Exfoliating loosens and removes dirt and dead skin cells that can clog your pores. The end result is clearer skin and a glowing, youthful complexion. Experts are split on whether scrubs are really a necessary part of your skin care regime or just a luxury, but we found plenty of users who say scrubs are an essential part of keeping their skin clean, clear and healthy.
However, not all scrubs are created equal. Most experts agree that the finer the exfoliating particles, the better -- they're less likely to scratch your skin than large, abrasive particles. Unfortunately, the tiny plastic "microbeads" that are a very common ingredient in fine-textured exfoliators are washing down our drains and, eventually, into the ocean. Grain meals and nut hulls are sometimes used as a natural replacement, as in St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub (*Est. $3 for 6 oz.).
The good news about the St. Ives scrub is that it has a pleasant scent, gives quick results and usually leaves your skin smooth -- the bad news is that the corn kernel meal and walnut shells it uses for exfoliation can be a little too hard on your skin. "I was surprised at how harsh and jagged the grains were," writes one user at MakeupAlley.com. That's the most common problem with these natural abrasives, and one reason microbead exfoliants remain so popular.
Neutrogena's Clear Pore Daily Scrub (Est. $7.50 for 4.2 oz.) uses microbeads for exfoliating, but it also contains 3.7 percent benzoyl peroxide. That makes it great for clearing up acne and cleansing very oily skin, but too harsh if you already have dry or sensitive skin; some reviewers say it also caused temporary redness that lingered for a few minutes after use. It also contains menthol, another potential irritant for sensitive skin -- but lots of users say they like the cool, tingly fresh feeling the menthol gives their skin as they rinse this scrub away.
If you're looking to add to your anti-acne regimen or just to cleanse excess oil from your skin, this scrub is a great choice -- but you might want to take a tip from those users who alternate it with gentler products, or follow up with a moisturizer, to keep from overly drying out their skin. Also, be warned that if you don't rinse thoroughly, the benzoyl peroxide will bleach anything it comes into contact with. That includes colored towels, bed sheets, and your hair or eyebrows.
At the far opposite end of the spectrum, Pond's Luminous Clean Daily Exfoliating Cleanser (*Est. $6.50 for 5 oz.) uses tiny polyethylene beads for its exfoliating action. Reviewers say it gently cleanses your skin without stripping out the natural moisture, and it's good for removing makeup too. Shea butter adds creaminess, and a touch of artificial fragrance adds a "mild but pleasant" scent most users don't mind. But it might actually be too gentle, because some reviewers say they're not sure it's really doing anything.
The best balance we found between those two extremes -- gentle enough for almost all skin types, but still exfoliating enough that you know it's really working -- is Philosophy the Microdelivery Daily Exfoliating Wash (Est. $30 for 8 oz.). Users say the finely textured microbeads feel a bit like sand; effective, but still fine enough for use on sensitive skin. "The consistency is perfect, the grains are really tiny so they don't irritate your skin. The smell is nice. It cleans pretty deep without overdrying," writes one user at MakeupAlley.com.
Even though this is the priciest scrub in our report, a little bit goes a long way; several users say a large (32-oz.) bottle lasts for the better part of a year with frequent use, and it really works. "Smooth clear bright skin and fewer wrinkles - what's not to love," writes one Amazon.com user.
Philosophy the Microdelivery Daily Exfoliating Wash also gets the lowest hazard score from the Environmental Working Group of the four scrubs mentioned here -- 3 out of 10, due primarily to two ingredients that introduce immunotoxicity and neurotoxicity concerns: methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone. That's still better than the hazard scores for Pond's Luminous Clean Daily Exfoliating Cleanser (6 out of 10), Neutrogena Clear Pore Daily Scrub (4 out of 10), and even the natural St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Scrub (a surprising 6 out of 10).