“If you don’t do it, it’s like not brushing your teeth.”
Do you remember that line? It’s actually more than 25 years old. It comes from a television ad for a skin cleanser, marketed directly at teenage girls. Back in the 1990s, it wasn’t so much “You’re Worth It” as “You’re Kinda Gross”.
And the advertising seemed to work. A little too well, it would seem. Because if I remember my teens correctly, my friends and I (arguably the most insecure demographic on the planet) were almost addicted to scrubbing our faces. The harsher the ingredients, the better.
Fast forward to December last year, and in the US, a class-action lawsuit has been brought against St Ives Apricot Scrub, (sold in Australia as “Blemish Control Apricot Scrub”) and the company that makes it, Unilever. The Apricot Scrub is designed to slough away “dullness” and pimples, leaving skin, “glowing” according to its website.
Yet two women are alleging that the wash “leads to long-term skin damage” and “is not fit to be sold as a facial scrub”. The accusations are based on the main ingredient in the scrub, crushed walnut shell, which, they allege, is so harsh, it causes micro-tears in their skin.
Sydney dermatologist Dr Michelle Hunt says that while not all scrubs are created equal, she can find no scientific evidence to support a causal link between long-term skin damage or ageing and scrubs.
‘I think this is a little over-the-top,” she says.
“Fortunately the skin is very adept at repairing itself.
“There is no scientific evidence of irreversible, long-term damage.”
This is not to say that over-zealous scrubbing is beneficial or even healthy.
“If the skin is over scrubbed repeatedly, it will start trying to protect itself by forming an even thicker layer of dead skin cells on the surface.
“So, if facial scrubs are too harsh, contain irritating ingredients or are overused, this can leave the skin more prone to dryness and micro-abrasions, resulting in irritation and inflammation.”
Most of us are familiar with this vicious cycle; the more the skin tries to protect itself, the harder we scrub. And on and on it goes until we’re raw.
Aside from potential skin damage, there is the question of damage to the environment. Many exfoliants contain microbeads, the tiny plastic balls that are so harmful to oceans and marine life.
Australia’s largest supermarket chains have volunteered to phase out any cleansers or scrubs containing microbeads, with the aim to have every product microbead-free by 2018.
Microbeads, walnuts, sugar, salt, it’s all a bit much, isn’t it? According to a recent article on exfoliants in The Atlantic, that’s the point. “Hatred breeds violence, self-hatred no less so. If the thing that makes you hate yourself is on your surface, it makes sense to try to scrub your surface away.”
Yes, that tingling feeling, of cells being destroyed; of dermis inflamed. The singing of flesh is a good sign, you see.
No sooner have you overcome the scourge of acne, then the wrinkles start settling in. But the goal never changes: achieve baby-smooth skin or there is something wrong with you. It’s called “skin shaming”.
Almost 25 years later, and the quest for glowing, baby-smooth skin, now includes motorised cleaning brushes, and of course, skin needling (it is what it sounds like) and peels. I can remember two dermatologists advising me to stay away from the motorised brush I was using.
They both had a point – I suffer from inflammation almost around the clock. That didn’t stop me from seeking out a beauty therapist to get my skin needled. For that baby-smooth feeling, you see. It was a disaster, leaving me looking bloodied and burned for a week.
According to my current dermatologist, I was not a suitable candidate for skin needling. But honestly, who is the right sort of person to properly benefit from having a hundred needles prick their skin? Well, someone out there is because you can now do it yourself at home with your own little dermal roller pricking your skin.
According to Hunt, if you want that smooth skin, dermatologists will generally recommend a gentle chemical exfoliant containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). “These can actually help stimulate natural cell turnover or renewal, and reduce the signs of ageing.”
Hunt says no two scrubs are alike, but it’s fair to say that between lawsuits and micro-tearing, no two skins are alike, either.