These days, it seems everyone says it’s a bad idea to exfoliate your face with a physical exfoliator — St. Ives Apricot Scrub is particularly maligned after receiving years of negative media attention. (Vox has even published a timeline called “St. Ives Apricot Scrub: A Brief History of Hate.”)

But before all that happened, I had no clue I should have a reason to be wary of it.

When I was in college, I washed my face with St. Ives Apricot Scrub twice a day, every day. I loved the fruity scent and how clean and tight it made my skin feel. After a while, though, I noticed my skin looking a little red but I didn’t link it to my skin care habits until I visited a makeup counter at the mall seeking a good concealer to disguise the redness.

“Why are you so red?” the lady behind the counter asked. “What are you using on your skin?” When I told her, she suggested the scrub was too harsh (even St. Ives suggests using the scrub only three to four times a week). She recommended using a gentler cleanser, and I took her advice and noticed an improvement.

But in today’s modern age of advanced dermatology, are we still nixing the St. Ives scrub? We asked dermatologists to weigh in.

The alleged problem with physical exfoliators

While exfoliating does help remove dead skin cells and potentially improve the appearance of your skin, the American Academy of Dermatology says it can cause more harm than good if you exfoliate too much and don’t do it properly.

“It’s tempting to physically scrub our skin to get the fresh clean sensation, but most people tend to overdo it,” Jinmeng Zhang, a board-certified dermatologist at U.S. Dermatology Partners in Peoria, Arizona, told HuffPost.

Physical scrubs include products that contain microbeads or feel gritty, or tools like brushes that enable “mechanical exfoliation,” the AAD says. This exfoliation method usually isn’t gentle enough on your skin and can cause a host of problems, like irritation and redness, Zhang said.

Still, you likely want to exfoliate. Dermatologists explain what you should know about using a physical scrub and why chemical exfoliants, such as alpha and beta hydroxy acids, tend to be a more effective option.

The benefits of exfoliating your skin

Exfoliating itself isn’t what’s bad — it’s how you do it.

Exfoliating removes dead skin cells on the outer layer of your skin. It can smooth, brighten and firm, explained Dr. Howard Sobel, a cosmetic dermatologist and surgeon in New York City. But if you exfoliate too frequently or use a method that’s too abrasive, it can make your skin red and irritated and worsen problems like acne.

Rough physical exfoliation can cause a host of problems, like irritation and redness.

Moyo Studio via Getty Images

Rough physical exfoliation can cause a host of problems, like irritation and redness.

There are two main ways to exfoliate your face and body: mechanical and chemical, according to AAD. Mechanical exfoliation involves using brushes, sponges or gritty scrubs. Chemical exfoliators include serums, peels or other products that contain substances like glycolic, salicylic and other acids that dissolve dead skin cells more gently.

“I tell patients to avoid using scrubs with large particles to avoid causing any negative reaction such as irritation, redness or flakiness,” Sobel said.

He also said to avoid exfoliating right before spending time in the sun. When you strip the outer layer of skin, it can leave it extra vulnerable to the sun’s harmful rays. (And of course, be sure to wear sunscreen any time you’re out in the sun.)

Avoid exfoliating skin that’s sunburned or has cuts, bug bites, or other wounds, according to the AAD.

If you’re not sure about the best way to exfoliate, Zhang suggested seeing a dermatologist who can help you develop a personalized skin care regimen.

Should you ever physically scrub your skin?

Physical scrubs can temporarily remove oil, dirt and dead skin cells, as well as thin out thicker areas of the skin such as on your heels, Zhang said.

But she generally doesn’t recommend them. The abrasiveness of physical or mechanical scrubs can cause irritation, dryness and rashes, especially if you have sensitive skin or conditions like eczema.

However, when dead skin cells accumulate, they can clog pores and cause whiteheads and blackheads, Sobel said. So if your skin is acne-prone or oily, you might benefit from physical exfoliating a couple of times a week if it doesn’t cause irritation — but no more.

“I would advise people to use gentle sponges and washcloths, rather than a physical scrub,” Zhang said. “I find that products with beads or small granules and brushes are too abrasive.”

If you do choose a physical scrub, the AAD suggests using small gentle circular motions to avoid damaging the skin.

Why chemical exfoliants are a more effective option

Chemical exfoliation is generally better tolerated by most people, but especially if you have normal or dry skin, Zhang said. “It has less potential to cause micro-traumas compared to physical scrubs.”

Look for products like serums, toners or body lotions that contain alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) such as glycolic, lactic or citric acid. You can also look for beta hydroxy acid (BHA) like salicylic acid, Sobel said. These substances can remove dead skin cells, unclog pores and improve skin texture without being abrasive.

These acids can also help minimize the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, hyperpigmentation and large pores, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Products contain different concentrations of AHAs and BHAs, so if you’re new to them, start with items with 10% to 15%.

Most people can tolerate using a chemical exfoliator a couple of times a week, Zhang said. With so many products out there, she added that you may need to experiment with different AHAs or BHAs to find one that works best for you.

Another option is a prescription-strength retinoid, like tretinoin, which a dermatologist can provide, Zhang said. It exfoliates and promotes anti-aging, including improving fine lines, discoloration and overall skin appearance.

Keep in mind that exfoliating, even chemically, can sometimes dry out the skin, which is why dermatologists recommend only doing it a few times a week. The AAD says to moisturize after you exfoliate to keep your skin hydrated.

Want to try a great chemical exfoliator? Try these products with mandelic acid.

HuffPost and its publishing partners may receive a commission from some purchases made via links on this page. Every item is independently curated by the HuffPost Shopping team. Prices and availability are subject to change.


Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 6% mandelic acid + 2% lactic acid liquid exfoliant

This is one of Paula’s Choice’s newest products, and I’m thrilled to see my favorite AHA debut at such a prominent brand. It skews more toner than serum in texture, making it ideal for those who prefer a lighter formulation, without skimping on effectiveness. It combines mandelic acid and time-released lactic acid to reduce discoloration and get the most of these powerful ingredients. Yarrow extract and antioxidants round out this formula and help support both the skin’s microbiome and moisture barrier. I got my hands on a few little sample packets and my skin absolutely loved it. It is effective without being overly tingly or aggressive. Some reviewers noted that it has a distinct smell, but I have not found it to be overly strong or off-putting. If anything, it gives me reassurance that there are no essential oils in the formula to mask it, which can irritate sensitive skin.

Promising review: “Works great for my sensitive, acne prone, mature skin. The 2% BHA exfoliant was way too strong and dried my skin out so much. This one works perfectly for me and I don’t mind the smell, as other have mentioned. Yes, it stinks but as long as it works, that’s all that matters. I’m sure sensitive, acne prone skins would appreciate that it doesn’t contain fragrance. I wanted a chemical exfoliant that was gentle for daily use to remove my dead skin but didn’t irritate. I’ve tried so many (the ordinary, Clinique, Ren, Caudalie, ole henriksen just to name a few) but none worked for me. They either contained alcohol, essential oils or just was too strong). Would recommend.” — luvcj


The Ordinary mandelic acid 10% + HA

If you’re interested in stronger formulations, then check out The Ordinary’s 10% mandelic acid serum. It gently exfoliates to help erase dullness and uneven texture, address lines, treat blemishes and more while hyaluronic acid keeps skin supple, hydrated and healthy.

Promising review: “I usually never write reviews, but I had to for this product. This absolutely changed the way my skin looks. I have hormonal acne and I heard mandelic acid is great for that and it is! I get amazing results overnight! Highly rec.” — AbbyLeah


The Inkey List mandelic acid treatment

Best used as a spot treatment, The Inkey List’s fast-acting, targeted formula not only helps to exfoliate and treat breakouts, but it also reduces the appearance of hyperpigmentation and discoloration that can be left behind by blemishes. It pairs mandelic acid with hydrating glycerin and encapsulated retinol for powerful results at a low price point.

Promising review: “I’ve tried everything recommended by dermatologists for my severe acne but nothing helped. This product is a hidden gem and I haven’t heard many people talk about it. It not only helped with acne but also with dark spots.” — afas

Sofie Pavitt Face

Sofie Pavitt Face mandelic clearing serum

I’ve been using this serum since its arrival on the scene about a year ago and can attest to its gentle potency. It’s deliciously hydrating without feeling greasy and has been able to manage and keep my breakouts at bay. I’m thrilled with both the long- and short-term results — my skin feels soft, supple and smooth, and I rarely get breakouts. The longer I use it, the better my skin gets. I don’t think I’ll be able to quit this serum anytime soon. It’s more than earned it’s place in my regimen.

Promising review: “II am a 30 y.o. who has always struggled with acne. I’ve tried almost everything – benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, retinol, tret. This is the first product in a long time that I saw fast results from, with little irritation. I had a little dryness on my chin and nose, but other than that, my skin was clearer in one week!I am a 30 y.o. who has always struggled with acne. I’ve tried almost everything – benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, retinol, tret. This is the first product in a long time that I saw fast results from, with little irritation. I had a little dryness on my chin and nose, but other than that, my skin was clearer in one week!” — Kathryn M.


By Wishtrend Mandelic Acid 5% skin prep water

More essence than serum, this toning water from By Wishtrend is formulated with mandelic acid alongside other moisturizing and soothing ingredients like centella asiatica extract, panthenol and beta-glucan. It gives you all the benefits of chemical exfoliation without drying your skin or disrupting the moisture barrier. Its lightweight formulation is ideal for those with oily skin.

Promising review: “Mandelic acid is a great exfoliator for those with more melanated skin like myself. This essence is a very gentle exfoliant and I use maybe once to twice a week. I love Korean skincare, as it is way ahead western skincare and they use cutting edge products. This essence leaves my skin soft, glowy and helps with removing pesky hyperpigmentation. I highly recommend this product.” — Dawn Ashwood


Naturium mandelic topical acid 12%

This lightweight serum has a high percentage of mandelic acid along with niacinamide and other fruit acids. These ingredients work in tandem to brighten and exfoliate the skin, and can also give the added benefit of reducing fine lines along with other signs of aging.

Promising review: “I cannot really explain how much I love this serum. I have acne-prone, combination skin that leans toward the more oily side. I purchased this in combination with the Creamy Double Cleanse Duo and have seen better results than anything I’ve tried in the past. My oiliness is completely under control – COMPLETELY, and the brightness I see in my skin is a huge bonus that I didn’t expect. I’ve never experienced that in my life. I typically break out on my lower cheeks and jawline and I’ve had only one very minor breakout since using these products. I also use the cleansers once a day on my chest to combat my chest acne (caused from heat/irritation from oil/sweat and friction), and now my chest is clear and bright and soft! The redness throughout my face and chest is also gone! I will continue to purchase this!!!” — Anonymous


Allies of Skin mandelic pigmentation corrector night serum

While on the pricey side, this highly concentrated serum packs a major punch. It can help to speed up cell turnover, lighten dark spots, improve the look of breakouts and even reduce some common signs of aging. This hefty dose of mandelic, lactic and salicylic acids, plus peptides and bakuchiol — a natural form of retinol — can give the complexion a major boost improving elasticity, firmness, brightness and hydration.

Promising review: “This very gentle serum brings results quickly. I purchased this to fade sun damage, tighten up the look of my pores, and for general brightening. I’ve been using it for about a week, and I’m impressed with the smoothness and brightness of my complexion. I have a dark spot on my cheek that is really starting to fade The serum sinks in quickly. I recommend this, especially if you are trying to tackle more than one skin issue at once.” — Anonymous


Hyper Skin gentle brightening gel cleanser with mandelic acid

While most brands utilize mandelic acid in the form of a serum or toner, Hyper Skin’s cleaner can help to unclog pores while soothing and resurfacing. It combines mandelic acid with licorice root, barberry and willow bark to help target dark spots, inflammation and breakouts. Just be sure to follow the directions and leave it on your skin for up to 30 seconds to get the full benefits of these yummy ingredients. Reviewers also noted that it works well as a second step when double-cleansing.

Promising review: “I wasn’t too impressed with this at first. For some reason I decided to read the instructions after several uses and saw that it says to leave for 30 seconds prior to rinsing. and, OH BOY did this make a difference. My skin has been noticeably smoother and brighter since then. Been using consistently for about 6 weeks now and I love it. I will absolutely be repurchasing.” — ladystig

Chemist Confessions

Chemist Confessions The Specialist blackhead exfoliation treatment

This unique treatment can be used in three different ways: as a nightly toner, a spot treatment or a weekly mask. It’s infused with a powerful combination of mandelic acid and salicylic acid that makes it a powerhouse for combatting oily skin and acne. It’s rounded out with niacinamide to ensure that your skin stays healthy, hydrated and smooth.

Promising review: “despite this product being targeted towards people with oily skin, I had a really good experience with it as a person with very dry, eczema-prone, and sensitive skin. this is one of the only exfoliants I’ve used (besides baby steps) that has produced results on my skin. it clears up breakouts and is also good at smoothing texture; i use it nightly by putting a drop in my moisturizer and it never stings or burns, which is often my experience with other hydroxy acid exfoliants. a true winner!” — Anonymous

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