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I’ve done a lot of posts on skincare products I love… now, for something a bit different, here are some that I really hate and would only recommend to people I don’t like. So if I ever recommend these to you… it’s not me, it’s you. I just don’t see our relationship working out.
Coffee scrubs are made from coffee grounds, which is literally the stuff you chuck into the bin after making coffee. Now I’m sure there’s a little bit of work involved in making sure it doesn’t mould away in the packet, but essentially you’re buying rubbish at $30 for a small bag.
How can they charge this much, you ask? Well, it’s because they usually claim to get rid of cellulite. This is a bald-faced lie, because apart from the fact that you can’t actually get rid of cellulite, one application of the amount of caffeine required to make cellulite look a little better equates to 2.1 kg of coffee grounds, left on your skin for hours. Any improvement you get is probably mostly a combination of massage, exfoliation and placebo, which really shouldn’t cost that much.
Coffee scrubs are also messy as hell – unlike sugar and salt scrubs, they don’t dissolve in water so gritty black specks will lurk in unexpected places forever. I’m still finding bits of coffee grounds under my soap despite rinsing my entire shower down with vinegar the one time I tried one.
I suppose there’s nothing really harmful about coffee scrubs, really. What pisses me off is mostly just the SHEER AUDACITY of charging so much for a product that’s worse than salt mixed with a bit of oil (about $1.10 a kg, if you shell out for the nice oil). It’s more expensive than a whole bunch of other great exfoliants, and it’s basically bagged up garbage. I wish I’d thought of it.
What you should use instead: Salt + oil, or a leave-on anti-cellulite caffeine cream.
Apricot Scrubs with Shell Bits
First off, physical exfoliation is not the devil. It’s a great thing to use in conjunction with chemical exfoliants. But apricot scrubs containing ground walnut shell… that’s a different matter entirely.
As far as I can tell with my trusty literature review tools, there isn’t any evidence that they cause microtears which harbour bacteria (and I have no idea how that rumour started, but if you know anything about it I’d love to hear from you!), and there are many beneficial products and procedures with harder particles (hello microdermabrasion). But maybe half of the “skincare-naive” people who ask me about their skin problems have this on their bathroom shelf, and they use way too much pressure when scrubbing, and do it way too often (for some reason people feel the need to use it once a day). This sort of treatment usually starts by giving you a nice glow, but it’s unsustainable and quickly leads to sensitive, dehydrated, compromised skin that feels rough and is prone to breakouts. Of course, the obvious thing to do is to use more of the product to get that nice glow back, but it’s a downward spiral from there.
I don’t think St Ives deserves to be sued, but I also wouldn’t lose any sleep if apricot scrubs disappeared. (Also, why are they all called apricot scrubs instead of walnut scrubs?)
What to use instead: Any gentler physical exfoliant: konjac sponges, sugar scrubs, cleansing brushes. If you don’t already have an exfoliation routine in place, I’d recommend setting one up.
Soaps for the Face
True or “natural” soaps that is, made from lye or caustic potash and fats or oils. This includes products like African black soap and Castille soap. Soap is bad news for your face for a couple of reasons:
- It’s impossible for soap to work at a pH lower than around 9.5, which is unfortunate because your face has a pH of 4-6, and high pH will disrupt your skin’s ability to stay intact
- Soap’s structure (straight tail, small head group) makes it awesome at messing up the proteins in your skin
Some people with tolerant skin will be able to handle soap on their face, and most people can use it on tougher body skin with no big dramas, but a lot of companies that sell soap as facewash go for the “gentle, great for sensitive skin, BECAUSE IT’S NATURAL” angle.
If your skin is sensitive, soap is not great for it (dehydration, breakouts and roughness galore), and soap isn’t much more natural than gentler cleansing ingredients anyway. Soap is fats and oils which have been reacted to turn it into something else entirely, much like how plastic is made by reacting dead dinosaurs.
What you should use instead: A gentle face cleanser that’s formulated with surfactants made for mildness. Check out this gentle cleansing guide for tips on how to pick a good product and some suggestions.
Hypoallergenic Natural Products Loaded with Essential Oils
On a similar note, the “gentle, great for sensitive skin, BECAUSE IT’S NATURAL” brigade are also really fond of jamming essential oils into products to somehow make them less reactive. Which is entirely the wrong direction to go, because fragrance is one of the things that people with sensitive skin are frequently sensitive to, and guess what – essential oils are fragrant (and plant extracts usually are too). In fact, many synthetic fragrances are just essential oils with some chemicals taken out. That’s why a whole bunch of “natural” skincare products have a list of chemicals at the end of their ingredients, like linalool, benzyl alcohol, geraniol and coumarin – these ingredients known to cause allergies in susceptible people are usually hidden in essential oils and plant extracts, but EU regulations require that they be listed.
Sure, there are some plant extracts that are great for most sensitive skin (oatmeal, for example), but for the most sensitive skin, you’ll want plain, uncomplicated ingredients like petroleum jelly that have been tested in tons of clinical studies, and these are usually going to be synthetic.
(Side note: my skin is pretty tolerant to most things, but the only product that ever burned enough to make me wash my face immediately was a “natural” product with essential oils. My skin was really nice and smooth afterwards though, thanks to the swelling.)
(Another side note: No, I am not interested in joining your team, owning my own business and selling essential oils to my friends and family.)
What you should use instead: Products with short ingredients lists that don’t contain essential oils or have the word “extract” in them.
Products That Smell Bad
On the flip side to the little rant I had above: if you aren’t sensitive to fragrance, there’s no compelling reason to avoid it. There’s a lot in the dermatological literature on fragrance, but that’s because people who go to the trouble of seeing a dermatologist are those who have serious skin issues. It’s estimated that less than 5% of the population will have allergic reactions to fragrance on their skin. It’s great that there are more fragrance-free products available for people with sensitive skin, but for the rest of us, fragrance isn’t an issue (damage from “invisible inflammation” from fragrance isn’t supported by any convincing evidence).
If a product smells bad, whether it’s from too little or too much fragrance, you probably won’t use it, no matter how many hi-tech ingredients it contains. The best product is one you’re going to use, and that goes beyond ingredients.
What you should use instead: A product that you enjoy using. If you enjoy fragrance-free that’s great, but for most of us, that means some sort of light scent.
The Obvious Ones:
Anything “chemical-free”. Everything is chemicals, including air, so either: (a) you don’t know what you’re talking about so I can’t trust any of your claims, or; (b) you’re selling me pure energy, and a lot of people are willing to pay a lot to learn how you managed to bottle that.
Anything scaremongery about “toxins” and “nasties”. Beautycounter is a particular offender at the moment, but the gold medal has gone to the Environmental Working Group for years, and while they don’t make products themselves, marketing for brands that do is often just copy pasted from their site. Most of the time scaremongering products don’t work very well, so they need to play up what isn’t in them to justify their high prices. The dangers are almost always based off (purposefully?) misleadingly interpreted data.
Products in unbelievably stupid packaging. A watery liquid in a squeeze tube? A viscous cream in a rigid bottle with a tiny hole? A pump container that either dispenses no product, or too much product with the force of an air-to-surface missile? A shower gel in a bottle that collects a sexy pool of stagnant water? I’m imagining that the people designing the packaging have just encountered civilisation for the first time. Or they’re sadistic geniuses.