The first intended purpose for these products is exfoliation, or the removal of the dead, keratinized skin cells from the epidermis (outer layer) of the skin. The second stated purpose is that sugar is a natural humectant, meaning it supposedly draws moisture from the environment into the skin to keep it moisturized. The third reason I found for using these is, sugar scrubs (and chemical peels) often contain glycolic acid, which is a form of alpha hydroxy acid that penetrates the skin and dissolves skin cells, encouraging the production of new cells (cellular turnover). This is a general type of skin treatment which is also commonly described (using various chemicals) as a “chemical peel”.
When I was first researching about these types of products, the two questions that came to my mind were: 1. Are these actually beneficial or useful? And 2. Do they really have the desired effects that are claimed? For example, these products are claimed to make skin appear more youthful by removing the outer layer of skin. But what (long term) unintended health consequences might these have on the underlying dermal tissue (the deeper layer of skin with living skin cells)? The more research I did, the more I realized that the latter question was important to address.
The “conventional wisdom” regarding these types of products is that these are perfectly safe. However at Nature’s Complement we have never been ones to blindly accept conventional wisdom without verifying it for ourselves. We’ve always thought that part of the value proposition that we provide to our customers is to “think outside the box” of conventional “wisdom” of skin care products. In writing this article we made use of our biomedical research experience, our knowledge of biology and chemistry, and some of our health care experience, to provide a very much outside the box perspective on this topic. We hope these ideas are useful to people in helping to reduce real, actual skin aging, through proper care of your skin, with longevity in mind.
Cellular Physiology Process Number One
There are two key cellular physiology processes that play roles here. The first is cellular turnover. Almost all cells in the human body (with very few exceptions) have a limit to the number of times they can divide and make new cells. This limitation has been called the “Hayflick Limit” and it is caused by the shortening of the DNA at the tips of our chromosomes known as telomeres (pronounced teelo-meers). Due to the chemistry of the molecular machinery involved in replication of our DNA, each time a cell divides and duplicates its DNA, a small amount of telomeric DNA at the end is lost. When the DNA at the ends of our chromosomes (telomeres) become too short, cells will stop dividing and become senescent. Senescence is sort of like a form of cellular retirement. In short, once cells stop dividing (or cease to be able to divide any more) into new cells, you are left mainly with aged (senescent) cells. This is what results in many pathologies of aging, including wrinkles.
To put this in context of chemical peels and sugar scrubs, every time you peel or scrub off a layer of skin and force the underlying dermal cells to replicate, your cells lose some telomeric DNA and they become one generation closer to senescence. In other words, by doing this you speed up the skin aging process by forcing your cells to divide, thus shortening your cells’ telomeres. If you want to keep youthful skin, this is exactly the opposite of what you want to accomplish. Cells with longer telomeres are literally more youthful.
This process of inducing skin cellular turnover may keep your skin looking good in your younger years, but it will cause accelerated skin aging that will definitely become noticeable in your middle or later years. You skin will look older than it should at a given age. The only (and I mean only) way to solve this problem of senescent cells is to make the DNA at the ends of our cells’ telomeres longer again. However, telomeres do not get longer naturally, so medical intervention would be required to accomplish this. Currently there are drugs in development to do this, yet none are commonly available. So, while chemical peels and sugar scrubs may keep you looking young now, they will certainly make you look older later.
Cellular Physiology Process Number Two
The second cellular physiology process related to sugar scrubs is known as “non-enzymatic glycosylation”, also known as “glycation”. Glycosylation, simply defined, is when a sugar molecule undergoes a chemical reaction where it becomes bonded to some tissue made of proteins and/or lipids. Enzymatic glycosylation, is a normal process where human enzymes intentionally bind sugar to a cell (usually the cell surface), for some purpose, such as cellular identification or cellular signaling. Since enzymatic glycosylation was caused by an enzyme, it is reversible because it can also be undone by a different enzyme.
However, in the case of non-enzymatic glycosylation/glycation, the sugar binds to the protein or lipid via a different chemistry process that does not involve the use of an enzyme. This type of glycosylation is not normal for the body, and often leads to dysfunctional or damaged cells (known as Advanced Glycation End products or AGEs). This type of glycosylation is also not reversible without the use of certain drugs or nutrients that have been shown to do exactly that.
An analogy may help here. A commonly used analogy to explain oxidative damage is when an apple is cut open and it turns brown. The oxygen in the atmosphere causes oxidative damage to the unprotected apple cells on the exposed surface (technically by ripping away electrons). Along a similar line, when you put a sugar baste on a turkey and bake it in the oven and it turns brown, that is one type of non-enzymatic glycosylation/glycation reaction. The sugar molecules are binding to the proteins and lipids of the turkey, and that process is largely irreversible. (For health reasons you may also reconsider eating sugar-browned foods such as this, as it is unknown if the human body can break down consumed AGEs).
One type of human pathology that involves non-enzymatic glycosylatoin/glycation is diabetes. If you are a diabetic, or know someone who is, you may have heard that they need to have their “A1c” or “glycated hemoglobin” tested to make sure it is not too high. This is basically a measure of the percentage of red blood cells that have been damaged by sugars binding to them in an non-enzymatic and non-functional way – exactly what we are talking about here. Diabetics are known in the medical community to develop numerous secondary pathologies, many of which can be attributed to glycation. It is also worth noting that diabetics with poor blood sugar control are known to have poor skin wound healing. Here is one study among many showing exactly that. And interestingly, even mobility problems have been associated with collagen glycation damage.
So what does this have to do with sugar scrubs? Well I’m glad you asked, as it gets me back on topic. As the name implies, sugar scrubs involve the use of, yes, sugar. Since concentrated sugar exposure can play a causative role in non-enzymatic glycation, I pose the question “Is that really something to which you want to expose your skin?” Let me backup and qualify this. Exposing the epidermis or outermost layer of skin probably shouldn’t make that much difference, as the outermost layer of skin is largely made up of “dead” keratinized cells, so there is little concern about glycation adversely affecting living cells.
However, since the main point of sugar scrubs is specifically to remove much of the outermost layer of skin to expose living skin cells, then underlying living skin cells (fibroblasts and keratinocytes) will be exposed to high concentrations of sugar (and this is certainly not natural). But will such exposure cause any actual harm such as glycation? I don’t know, but neither does anyone else. As far as I could find, no one has ever studied what affects sugar exposure has on living skin cells or tissue. This is not surprising, as there is little incentive for anyone to spend money on such research (either experimental or epidemiological). However I did find one study showing that Advanced Glycation End products play a role in (skin) psoriatic plaques.
There is also a lot of evidence in the medical literature that high concentrations of sugar do bad things to numerous other cell types. This includes nerve cells in diabetic neuropathy, epithelial cells in atherosclerosis, or the numerous kidney cell types that develop nephropathy due to sugar in urine. So why would we assume there are no adverse effects to skin cells? Admittedly, this portion of this article is speculative in nature, and I admit that. But I have not seen anyone else put together the puzzle pieces of what harm sugar scrubs may be doing to people’s skin in the long run. The absence of studies on the effects of sugar scrubs on skin does not automatically mean they are safe or that there is no harm. Scientists have a saying: “absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence“. As with many things, sometimes the damage is unknown for years until it is too late.
So what are my bottom line thoughts on chemical peels, sugar scrubs, and ex-foliation? Unless you have some rare special event such as something like wedding photos, or you have a dermatological medical condition such as keratosis, I would not recommend using chemical peels or alpha hydroxy acid, as they will shorten the lifespan of your skin cells. In other words, rare use might not be too destructive, but regular, or even semi-regular use will be. Your skin cells will wear out before you do.
I would avoid sugar scrubs entirely (they are not necessary), and if you feel that exfoliation is necessary due to a build up of dead dry skin, then use something else like a cloth, a soft brush, or a course soap like our oatmeal soap.
On the topic of exfoliation, this article has some additional good advice.
If you want a humectant effect, I recommend you try our La Rosè lotion as it provides exactly that.
Sugar scrubs and chemical peels are most likely not doing your skin any long term favors.
EDIT: We have had requests for more scientific references on this topic. I have included a (partial) list of references below, primarily related to the first half of this article (chemical peels). In the future I will add references regarding the second half of this article (sugar scrubs).
Handbook of the Biology of Aging (Eighth Edition) 2016, Pages 205-239.
Ting-Lin B.Yang, Shufei Song, F. Brad Johnson
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