "They can cause irritation and small scratches on the skin," he says. "There isn’t a sugar scrub I would recommend for the face, as I think people are better off with a washcloth or a mild chemical exfoliation."
Is It Safe For Your Lips?
Lips, however, will really benefit from the delights a sugar scrub can offer. Dr. Dendy Engelman, a board-certified and nationally-acclaimed dermatologic surgeon in New York tells Byrdie, "For all that our lips do for us, we don’t give them enough credit or care. In fact, our lips are primed to be dry and chapped because they have a lower density of oil glands, and are in daily contact with saliva that contains alpha-amylase (a digestive enzyme that can break down skin)." Plus, because lips are always exposed, they "take a beating from the sun, the cold weather, wind, and heat," says Engelman.
To heal and soften lips, exfoliate with a sugar scrub once a week, but be gentle, warns Engelman. "If your lips are feeling raw," she says, "you should stop immediately as you are over-exfoliating."
Engelman loves iS Clinical’s Lip Duo. "The lip polish contains antioxidants of Vitamins C and E, blended with botanical butters," she says, "so it exfoliates and hydrates lips simultaneously."
When using a lip scrub, avoid lip products with chemical plumping agents, which may be irritating. Instead, Dr. Engelman says to look for ingredients like "hyaluronic acid, madecassoside, and peptides" to boost hydration and stimulate collagen for a more natural, plumping effect. And finally, wear some kind of lip protectant with SPF. "Look for balms or formulations containing petroleum or beeswax to seal in moisture."
Madecassoside is one of the most active compounds in centella asiatica. It is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredient that helps reduce free radicals and improve skin hydration.
Is It Safe For Your Body?
Exfoliating the body with a sugar scrub is totally safe and has tons of healing properties. According to Shel Pink, founder of SpaRitual, "The benefits of exfoliating your body include breaking down and removing dead skin cells from the top layers of the skin to reveal healthy skin cells (and skin texture) beneath." Hydrating and moisturizing healthy cells (versus dead cells) may even translate to smoother skin; Pink notes a sugar scrub is ideal for "stimulating and increasing blood circulation" for a healthy glow.
Whether exfoliating with the chemical version (glycolic acid) or the physical version (brown sugar), both options increase cellular turnover and keep skin fresh and supple.
How Often Should You Exfoliate?
Pink recommends exfoliating with a sugar scrub after you bathe, on towel-dried skin for best results. Using your hands, massage scrub into skin with a circular motion. "Self-massage techniques have the added benefits of helping to improve circulation, tone skin, and reduce stress and anxiety." If you can't squeeze this extra step into your bathing routine, an in-shower practice is still effective. Use a quarter-sized amount of sugar scrub or, if you have sensitive skin, try a body polish, which has finer granules and is gentler.
"We recommend exfoliating your body one to two times per week for sensitive skin," says Pink, "two to three times per week for normal skin and three to four times per week for oily skin." As you massage the scrub into your skin, you'll unlock the aroma for a sweet and luxurious experience.
Rodan K, Fields K, Majewski G, Falla T. Skincare bootcamp: the evolving role of skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2016;4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp):e1152. doi:10.1097/GOX.0000000000001152