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Do Skin Lotions Work Better if You Pat Instead of Rub?

Calla Lily asks…I’ve always wondered if there is legitimacy to Clarins’ claim that by patting their product into your skin, it works better and you skin absorbs it better than rubbing it in. Is this really true? If so, what about all other skincare products out there? Should we be patting instead of rubbing?

The Right Brain responds:

We’re not familiar with this particular Clarins product but the notion that lotion will be absorbed better if you pat it on instead of rubbing it on makes no sense. While patting your face may increase blood flow, blood circulation doesn’t play a role in the absorption process because ingredients penetrate the upper layers of skin by diffusing through the channels between skin cells and not by absorption through blood vessels.

A dermatologist discusses skin penetration

Rather than rely on our knowledge of chemistry to answer this one we decided to consult Dr. Cynthia Bailey M.D., a dermatologist who runs her own blog. Here’s what Dr. Bailey had to say in response to the question:

Hmm, I had to ponder just what might have led Clarins to this idea, and I’m stumped. You see, the outer dead cell layer of the skin (called the stratum corneum) is THE single, main protective barrier for our skin. Once something gets through the stratum corneum it has a free ride into the rest of the skin, but getting through the stratum corneum is no easy feat – and the act of rubbing or patting is inconsequential.

To put it in perspective, if it wasn’t for the strength of this huge (like biggest organ in the body sort of huge) barrier all our important body stuff would be leaching out from our skin all day long, and every substance we came into contact would enter. The integrity of this barrier is a big deal for our health, and it takes more than patting or rubbing to impact it. To breach the stratum corneum you need to assault it with tactics like a facial acid peel that dissolves it entirely, laser vaporization where it goes up in smoke, repetitive stripping with tape until you’ve pulled it all off (anyone who has had hair removal waxing knows what I mean), or severe irritation that disrupts the components of the stratum corneum rendering it defective (think dish pan hands).

When we apply skin care products, by either rubbing or patting, our skin care products sloooowly penetrate our stratum corneum by gradually seeping in (a process called diffusion). Again, whether we pat or rub, they aren’t going to get through any faster than the stratum corneum will let them.

If you’d like to learn more from Dr. Bailey you can find her at Drbaileyskincare.com.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

Patting on lotion instead of rubbing will not make the product penetrate your skin any differently. If Clarins has any data to the contrary, we’d be glad to review it in a future post.

Reference: Hwa C, Bauer EA, Cohen DE, Skin Biology, Dermatologic Therapy, Vol. 24, 2011, 464-70

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Emma September 4, 2015, 9:16 pm

    Is there a benefit to increasing blood flow? I always put on a second layer of lotion where my skin is drier and in those areas I always tend to pat instead of rub. Is there a point?

    • Randy Schueller September 5, 2015, 7:54 am

      I can’t think of any reason why that small increase in blood flow would make a difference.

  • Sarah January 16, 2016, 6:35 am

    I think a lot of skin care lines & professionals promote “patting” product in, vs “rubbing” is so that we don’t pull on the skin too hard. Same reason why we shouldn’t rub our eyes. The rest of the skin on our face isn’t as sensitive as the skin around the eyes, but over time, with repetition, and possibly if rubbing harshly, I can see how this would cause wrinkles.

    • Randy Schueller January 16, 2016, 12:43 pm

      I think the reason that we’re not supposed to rub our eyes is that it can damage the delicate eye tissue, loosen eyelashes and drive them into the eye, etc.

  • Jelena August 18, 2016, 2:43 am

    Could there be any benefits to patting sunscreen instead of rubbing it? I ran into a Japanese TV show that discussed skincare, sunscreen, diet, etc. (no subtitles for now, but this is where I got the info: https://www.reddit.com/r/AsianBeauty/comments/4y5mjg/importance_of_sunscreen_application_technique/). As some people pointed out, there’s no way of telling what is actually being measured and if there are other factors that could produce the uneven result that we’re supposed to see. Since I don’t speak Japanese, I just skipped most part of the video, but I couldn’t say how much sunscreen was used either. I realise now, in the midst of this essay, that I’m basically writing to myself to reassure myself that the way I apply sunscreen is perfectly fine, but it would be nice if someone else could weigh in. So I guess my question would be, if you’re using 1/4 of teaspoon of SPF 50 on your face each morning, regardless of the weather (I usually don’t reapply before going home from the office, but it’s a chemical sunscreen, my back is facing the window, I leave the flat at around 7.30-8am to take the metro and then maybe spend a half an hour at most outside during the lunch break, not necessarily in direct sunlight ; I do reapply frequently if I’m going for a walk afterwards or if I’m spending the day outside, beach or no beach), could your technique influence the coverage you’re getting? I don’t rub sunscreen between my palms, just scoop it out of the teaspoon, but blobs on my face and distribute it (some formulas require more rubbing to look decent), if there’s something left in the spoon for the second layer, I try to put it on the highest points of my face. Thanks a lot and have a nice day!

    • Randy Schueller August 18, 2016, 8:19 am

      As long as you’re using enough sunscreen (which you are) and you’re spreading it evenly AND you’re reapplying after a few hours or exposure to strong sun you should be fine.

  • Jelena August 18, 2016, 2:56 am

    It’s me again, just found this: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17205635

    So I guess I’ll just go and practice vigourous patting.

    • Randy Schueller August 18, 2016, 8:23 am

      Interesting. The article says that if sunscreen is rubbed in too vigorously then SPF protection is reduced possibly do to cream being pushed into “skin crevices.” I still think the answer lies in even application regardless of patting or rubbing. It seems to me that patting may not provide very even distribution.

      • Jelena August 19, 2016, 3:57 am

        Thanks a lot for your reply! I tried patting yesterday and this morning, but apart from it being very time consuming, my skin ended up being greasy and sunscreen-y, even though it’s a gel formula and I waited about 25min before applying makeup.