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To Scrub, or Not to Scrub? Here’s why physical exfoliation isn’t bad for your skin– but rather vital.

To Scrub, or Not to Scrub? Here’s why physical exfoliation isn’t bad for your skin– but rather vital.

Few topics in the skincare world spark as much debate as exfoliation.  

With the rise of alpha hydroxy acids and social media influencers all but damning physical scrubs, the humble act of sloughing away dead skin cells has suddenly become shrouded in controversy and confusion.  Leading many to majorly overdo it or forgo this skin-saving step altogether– both have negative consequences.

Let's take a closer look at the structure of our skin to find out why physical exfoliation isn’t the villain it’s often made out to be and why sugar might just be the hero of this story.

Our skin craves exfoliation.

The skin naturally renews itself every 28 days through a process called desquamation.  Cells form in the inner layers, mature, and migrate to the outer layers, where they die and shed from the surface.  Rinse and repeat 600,000 times a day.  (1)

When this beautiful system is working as it should, exfoliation isn’t really necessary.  If it ain't broke, don’t fix it– right?  But when the skin starts to produce keratinocytes faster than it can let go of them,  these dead cells pile up on the surface, causing dullness, congestion, and breakouts.  In fact, people who are more prone to things like acne, dermatitis, ingrown hairs, and keratosis pilaris often carry a gene that triggers the skin to overproduce keratin. (2) This is why scrubbing away dead skin cells sometimes feels instinctual– especially if you have more problematic skin.  

It can be even harder for your cells to move along and renew if your skin is especially dry, like during the winter months. And let’s not forget that your diet can impact gene expression, so the food that you eat is just as important here, but I digress. (3) Brushing off all that build-up gives your skin the nudge it needs to breathe and continue its natural life cycle.  

How much exfoliation is too much?

Though almost every skin type can benefit from a little gentle exfoliation, going overboard will always do more harm than good.  

Exfoliating too frequently or incorrectly can compromise the skin’s moisture barrier– opening you up to sensitivity, environmental pollutants, and further irritation.  This protective outer layer, called the stratum corneum or acid mantle, is not only your skin’s first line of defense, but it also helps retain moisture so your skin stays bouncy and healthy.  

When you remove too many skin cells off the surface, you essentially create gaps in your “shield wall.”  The more space between skin cells, the more room there is for moisture to escape and bacteria to enter– quite literally a recipe for disaster.  (4) So remember, less is always more. 

Different types of exfoliation.

There are two main categories of exfoliation: chemical and physical. 

Chemical exfoliants, such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells. Physical exfoliation involves scrubbing the skin with textured particles or bristles to loosen and lift away dead cells.  

Why all the scrub hate?

The controversy traces back to the infamous St. Ives Apricot Scrub debacle– you know the one. Once hailed as a skincare staple, this gritty scrub came under fire for using crushed walnut shells as the exfoliating bits. Critics blamed its irregular and abrasive texture for causing micro-tears in the skin and long-term damage (they weren’t wrong).  But to our skin’s dismay, this sparked widespread fear of all scrubs, leading many of us to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Thus commenced the rapid rise of chemical exfoliation.

The current obsession with chemical exfoliants– a warning.

With the fall of scrubs, acid-based products have surged in popularity since they’re touted as being a “safer” alternative– we beg to differ.  While chemical exfoliants like salicylic and glycolic acid offer a similar effect to physical scrubs, they’re often way too intense for most skin types. Severely compromising the skin's barrier function, these ingredients leave you more susceptible to environmental stressors and sensitivity.  Damage caused by exfoliating acids can last up to three months since they completely strip the skin of moisture and nutrients.  Another thing to consider is the toll an accumulation of chemical reactions on the skin can take.  Much like modern sunscreen, throwing more and more synthetic chemicals at your body creates space for destructive processes like oxidation to take place.  Your skin is not a petri dish.  

Why physical exfoliation is better for your skin (the scoop on sugar)

Contrary to what’s trending online, physical exfoliation is actually much safer and gentler than most acid-based products when done correctly. Not only does it buff away dead skin cells without harmful chemicals, but it also stimulates circulation and collagen production for firmer, younger-looking skin.  To be clear, we’re not talking about harsh scrubs that rely on jagged particles like walnut shells or plastic beads (you already know how we feel about plastic). 

So why sugar?  Sugars have been used for thousands of years to treat wounds and promote skin healing– which makes sense since our cells run almost exclusively on sugar.  Ray Peat reminds us that “from the beginning of an animal's life, sugars are the primary source of energy.” (5, 6)  It has a similar healing effect when applied as a scrub, and you can easily adjust the level of exfoliation depending on what your skin needs because the rounded crystals dissolve when mixed with water– making this gentle enough for even the most sensitive skin types.  Sugar also contains natural humectants that draw moisture back into the skin, leaving it soft, smooth, and hydrated.  It’s truly the best of both worlds.

How to get the best results with a sugar scrub. 

Of course, there’s a right way and a wrong way to use a sugar scrub.  So let’s talk about it.

First, look for a blend with organic cane sugar, rich saturated fats like tallow, as well as an enzymatic ingredient like raw honey.  The enzymes in honey assist the sugar in clearing cell buildup, dirt, and oil from your pores.  The saturated fats help to strengthen the moisture barrier and nourish the new skin cells that have been revealed.  

Fatskn Grassfed Tallow Whipped Sugar Scrub ritual for soft, glowy skin:

  1. In the shower or at the sink, splash your skin with lukewarm water (piping hot water can further damage the moisture barrier)
  2. Take a two-finger scoop and work it into your hands to achieve your desired grit level.  
  3. Massage onto the skin using gentle, circular motions until the sugar has dissolved (watch your pressure, no need to be rough) *focus on areas prone to dryness or congestion, but be mindful not to over-exfoliate.
  4. Continue with your shower routine or rinse and pat dry.  
  5. Always follow up with a tallow moisturizer like Purist Whipped Body Butter or Purist Face to protect your skin and lock in hydration. 
  6. Look in the mirror and admire your glow.

Another thing to consider is frequency.  A good 1-2 times per week is generally enough for more sensitive areas like the face. The thicker skin of the rest of your body might benefit from everyday use.  But truly, everyone’s skin is unique, so listening to your body is the key to maximizing your results.  If your skin is feeling more congested, or extra flaky, it may be time for a light exfoliation.  But if you notice more redness and inflammation, take a break and opt for more occlusive ingredients to nourish and heal your skin barrier.

So, while the debate over exfoliation may continue to rage on, keep your focus on what makes the most sense for you and your skin.  Because it turns out all those trendy “brightening” and “smoothing” serums probably aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.  With a balanced approach and an ultra-gentle sugar scrub, you can bask in all the benefits of exfoliation without the fear of irritation.  

That’s right, scrub away for smooth, radiant, and uber-nourished skin.

As always, while we hope to be a no-nonsense resource for you, we encourage you to do your own research to find the healthiest options for you and your family.  Don’t forget to check out our entire collection of tallow-based skin care products by clicking the link below.  We hope to see you there!






  1. Sottosanti, K. (2024, January 31). desquamation. Encyclopedia Britannica. 
  2. Liu, F., Yang, Y., Zheng, Y., Liang, Y. H., & Zeng, K. (2018). Mutation and expression of ABCA12 in keratosis pilaris and nevus comedonicus. Molecular medicine reports, 18(3), 3153–3158. 
  3. Bouchard-Mercier, A., Paradis, A. M., Rudkowska, I., Lemieux, S., Couture, P., & Vohl, M. C. (2013). Associations between dietary patterns and gene expression profiles of healthy men and women: a cross-sectional study. Nutrition journal, 12, 24. 
  4. Rosso, J. D., Zeichner, J., Alexis, A., Cohen, D., & Berson, D. (2016). Understanding the Epidermal Barrier in Healthy and Compromised Skin: Clinically Relevant Information for the Dermatology Practitioner: Proceedings of an Expert Panel Roundtable Meeting. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 9(4 Suppl 1), S2–S8. 
  5. Selwyn, S., & J. Durodie. (1985). The Antimicrobial Activity of Sugar Against Pathogens of Wounds and Other Infections of Man. Springer EBooks, 90, 293–308. 
  6. Peat, R. (n.d.). Glucose and sucrose for diabetes. Retrieved February 19, 2024, from 
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