Scrubbed: The Fable of Exfoliation


“It turns out washing your face twice a day with an oscillating face brush — which uses sound waves to dislodge bacteria, dirt and dead skin cells from your pores — is not as good for the skin as doctors once thought it was.”

In 2004, L'Oréal introduced the Clarisonic, an ultrasonic oscillating facial brush that was advertised to give skin a daily exfoliation and deep clean. Soon after, a myriad of copycat exfoliation brushes flooded the market, joining jars of DIY chemical peels and gritty masks that promise to rid the skin of dead cells, dullness, and dry flakes for perfectly glowing skin. Yet, in August of 2020, The New York Times reported that the Clarisonic has been discontinued because it is now comprehensively clear that the daily scrubbing of the skin is a less than healthy practice.

For years, the beauty industry has promoted the feckless fable that our skin needs exfoliating to be healthy and smooth. Yet, this simply isn’t true. Given wholesome conditions, our skin knows exactly what to do…

An Inside Job

Our skin is a self-renewing system. Left to its own elegant devices, our amazing skin naturally sheds 40,000 cells every minute of our lives. Desquamation, the scientific name for this dynamic daily process of skin cell shedding, is an inside job prompted by chemical signals from within the body. When that system is in synch, external exfoliation is unnecessary for smooth skin.

Our skin is only a few millimeters thick, yet its multilayered, microbial design provides us with perfect protection. The top layer of the skin is made of dead cells stacked together like bricks that are held together by a lipid mixture. These dead skin cells, which naturally desquamate every two weeks, have given rise to the use of oscillating brushes, chemical peels, and over scrubbing. Yet, cell loss is designed to precisely match cell production, and exfoliation removes skin cells before they would normally desquamate, tipping the balance so that cell loss exceeds cell production. This signals stress in the skin.

Also, our epidermal ecosystem requires a healthy outer layer of dead cells and lipids because it is our most antiaging and anti-infection layer. When we remove this layer prematurely, the young cells underneath are left vulnerable. With this juicy layer jeopardized, irritants and environmental exposures distress the new skin, inducing inflammatory issues. If this layer is disturbed regularly, it creates an ongoing health deficit of missing microbes, inflammation, abnormal cells, and easy entrance for toxins. This is why Christian Surber, a professor of dermatopharmacology, refers to regular exfoliating routines as skin abuse.

Recommendations of exfoliation abound in beauty blogs and magazines, yet we cannot tackle our skin’s imbalances by scrubbing away our stratum corneum. This perfectly protective top layer of skin is mostly composed of dead skin cells. The presence of dead cells has given rise to the practice of plastic-bead cleansers, synthetic scrubs, chemical peels, laser ablation, and excessive exfoliation. Yet this vital layer is like our topsoil and feeds our friendly flora. Exfoliating cells away too quickly tips the balance so that cell loss exceeds cell production. When we remove it prematurely, the young cells underneath are left stressed and vulnerable. With this juicy layer jeopardized, chemicals irritate the new skin, inducing a vicious cycle of inflammation. If this layer is disturbed regularly, and it is, an ongoing health deficit of missing microbes develops, as well as abnormal cells and easy entrance to toxins (especially when skincare involves chemicals).

Five Steps for Optimal Desquamation

The conditions for optimal desquamation are the same as those for whole-body health. Follow these five simple steps for naturally smooth and fresh skin, and you’ll feel better all over.

1. Heighten Hydration
Healthy cells float in a sea of saline, and desquamation is more efficient when the body is well hydrated. The specific enzymes that loosen the lipid-bond that hold dead skin cells together require the presence of water to act effectively. Also, the swelling of well-hydrated mature cells at the top of the skin helps to weaken the lipid-bond, allowing cells to shed more easily.

2. Love your Lymph
Glow with gorgeous skin by simply dry brushing. This is a very gentle brushing of the skin to stimulate the lymphatic system, which is right under the surface of the skin, comprising a vast network of capillaries. A flowing lymphatic system supports healthy skin and circulation. To begin, simply pour 1–2 drops of a lymph-loving essential oil (Laurel, Cypress, Eucalyptus, Rosemary, or a blend of all four) on the palm of your hand, and then glide a dry brush across your palm, coating the bristles. Then lightly brush your body, starting with your toes, brushing in the direction of the heart, all the way up to your head.

3. Eat for your Microbiome
Healing and sealing the guts is as foundational to skincare as digestion is a direct door to every pore. May your plate celebrate nourishment with a colorful variety of wholefoods, organic fruits and vegetables along with healthy fats and proteins — including essential fatty acids. A diet rich in balanced EFAs keeps the skin lubricated and improve cell hydration.

4. Savor Some Sun
Slowly, gradually, and gently expose your skin to the sun to quench your cells in vitamin D. Our skin converts sunbeams into the steroid hormone, vitamin D. The sunshine vitamin influences every cell in our body and is easily one of nature’s most potent champions. It is intrinsic and necessary for skin health as it regulates cell synthesis, enzyme activity, peptides, the lipid barrier, and immunity. It also lets cells know when it’s time to die — a key function for desquamation.

5. Side-Step Surfactants
Surfactants are used in cosmetic products as wetting and foaming agents, detergents, and emulsifiers, and studies show that they dissolve our skin’s natural ceramides, enzymes, and hydro-lipid barrier. These surfactants found in foaming washes, suds, and scrubs insert themselves into the top layer of the skin and stay there even after rinsing, initiating chronic degradation to this delicate layer. This results in inflammation and microbial elimination, which may manifest as melasma, blemishes, redness, dryness, and irritated skin.

6. Botanical Oils are Best
Seal, heal, and keep the integrity of the top layer intact by adopting the ancient cleansing method of washing the skin with botanical oils. Fresh pressed plant oils feed our skin from the outside in with a transdermal bouquet that purifies, calms, and clears the skin. Washing with botanicals gently and effectively cleanses and moisturizes the skin while maintaining its precious top layer. It is simple to do, too. Dampen an organic cotton cloth with warm water, put a squirt of jojoba oil or your favorite Best Skin Ever on the cloth, and gently wash your face. No need to rinse! The cloth and oil provide the perfect level of gentle daily exfoliation. Deeper spa-like exfoliation may be done weekly by adding a dash of clay to your oil cleansing or using our Perfect Pearl Powder, Rosemary Reset, or the ravishing Royal Rose Honey Mask.

Replenishing with desquamation-friendly botanicals meet the life of your skin so you can revel in the perfection you were born with.

Nadine Artemis, the founder of Living Libations, is the author of Holistic Dental Care: The Complete Guide to Healthy Teeth and Gums, and Renegade Beauty: Reveal and Revive Your Natural Radiance, which was named one of “The Top 10 Books on Skin Care” by The Strategist of New York Magazine. She is a respected media guest and contributor, and her products have received rave reviews in the New York Times, LA Times, Elle, People, Vogue, and Hollywood Reporter. Described by Alanis Morissette as “a true-sense visionary,” Nadine crafts elegant formulations and healing creations from rare botanicals that have skin glowing around the world. Her concept of Renegade Beauty encourages effortlessness and inspires people to rethink conventional notions of beauty and wellness.

[1] Rubin, Courtney. “RIP Clarisonic. “New York Times. 8/5/2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/05/style/skin-care-rip-clarisonic.html

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Milstone, Leonard M.. “Epidermal desquamation.” Journal of Dermatological Science. 2004 Dec; 36(3): 131–140. doi: 10.1016/j.jdermsci.2004.05.004

[1] Walters, Russel M., Guangru Mao, Euen T. Gunn, and Sidney Hornby, “Cleansing Formulations That Respect Skin Barrier Integrity,” Dermatology Research and Practice, 2012: 495917, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3425021/.