After a long winter of dry, dull and itchy skin, no feeling compares to using a body scrub or exfoliator to reveal a baby-smooth layer underneath. And that glowing sensation isn’t all in your head.
“The benefit of using body exfoliation is to remove the top layer of dead skin cells so the skin immediately looks brighter,” says Dr. Vanita Rattan, skin doctor and cosmetic formulator at Skincare by Dr. V. “This improves penetration of any actives you then apply to the skin because the dead skin cells are no longer creating a barrier.” She says body scrubs and exfoliators also improve the texture of skin, leaving it looking and feeling softer, smoother and more even. Dr. Aanand Geria, a board-certified dermatologist, says that using a body scrub or exfoliator can also “help prevent ingrown hairs by removing dead skin cells and exposing hair follicles,” leaving behind fewer painful and unsightly bumps.
But before you reach for your favorite body scrub or exfoliator brand, there’s lots to consider, like the difference between the two. Dr. Peter Young, medical director at Nurx Dermatology says that while body scrubs and exfoliators serve the same purpose — to remove dead skin cells — a body scrub is a mechanical exfoliant, meaning it physically removes dead skin cells from the outer layer of your skin with abrasive particles like sugar or salt, often in a cream-based formula. Body exfoliators, on the other hand, can either come in the form of chemical or mechanical agents including salicylic acid, glycolic acid or ammonium lactate. “The terms are often used interchangeably, and what matters most is finding a product that works for your skin type and provides the results you are looking for,” Geria says.
Here’s the thing about body scrubs and exfoliators: They aren’t exactly a one-size-fits-all solution to your skin woes, and experts don’t recommend them for everyone. “Exfoliators and scrubs should be gentle so that they don’t strip too much of the skin,” says board-certified dermatologist Dr. Raja Sivamani. “Exfoliators that are harsh can be too irritating, especially on those that already have dry or sensitive skin.” He adds that exfoliators should only be used by those that tend to have oily skin and if they find that their pores tend to be frequently clogged.
For those with sensitive skin, Sivamani says it’s best to use cleansers or scrubs that are gentler, with supportive ingredients such as those with cold-pressed oils or squalane. He says micellar-based water cleansers with chemical exfoliants are also gentler than their harsher counterparts with physical beads. Rattan says the dangers of physical scrubs, as opposed to chemical exfoliators, is that “you don’t know whether you are just removing dead cells or living skin cells too. Physical scrubs can lead to microtears on the skin, which can lead to hyperpigmentation, especially if you have skin of color.”
For acne-prone skin, Sivamani recommends benzoyl peroxide available in over-the-counter scrubs. While they work great, he warns “they can lead to irritation and may bleach towels and clothing if the body cleanser is not completely rinsed off.” Another great option for ridding extra oiliness on the back and chest is glycolic acid- and salicylic acid-based scrubs, according to Sivamani.
When taking care of your skin, it’s best to have the planet in mind as well. Sivamani says naturally derived particles — like those that are bamboo-based — are sensitive to both the skin and the environment.
How to use body scrub
Young says using a body scrub or exfoliator is safe and effective so long as you follow these simple steps.
- Rinse your skin with plain lukewarm — not hot — water and do not dry it off.
- Place a small amount of body scrub in your hand, and then gently rub it on your skin in small circular motions for no longer than 30 seconds, using your hand or an exfoliating glove.
- Thoroughly rinse off the body scrub from your skin with lukewarm water, then gently wash your skin using a mild fragrance-free, noncomedogenic (aka non-acne-causing) soap-free cleanser.
- Without rubbing, gently pat your skin dry, and then apply a fragrance-free, non-comedogenic body moisturizer. “This step is particularly important since body scrubs and exfoliators temporarily strip off your skin barrier, which can dry out your skin,” says Young. He adds that creams and ointments are more effective than lotions and gels at moisturizing your skin after exfoliating and that you should look for moisturizers containing ceramides, vitamin E and hyaluronic acid to properly rehydrate your skin.
Body scrubs for sensitive skin
“Ingredients in this scrub include avocado oil, sweet almond oil and safflower seed oil, which help prevent dryness and help nourish the skin,” says Geria. “It's free of harmful chemicals such as parabens and formaldehyde donors, making it a safe choice.”
“This product is suitable for all skin types, is made in the US and is cruelty-free,” says Geria. “It contains mineral-rich salts worldwide that help eliminate dead skin cells and nourish skin.”
“Formulated with jojoba butter and sweet almond oil, this product exfoliates the skin without over-drying,” says Geria. “Although it's safe for all skin types, it's not recommended for the face.”
This award-winning body scrub has Savamani’s stamp of approval for its addition of sugarcane-derived squalane that’s gentle on sensitive skin. Its pomegranate enzymes further smooth the skin while sugar crystals dissolve in water and gently polish off dead skin cells.
This fan-favorite vegan and cruelty-free scrub uses sugar to gently buff away uneven skin cells while coconut and Moroccan rose provide hydration and an invigorating scent for all your senses.
Unlike rough sugar- or salt-based scrubs, this environmentally-friendly option uses volcanic pumice derived from lava rocks with smoother edges to gently slough away dead skin. Its signature scent of eucalyptus, mandarin and sandalwood make it an all-around blissful experience to use.
This body polish provides great value for its gentle-to-moderate level of exfoliation and ingredients like calendula oil and macadamia and rice milk seal the deal for ultimate moisture.
Loaded with nourishing oils, this brown and white sugar scrub gently removes dead skill cells from the surface. It then turns into a milky emulsion when rinsed off, leaving behind soft, supple skin.
I’ve been using this Tahitian coconut shell scrub for several years, and I’m still in the honeymoon phase with it. I’m continuously shocked at how smooth it leaves my skin within seconds without feeling oily, and how it uses aloe vera to calm redness. I’ll also never get tired of the invigorating nutty-yet-tropical scent.
Body scrubs for acne-prone skin
Sivamani recommends this bestselling scrub for its ability to reduce oiliness at the chest and back area, aka bacne, and for its use of glycolic and salicylic acids. It uses plant-based jojoba and alpha and beta hydroxy acids to remove oil and dead skin, comes in fragrant citrus or unscented for a gentler option and is suitable for both your body and face.
With its unique blend of cold-pressed oils like castor and sunflower seed, jojoba grains to gently exfoliate and powerhouse salicylic acid ingredient, it’s not hard to see why Sivamani recommends this option for acne-prone skin.
Your first line of defense against acne should be First Aid Beauty’s cult-favorite gentle body scrub that uses a blend of chemical and physical exfoliators like glycolic and lactic acid and pumice stone to smooth skin and improve its texture.
Using glycolic acid to promote cell turnover, salicylic acid to clear out oily pores and crushed maracujá seeds to exfoliate the skin, this clarifying body scrub will become a clear winner in your shower routine.
Glycolic, lactic and salicylic acids work together to slough away dead skin while planet-friendly bamboo charcoal takes care of the rest. The best part about this luxurious body scrub? It comes in three delectable scents like bergamot, sandalwood and eucalyptus, or unscented for an even gentler experience.
A chemical exfoliating gel, this body cleanser features glycolic, lactic and mandelic acids along with fruit enzymes to keep skin clear of bumps and blemishes.
Exfoliating body washes
For an all-around spa-like experience, opt for Tatcha’s body wash that does it all: cellulose plant fibers gently exfoliate, sugarcane-derived squalane locks in moisture and hinoki wood essential oils boast phytoncides that are said to boost mood and ease stress.
This wash-and-scrub hybrid delivers full-body bliss with the addition of gently exfoliating black rice and moisturizing sea kelp and hyaluronic acid. It creates a luxurious sulfate-free lather to create a squeaky-clean feeling.
St. Ives is what we think about when we think about serious exfoliators that get the job done. This version includes pacific kelp and a natural walnut shell powder to exfoliate and sea salt to deep clean, and can even be used as an antibacterial hand soap.
For a nostalgic throwback to your early aughts’ anti-acne routine, opt for this uplifting Neutrogena grapefruit body wash. It contains salicylic acid to help prevent and remove breakouts and grapefruit extract and vitamin C antioxidants to rid your skin of dirt and debris. Similar to an exfoliator, the brand’s Micro Clear technology works to slough away oil and dead skin so the product can get to work.
Another exfoliator that harnesses marine ingredients, this product features sea minerals that help cleanse without stripping the skin. It's also a sustainable option with 100% recyclable packaging and a 98% biodegradable formula, so it's gentle on your body and the earth.