- Natural exfoliants are an effective alternative to commercial products
- Many natural exfoliants have secondary skin care benefits
- Gentle exfoliants should be used on the face while rougher ingredients can be used on the body
- Customize DIY exfoliant recipes to address your skin’s needs
Natural exfoliants are food products that, when applied topically, aid in the removal of dead skin cells to improve the appearance of the skin. These fall under two categories: mechanical exfoliants which physically slough off dead cells; chemical exfoliants which break down the bonds holding dead cells to the skin’s surface so they can be easily rinsed away.
In addition to their exfoliating abilities, many of these natural ingredients have other properties that can improve the overall health of skin.
Why Should You Use a Natural Exfoliant?
Natural exfoliants are a safe, effective and affordable alternative to commercial products. Recipes for natural exfoliants usually call for household staples, and are quick and simple to prepare.
For individuals with sensitive skin, a natural exfoliant poses less risk of irritating skin than a commercial product. An exfoliator you’ve created at home is guaranteed not to contain the added fragrances and parabens commonly found in commercial products that can irritate sensitive skin.
Until recently, a major concern with commercial exfoliating products was the presence of microbeads – microscopic pieces of plastic that are damaging to the environment. Fortunately, the manufacture and sale of rinse-off products containing microbeads was banned in the United States in 2017.
If you do have old microbead exfoliants in your possession, it is advised to send them back to the manufacturer for proper disposal so the plastics do not end up in waterways.
Best Naturally Exfoliating Ingredients
Natural exfoliants effectively work in one of two ways. Mechanical exfoliants create enough friction to slough off dead cells without damaging the healthy skin beneath; chemical exfoliants break down the bonds attaching dead cells to your skin so these cells can be easily rinsed away.
When choosing a natural exfoliant for the face, it is important to use a gentle ingredient that won’t damage your skin. The skin on the rest of the body is thicker and would therefore benefit from rougher substances.
Coffee grounds, while too rough for the face, can be used to exfoliate the body. Although it is possible to exfoliate with used coffee grounds, fresh coffee grounds have a potential extra benefit: caffeine. One small study concluded that caffeine may reduce cellulite and have a slimming effect, but due to the limited size of the study group, further research is necessary.
Milk or yogurt
Dairy products such as milk and yogurt contain lactic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). Lactic acid is moisturizing and does not damage the stratum corneum, the skin’s protective barrier, as it exfoliates. Dairy products contain low levels of lactic acid in comparison to commercial exfoliants, making them a good alternative for individuals who find those products too harsh.
Colloidal oatmeal is milled into a superfine powder and used to effectively treat many skin conditions, including atopic dermatitis and eczema. As an exfoliant, it gently removes dead cells while restoring the overall health of damaged, dry skin.
Applied topically, oatmeal aids the stratum corneum in retaining moisture and maintaining skin surface pH. Oatmeal also contains lipids, fats that help maintain skin barrier integrity.
Sugar can effectively exfoliate both the face and body. Although some DIY recipes treat white and brown sugar interchangeably, brown sugar is more appropriate for the face as it is softer, while white sugar is more coarse and can be used elsewhere on the body.
Sugar contains glycolic acid, an AHA used in chemical peels and many skin care products. Glycolic acid penetrates deeply into pores to exfoliate the skin. It encourages cell turnover and treats fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and sun damage. Its antimicrobial properties also help it to improve acne.
Turmeric powder gently mechanically exfoliates your skin. Long used in Ayurvedic medicine, this spice contains curcumin, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that has shown the potential to lighten hyperpigmentation.
Natural Exfoliating Recipes
Natural exfoliating recipes can be customized to provide both the level of exfoliation desired and type of secondary skin care benefits, including skin brightening, fine line reduction and anti-inflammatory properties. A few drops of essential oil can be added to any of these recipes if desired for their aromatherapeutic or skin care properties.
Choose an exfoliant according to your skin type and the concerns you would like to address. Using unsuitable ingredients—for instance, applying a drying exfoliant to already dry skin—can aggravate your skin. Consider your skin’s needs carefully when selecting ingredients.
Turmeric and honey scrub for acne-prone skin
The curcumin in turmeric can reduce inflammation due to acne, while honey’s antibacterial effects fight blemish-causing bacteria.
- 2 tbsp unpasteurized honey
- 1 tbsp ground turmeric
- Combine ingredients in a small bowl
- Using a circular motion, message lightly over the face; avoid the eye area
- For additional skin-brightening, anti-acne benefits, let rest for 10–15 minutes
- Rinse with warm water and moisturize
Brown sugar and yogurt scrub for sensitive skin
The brown sugar in this recipe is gentle enough to use as a facial scrub for sensitive skin. For a deeper exfoliation, leave the mixture on your face for a few minutes as a face mask to enable the lactic acid in the yogurt to penetrate your skin.
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup plain yogurt
- Combine ingredients in a bowl
- Using a circular motion, message lightly over the face; avoid the eye area
- Let rest for 10–15 minutes to allow the lactic acid to better penetrate the skin (optional)
- Rinse with warm water and apply moisturizer
Lemon juice and yogurt for mature skin
Mature skin is often thinner and more delicate than younger skin. It therefore responds better to chemical rather than physical exfoliation, which can be damaging to delicate skin.
This recipe combines the lactic acid in yogurt with citric acid in lemons to create an all-natural AHA chemical exfoliator.
Lemon juice contains vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant that stimulates collagen production. Lemons also have skin-lightening properties to address age spots and other forms of hyperpigmentation commonly seen in mature skin.
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2 tbsp plain yogurt
- Combine ingredients in a small bowl
- Apply over the face; avoid the eye area
- Let rest for 10–15 minutes before rinsing with warm water, then moisturize
Sea salt and olive oil scrub for the body
The irregularly shaped crystals in sea salt make it far too rough to be used safely on the face, but it is highly effective in a body scrub. Use this recipe to remove dull, dry skin from the knees, elbows, feet and the rest of the body.
Olive oil is moderately comedogenic, meaning it has the potential to clog pores. If you’re prone to acne, replace it with a lighter oil such as jojoba, grapeseed or almond oil. Avoid coconut oil, as it is highly comedogenic.
- 1/2 cup sea salt
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Pour sea salt into a bowl and add olive oil gradually, stirring until a thick paste forms
- Using a circular motion, message lightly over the body
- Rinse off in the shower
Tips for Using Natural Exfoliants
On average, you should exfoliate one to three times a week. If you are new to exfoliating, start with one or two times a week to allow your skin to adjust and then increase the frequency, if desired.
It is not recommended to exfoliate your skin every day. Doing so compromises the stratum corneum and increases the risk that the particles in the exfoliant will create microtears in your skin.
The best time to exfoliate is at night, so your skin can recover as you sleep. As freshly exfoliated skin is more susceptible to sun damage, it is especially important to wear a moisturizer containing at least 30 SPF on the day after you do so.
Natural Exfoliants to Avoid
Even though commercial face scrubs often contain them as an ingredient, crushed nutshells and apricot kernels are too harsh for the face and should be avoided. However, they are safe for use on the body.
Baking soda is a commonly recommended DIY exfoliator that can cause more harm than good. Because baking soda is alkaline (the opposite of acid), repeated exposure to it can disrupt the naturally acidic pH balance of your skin. Additionally, the rough granules in baking soda can cause microtears in the skin and create inflammation.
Natural exfoliants are an effective and inexpensive alternative to commercial products. Natural ingredients with rough particles mechanically slough off the buildup of dead skin cells, while chemical exfoliants which naturally contain AHAs exfoliate the skin. Both can brighten skin and improve its health.
For the face, use gentle ingredients such as sugar, turmeric, oatmeal, milk and yogurt, which remove buildup without damaging the skin. Coffee grounds and sea salt are too rough for the face but can effectively exfoliate the rest of the body. Avoid baking soda, which can destabilize your skin’s pH levels.
Even when using all-natural ingredients, do not exfoliate too often. One to three times a week is enough for most people to achieve healthier, smoother skin.
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