I bought into the St. Ives lie for years. In the already insecure times of high school and college, my skin was host to constant colonies of acne, my nose peppered with blackheads, my chin and forehead a topographical horror of cystic zits that lasted for weeks. But as I moved into adulthood, it didn’t go away, making me, I suppose, part of a trend—adult acne is on the rise, particularly among women.
I’m sure it never really seemed so bad to others as it did to me, as is the way with these things. I covered it up with layers of gloppy foundation, then with more proficiently applied makeup later on, then went on hormonal birth control, which improved the situation significantly.
But for many of the years in-between, I washed my face with St. Ives Apricot Scrub, which is an exfoliator made with granules of walnut shell powder. It is extremely rough. Perhaps too rough. We’ll find out: Kaylee Browning and Sarah Basile recently filed a class-action lawsuit against St. Ives’s maker, Unilever, alleging that the wash “leads to long-term skin damage” and “is not fit to be sold as a facial scrub.”
In several stories about the lawsuit, Unilever declined to comment on the case and gave the same statement: “We can say that for over 30 years, consumers have loved and trusted the St. Ives brand to refresh and revitalize their skin. We are proud to be America’s top facial scrub brand and stand by our dermatologist tested formula.”
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.”
Elsewhere, you can find people claiming the pore strips made their pores larger, or irritated their skin. The subreddit r/SkincareAddiction holds particular vitriol for the St. Ives scrub, which some dermatologists say is so abrasive that it can cause small tears in the skin. The subreddit rejoiced in the announcement of Browning and Basile’s lawsuit, as Slate recently reported. It’s hard to find actual studies on the efficacy of specific products, but certainly St. Ives Apricot Scrub and its ilk perpetuate this idea that the best way to get the skin you want is to destroy the skin you have. They facilitate the worst impulses of the frustrated acne-sufferer declaring war on their skin.
The marketing of skincare products preys on vulnerability, even if not intentionally, promising that this new product is the one thing that will finally work, that your zits will be gone in time for prom, that your wrinkles will be less noticeable in four weeks. Without a lot of good information out there, it’s no wonder if I and others put our faith in these promises, and overdo it, thinking if it hurts, it must be working.