- Natural exfoliants are an effective alternative to commercial products.
- Many natural exfoliants have secondary skin care benefits.
- Choose ingredients that are gentle enough to be used on the face.
- Customize 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 your skin. Some are mechanical exfoliants, meaning they physically slough off dead cells. Others are chemical exfoliants, which break down the bonds holding dead cells to the skin’s surface so the cells can easily be rinsed away.
In addition to their ability to exfoliate, many of these natural ingredients have other properties that can improve the overall health of your 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 your skin than a commercial product. An exfoliator you’ve created at home is guaranteed not to contain the added fragrances and parabens that commonly cause reactions in sensitive skin.
Up until recently, a major concern with commercial exfoliating products was the presence of microbeads, microscopic pieces of plastic that are damaging to the environment. The manufacture and sale of rinse-off products containing microbeads have been banned in the United States since 2017. If you own microbead exfoliants, it is advised to dispose of them, so the plastics do not end up in waterways.
Best Naturally Exfoliating Ingredients
Good exfoliants create enough friction to slough off dead cells without damaging the healthy skin beneath.
For the face, it is important to use a gentle exfoliator. The skin on the rest of the body is thicker and can tolerate rougher substances.
Sugar can effectively exfoliate both the face and body. DIY recipes commonly call for either white or brown sugar; some individuals may prefer to use brown sugar for the face, as it is softer than white sugar.
Sugar contains glycolic acid. An alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) used in chemical peels and many skin care products, glycolic acid penetrates deeply into pores to exfoliate. It encourages cell turnover and treats fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and sun damage. Its antimicrobial properties also help it to improve acne.
In its colloidal form, meaning when it’s been milled into a superfine powder, oatmeal is used to 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.
When applied topically, oatmeal forms a protective film over the skin. It aids the skin’s protective barrier, the stratum corneum, in retaining moisture and maintaining skin surface pH. Oatmeal also contains lipids, fats that help maintain the integrity of the stratum corneum.
Milk or yogurt
Dairy products such as milk and yogurt contain lactic acid, an AHA. Lactic acid is moisturizing and does not damage the stratum corneum 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.
Turmeric powder gently exfoliates your skin. Long used in Ayurvedic medicine, the spice turmeric contains curcumin, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that has shown the potential to lighten hyperpigmentation.
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 study concluded that caffeine may reduce cellulite and have a slimming effect, but also that further research was necessary to determine its efficacy.
Natural Exfoliant Recipes
Natural exfoliant recipes can be customized to provide both the level of exfoliation desired and 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.
Choose an exfoliant according to your skin type and the concerns you would like to address.
Turmeric and honey scrub for acne-prone skin
- 2 tbsp unpasteurized honey
- 1 tbsp ground turmeric
- Combine ingredients in a small bowl.
- Scrubbing in a circular motion, apply all over the face avoiding the eyes.
- For additional skin-brightening, anti-acne benefits, leave the mixture on 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, so the lactic acid in the yogurt has more time to penetrate your skin.
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup plain yogurt
- Combine ingredients in a bowl.
- Apply all over the face in a circular motion, avoiding the eyes.
- Wait for 10–15 minutes, if desired.
- 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 exfoliation rather than physical.
This recipe combines the lactic acid in yogurt with citric acid in lemons to create an AHA-only 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 one lemon
- 2 tbsp plain yogurt
- Combine ingredients in a small bowl.
- Apply all over the face, avoiding the eyes.
- Wait for 10–15 minutes before rinsing with warm water and moisturizing.
Sea salt and olive oil scrub for the body
The irregular crystals in sea salt make it far too rough to be used 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.
- Apply all over the body, rubbing in a circular motion.
- 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 necessary to exfoliate your skin every day. Doing so compromises the stratum corneum and increases the risk that the irregular 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 exfoliate.
Natural Exfoliants to Avoid
Even though commercial face scrubs often contain them as an ingredient, crushed nutshells and apricot kernels are too irregular 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 an 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.
For the face, sugar, turmeric, oatmeal, milk and yogurt are gentle enough to remove buildup without damaging the skin.
Although they are too rough for the face, coffee grounds and sea salt 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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