How Bad Is It Really to Rub In Facial Skin-Care Products?

There isn't a black-and-white answer to the rub vs. pat debate.
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To rub or not to rub? If you're a skin-care aficionado (or just want to get the biggest possible benefit from your lotions and creams), that is the question.

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Social media lore says that rubbing skin-care products into your face can actually make a product less effective or even cause wrinkles. But dermatologists typically disagree, at least when it comes to most products.

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So what actually happens when you rub a product onto your face, and what's the best way to slather on that serum, moisturizer or sunscreen? Read on to find out what the pros have to say.

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Rubbing vs. Patting: It's a Spectrum

Generally speaking, there's no need to worry about getting wrinkles from rubbing in skin-care products, experts say.

In fact: "Rubbing a product on facial skin is usually recommended," says Mariano Busso, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Miami. "The forces applied to skin in a routine rubbing motion will not break down collagen or elastin fibers [and lead to increased wrinkles]."

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Jennifer Gordon, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Westlake Dermatology in Austin, Texas, also doesn't have a problem with rubbing. "I don't have a hard-and-fast rule about rubbing versus patting. A gentle rubbing isn't bad for the skin, and could potentially help lymphatic flow," Dr. Gordon says. That, in turn, could promote healthier circulation, which is a ‌good‌ thing for skin.

On the other hand, gentle rubbing — think light, circular motions made with your fingertips — is different than vigorously pushing the skin on your face back and forth. Aside from the fact that it probably isn't comfortable or enjoyable, it could irritate your skin, says Anna Guanche, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Bella Skin Institute in Calabasas, California.

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Gentle rubbing can actually help products penetrate the skin more deeply, so they're as effective as possible. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) specifically recommends thoroughly rubbing in sunscreen, for instance. (Try one of these derm-approved sunscreens.) Gentle massage has also been shown to amplify the effects of anti-aging creams, per a March 2017 study in ‌PLOS One‌.

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"Rubbing can increase penetration by increasing blood flow," Dr. Busso explains.

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How to Apply Facial Products

The skin-care product application method recommended by many dermatologists falls somewhere in between patting and rubbing. For most products, "you should apply products gently with your fingertips, using upward strokes, on the face and neck," Dr. Guanche says.

Avoid rubbing products in with the palms of your hands, which might take you into more vigorous territory. Also, "if the product is applied with the palm, a good amount of the product will stay on the hand and not the face, thus decreasing efficacy," Dr. Busso says.

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The Exceptions to These Rules

There's no problem with gently rubbing in products like sunscreen or moisturizer. But a few items in your medicine cabinet do warrant using a lighter touch, Dr. Gordon says.

Eye Creams

The skin around your eyes is thin and delicate, so it won't respond well to rubbing. "Doing so is more likely to produce microtears and increase irritation," Dr. Busso says.

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So when you're putting on an eye cream or serum, resist the urge to push, pull or tug at your skin. "Apply gently by patting it on with the pad of the fourth finger," Dr. Guanche says.

Exfoliators

Exfoliators are already designed to be a little rough on your skin. (How else would it slough away those dead layers to reveal the brighter, fresher skin underneath?) So it's best to apply those using light, circular motions with your fingertips. "Rubbing in exfoliators can increase irritation," Dr. Busso says.

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So, How Bad Is It Really to Rub in Facial Skin-Care Products?

Rubbing in facial products won't wreck your skin, and in many cases, it can actually boost absorption and make the product work more effectively. The key is rubbing gently with your fingertips, rather than pulling or tugging at your skin or shifting it around with your palms.

"Everything in moderation, please," Dr. Guanche says.

And go extra easy around your eyes or when using exfoliators. Your skin will be happier for it.

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