Dermatologists disagree on how beneficial scrubs are generally, but St. Ives is intense even among scrubs, with chunks of walnut harder than your average (water-polluting) plastic microbead.
“The problem [with scrubs] is that with over-zealous or too often use, they can irritate and cause more inflammation,” Annie Chiu, a dermatologist at The Derm Institute in Redondo Beach, California, told me in an email. “When you use it on active acne—it can sometimes cause discoloration or scarring as you may traumatize already tender, inflamed acneic skin.”
Unfortunately, the roughness is the basis for their appeal.
Acne is inevitably a public affliction and in its gnarliest forms can breed shame and low-self-esteem as well as inflamed face nodes. When it’s angry enough, you can’t really hide it. At best, you can turn a red lump into a brown one, and fool people from far away. It makes you feel ugly—I should stop using second-person. It makes me feel ugly. It makes me feel like I’m dirty and I need to be scrubbed raw to be clean again.
Enter St. Ives.
Hatred breeds violence, self-hatred no less so. If the thing that makes you hate yourself is on your surface, it makes sense to try to scrub your surface away. “It’s like using sandpaper on your face,” one dermatologist said of the St. Ives scrub, in an interview with New York magazine, and I can say from experience it feels that way, too. “If it hurts, it must be working”: my longtime approach to acne treatment.
I’d buy the highest possible concentration of benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid and heap it on my blemishes, taking comfort in the burn. I’d leave the shower with my skin red and stinging from a fresh St. Ives assault and refuse to moisturize afterward, hoping the zits would crumble into dust and I could rebuild my desert face from the ground up. Then of course, there’s the old classic of popping, squeezing, scratching and picking at zits, willing to draw my own blood so long as I can remove the invaders.
This self-harming form of warfare is common, Chiu says: “From teenagers to adults, acne is an incredibly frustrating issue, and almost everyone’s first impulse to scrub, pick, and overdry the skin. This then can cause even more irritation, or even worse scarring and discoloration, which feeds into a cycle of worsening acne. Overdrying and irritating the skin sometimes confuses the oil glands and paradoxically makes them more active. ”
But the skincare industry itself perpetuates this practice through some of these products that promise purity through violence. Biore pore strips are essentially pieces of paper that you glue to your face and then rip off, yanking out your blackheads (and often taking your hair along with it). One of the slogans on the company’s product page is “Don’t be dirty”—feeding right into my old insecurity. Commercials for rough exfoliating scrubs tend to have a woman with already perfect-skin extolling the “deep-clean” and splashing her face with pure blue water. In this old St. Ives commercial I found on YouTube they just drop the bottle into some water, which is weird, and a girl says, “we’re not talking some deep spiritual cleansing—but almost.”