11 Best Natural Exfoliants For Your Skin
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Exfoliation or scrubbing of the outermost layer of our skin is an age-old skincare routine. There are three ways to exfoliate our skin: natural, mechanical and chemical. Natural exfoliants, sourced from plant-based products, are chemical-free, gentle on the skin, and economical too. Try natural exfoliants such as honey, yogurt, oatmeal, salt, sugar, lemon juice, papaya, pineapple, and coffee grounds for glowing skin.
Who doesn’t want clear, smooth, and glowing skin? History tells us that the ancient Egyptians were as obsessed as we are today about looking radiant and young. Among the skincare methods they adopted was exfoliation using a blunt, knife-shaped instrument called a strigil to scrape off the outermost layer of dead skin cells!1 We’ve come a long way since then, with increasingly sophisticated methods of exfoliation for skin rejuvenation – natural, mechanical, and chemical.
Our skin is a living organ that naturally exfoliates its dead cells in a process known as desquamation. However, as we age, this cycle of regeneration and shedding gradually slows down. While younger skin typically takes about 4 weeks to shed its outermost layer of cells, older skin can take as long as 2.5 months, depending on an individual’s age and skin health. Many other factors affect the rate of desquamation – sex hormones, vitamin deficiencies (A and D in particular), and exposure to sunlight. This is where exfoliation can give nature a helping hand – it removes cell build-up and stimulates the emergence of new skin cells, improving the skin’s texture and appearance.2
What Should We Look For In An Exfoliant?
While exfoliants can benefit almost all skin types, some types stand to benefit more than others from this skincare technique. These tips will help you decide what to look for in an exfoliant, whether you plan to buy a product or use a home-made one.
Aging/mature skin: Cell buildup can make mature and aging skin look thick and dull. If this is you, look for an exfoliant containing nutrients and moisturizers that can help remove the older layers and stimulate new cell growth.
Acne-prone skin: This type of skin accumulates more dead skin cells than others; gentle exfoliants with hydroxyl acids can help to clear clogged pores that lead to even more acne.
Dehydrated skin: When skin dries out due to lack of water, it becomes tight and stretchy. Extra moisturization may not help; rather, it could lead to a dull, patchy skin tone. Use an exfoliant with moisturizing and hydrating properties that can both remove the dead skin cells and rehydrate the skin.
Sun-damaged skin: Harsh sunlight can be extremely unkind to your skin. Photo-damaged skin looks thick and lacks suppleness. Exfoliation can help reverse this damage. Also, the process may help rid the skin of potentially abnormal cells and thereby prevent skin cancer.3
Making Natural Skin Exfoliant
Nature is brimful of exfoliants – organic, plant-based ingredients that can be sourced from grocery stores or put together at home. They are biodegradable and way more economical, too. You can make an exfoliant out of just one substance or combine several, depending on what your skin requires.
To make a natural skin exfoliant at home, you will typically need:
- A scrub ingredient. Scrubs are at the core of exfoliation, speeding up the shedding of old skin layers. Oatmeal, sugar, sea salt, ground coffee beans, and ground almonds all make for effective scrubs.
- A smooth base such as honey, milk, yogurt, and olive oil.
- Nourishing/moisturizing/hydrating ingredients such as pineapple, papaya, and pumpkin.
Try These Powerful Natural Exfoliants!
Here are a few helpful recipes you can easily put together at home. But remember, it’s important to do a small patch test first to make sure the ingredients suit your skin and to avoid any allergic reactions.
Honey is a widely used natural ingredient in skincare because of its antibacterial, antioxidant, humectant, and soothing properties. It helps to keep skin looking young and delay wrinkle formation.4 Honey can be combined with various ingredients for effective exfoliation.
Try one of these combinations:
Honey with lemon and sugar
- Take a ceramic bowl and blend about half cup each of sugar and coconut oil (or any other carrier oil).
- Add 4 tablespoons of honey, preferably raw, and 4 teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice.
- Add a drop of lemon pure essential oil as well.
- Blend the mixture thoroughly and use your fingertips to apply the scrub on your face and neck. Use small circular movements to remove old skin cells and cellular debris. Rinse your face with lukewarm water once you are done.
This gentle exfoliant mix will leave your skin feeling soft and youthful. The essential oil boosts the toning and cleansing effects of the mix.5The lemon juice not only adds vitamin C but also contains fruit acids, a naturally occurring alpha hydroxy acid (AHA).6 Ingredients with AHA such as fruit juices or yogurt function as natural exfoliants and can help improve the smoothness and texture of skin.
Honey and oats
- Mix half a cup each of honey and oats.
- Apply on your face and neck, massage and leave for about 10 minutes.
- Rinse off the mix with lukewarm water.7
Honey and almonds
- Mix 2 tablespoons of almond flour with 1 tablespoon of jojoba oil (or any other carrier oil).
- Add 2 tablespoons of honey and 2 drops of peppermint essential oil to the mix.
- Add a few drops of water.
- Gently massage the paste on your face and neck.
- Rinse off with lukewarm water once you are done.8
The creamy texture of yogurt makes it an ideal base to which you can add scrubs. Yogurt contains lactic acid, which is an AHA, making yogurt a natural but mild exfoliant.9 It can also moisturize skin, unclog pores, and lighten spots.10
- After washing, or even better, steaming your face, you can apply organic plain yogurt on your face and neck like any other cream.
- Leave for about 15 minutes and then wash off with cold water.
- If necessary, apply an ice pack for about 10 minutes to soothe skin. Don’t forget to moisturize after exfoliating.11
Yogurt with lemon juice and orange juice
- Mix 3/4 cup of unsweetened plain yogurt with 3 tablespoons of orange juice and 2 tablespoons of orange juice.
- Whisk the ingredients with a fork and apply on your face and neck.
- Leave for about 20 minutes or until the mix dries.
- Wash off with lukewarm water.
The fruit juices not only bring in vitamin C but also contain fruit acids which are naturally occurring AHAs.12
Yogurt with oats and strawberries
- Blend together 1/2 cup each of plain yogurt and oats with 3 chopped strawberries.
- Apply the mix on your face and neck and leave on for about 15 minutes.
- Wash off with lukewarm water.
Strawberries contain fruit acids which, like yogurt, are naturally occurring AHAs.13
Oats are gentle exfoliants and can soften and moisturize the skin as well.14
Oatmeal and oil
- Make a paste with half cup of organic oatmeal and 1 tablespoon oil. For acne-prone skin, jojoba oil is the safest oil since it doesn’t trigger breakouts. Almond oil works well on dry skin.
- Moisten your face with warm water and gently massage the paste with circular motions for 2–3 minutes.
- Rinse off with warm water after a few minutes.15
This mix exfoliates dead and dull skin cells, and gently clears the skin.
Oatmeal with tea tree oil and herbs
This is a perfect herbal scrub for teens. Young skin exfoliates well naturally and hence doesn’t need too many scrub ingredients. The herbs in this mild exfoliant gently cleanse and moisturize a teenager’s skin.
- Take 1/4 cup oatmeal, 5 drops tea tree essential oil, and 1 tablespoon each of dry thyme, lavender, and rosemary.
- Grind the dry ingredients to a fine powder.
- Add the essential oil and combine well.
- Take 1 teaspoon of the scrub, moisten with rosewater. Apply all over the face in gentle, circular motions. Wash off with lukewarm water.
- Store in an airtight jar.16
Oatmeal and sugar
- Mix half a tablespoon of ground oatmeal, 1 tablespoon of sweet almond oil, and half a tablespoon of fine white or brown sugar.
- Apply the mix gently on your face and neck area with circular movements.
- Wash off with lukewarm water.17
Brown sugar contains glycolic acid, which is also an AHA. This makes sugar a great natural exfoliant. It is particularly effective on skin with acne and other problems. Sugar is also thought to fight the bacteria and clear the skin.18
Brown sugar and cranberry juice
- In a small bowl, take 1 tablespoon of organic brown sugar and 1/2 a teaspoon of cranberry juice. You can also use grape, pomegranate, or pineapple juice.
- Apply on your face and massage gently for about 5 minutes.
- Wash off with lukewarm water.19
Cranberries contain tocotrienols, which are natural agents from the vitamin E family. They nourish, moisturize, and help protect the skin from the sun. Cranberries also increase skin elasticity, smoothness and improve retention of moisture.20
Sugar and oil
- Mix 1 cup of fine grain cane sugar or raw brown sugar with 3–4 teaspoons of a carrier oil you like – could be jojoba, rosehip or light coconut. Add more carrier oil if you prefer a less dry scrub.
- Add 1 drop of a pure essential oil and blend thoroughly.
- Apply the sugar scrub with light upward strokes.
- Rinse off the scrub with lukewarm water.21
Sugar and rosewater
Mix sugar with rosewater and exfoliate your feet! This scrub will really soften them.22
5. Lemon Juice
Like we said earlier, lemon juice contains fruit acids, a naturally occurring AHA. This makes lemon juice a natural exfoliant. We’ve already listed two effective recipes that use lemon juice. Here’s one for oily skin.
Lemon juice with yogurt and wheat bran
- Mix 1 teaspoon lemon juice with 1 tablespoon yogurt, 1 teaspoon toasted wheat bran, 1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel, and 1/4 teaspoon almond powder.
- Apply the mix gently on your face and let it set.
- Rinse off with warm water or, if dry, remove the flakes with very light pressure.
This cleansing and exfoliating mask is very effective for oily skin. The vitamin C in lemon juice has a cleansing effect on the skin. Wheat bran is an efficient skin cleanser and makes for a gentle exfoliant when combined with yogurt. While almond powder is both rich in protein and an exfoliant, the orange peel softens the skin and balances the pH level.23
Rich in vitamins A, C, and E, this golden yellow fruit has antimicrobial, antioxidant, and exfoliant properties. The plant enzyme papain in papaya pulp, specifically, is an exfoliator and works well on sensitive and dull skin. It is recommended for acne-prone skin too.24 Papaya works well on aged and mature skin too since it can reduce fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.25
- Take the skin of a 1 ripe papaya and use the inside to massage your face and neck area for 2–3 minutes.
- Rinse with cold water.26
Papaya with oatmeal and yogurt
This recipe is effective on skin with acne and dark spots.
- Blend 1 tablespoon of papaya pulp with 1 tablespoon plain yogurt and 1 teaspoon oatmeal until you get a smooth paste.
- Apply on a dry and clean face.
- Leave for about 10 minutes and then rinse with warm water.
- Rinse again with cool water and pat dry.27
Papaya with witch hazel
- Peel a ripe papaya, cut in half, and remove the seeds.
- Blend thoroughly with 5 teaspoons of witch hazel.
- Take a small amount of this blend on a washcloth or sponge and wipe gently over your face and neck.
Witch hazel is a mild astringent while papaya has both cleansing and exfoliating properties. This can be used every day on oily skin.28
Pineapple extract contains the plant enzyme bromelain, which has anti-inflammatory properties. It improves skin elasticity and removes dead and damaged skin cells. Pineapple extracts also produce a clear complexion and provide excellent hydration. Its properties are similar to that of papaya, another fruit with an exfoliating enzyme.29
Plain pineapple scrub
- Mash up some fresh pineapple and apply it directly on your face and body.
- Leave for about 10–20 minutes and then wash it off.
- Moisturize soon after.30
Pineapple with cornmeal and water
- Puree 1/2 cup of fresh pineapple with 1/4 cup of water.
- Add 3 tablespoons of cornmeal and mix until the ingredients are just combined.
- Apply the scrub on your face with gentle massaging strokes.
- Wash off after a few minutes. This treatment will leave you feeling fresh and rejuvenated.31
Cornmeal makes for an excellent exfoliant for oily skin. A paste of cornmeal and water can be used directly too.32 Here the exfoliating effect of cornmeal makes the vitamin C from pineapple penetrate better. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that can protect the skin from damage due to age and sunlight.33
This squash is loaded with skin-loving antioxidants like vitamins C, A, and E and beta-carotene. Its pulp also contains plant enzymes, making it an effective exfoliant.34
- Like pineapple, fresh and mashed pumpkin can be applied directly on your skin.35 Apply in circular motion and rinse off after 5–10 minutes.
Pumpkin with pineapple and honey
- Brew some green tea and set aside.
- Take 2 teaspoons of diced pineapple and puree.
- Add 4 tablespoons of pumpkin puree, 1 tablespoon honey, 2 teaspoons of aloe vera gel, 4 teaspoons of cornmeal, and 1/2 a teaspoon of sunflower oil.
- Add the green tea and mix well.
- Apply a small amount of this exfoliating scrub on your face and neck with circular strokes.
- When done, let it stay for 5–10 minutes, then wash off.
The green tea in the mix has astringent and antioxidant properties. Absorbed easily by the skin, green tea helps fight inflammation and premature aging.36
9. Ground Coffee
Coffee grounds contain a lot of caffeine, which tightens the skin and exfoliates.
Coffee grounds with olive oil
- Mix 3 tablespoons of coffee grounds with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
- Apply this thick paste on your skin with light scrubbing motions for 1–2 minutes.
- Allow it to sit for about 5 minutes and then wash it off with warm water.
Olive oil is rich in antioxidants. It moisturizes and nourishes the skin. Its light texture also makes it a good base for a scrub mask.37
Coffee grounds with sugar or salt
- Mix 2 cups of coffee grounds with 2–3 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 cup of raw sugar or sea salt.
- Now with strong circular motions, rub the coffee exfoliant all over your body, starting with the toes and move upward.
- When done, rinse with lukewarm water and moisturize immediately for best results.
Coffee grounds for your hands
- After your morning cup of coffee, take a small amount of used coffee grounds and rub between your palms for several minutes. Rinse off with warm water. You’ll have softer and smoother palms!38
10. Sea Salt
Sea salt is another ingredient that has the perfect texture for a scrub. It can be mixed with honey, almond oil, or olive oil for a gentle exfoliant. It stimulates circulation, removes dead skin cells, and revives tired skin cells.39
Sea salt with cornmeal
- Mix 1/2 cup of sea salt with 1/2 cup of cornmeal.
- Add 2 tablespoons of water and 3 drops each of chamomile, lavender, and rosemary essential oils.
- Mix thoroughly and apply all over your body, starting with the toes and moving upward with circular strokes.
- Once you are done, take a shower to wash off the ingredients.
Sea salt with olive or almond oil
- Mix equal parts of finely crushed sea salt and olive oil.
- Beginning at the neck, massage the mix gently with upward strokes up to the forehead.
- Leave for 10–15 minutes and wash off with cool water. Moisturize immediately.
11. Ayurvedic Exfoliants
Ayurveda takes exfoliation to another level, recommending light, whole body dry brushing as part of one’s daily morning cleansing routine. Dry brushing helps:
- Stimulate the lymphatic system
- Remove dead skin cells
- Eliminate toxins
How to brush: Use a brush with natural bristles or a loofah glove. Starting with the soles of your feet, brush in circular motions, moving up the legs, hands, and arms towards the heart. Brush your abdomen and back last. This is ideally done before you shower when your skin is dry. Avoid brushing if skin is irritated.40
Ayurvedic whole body exfoliants (“ubtan”) have been in use for centuries. Here are two recipes:
Ubtan for oily or blemished skin
You will need:
- 1 cup chickpea flour
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 tablespoons white sandalwood powder
- 1 tablespoon red sandalwood powder
- 2 tablespoons neem leaf powder
- 2 tablespoons powdered orange peel
How to use:
In a bowl, combine the above ingredients with water or yogurt to make a thin paste. Apply all over your body with a flat brush, starting from your feet and working towards the chest. Leave for 20 minutes. If your metabolism tends toward kapha, the mixture can be massaged off with some vigor. For sensitive pitta skin, especially if blemished, use gentle massage strokes to scrub off the paste. Pitta type skins will also benefit with a final rinse of cooled milk.41
Ubtan for dry skin
You will need:
- 1 cup chickpea flour
- 1 tablespoon each of red sandalwood powder, white sandalwood powder, Indian madder (Rubia cordifolia), arjuna (Terminalia arjuna), brahmi (Bacopa monnieri ), and shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) herbs.
How to use:
Combine these ingredients with lukewarm milk to make a thin paste. Brush all over your body from the feet towards the heart. Leave on for 20 minutes and rinse off with more warm milk.42
Dos And Don’ts Of Exfoliation
While skin exfoliation offers excellent benefits, it’s worth remembering that this cleansing technique may not suit everyone. Exfoliating too frequently or vigorously can actually harm your skin, aside from leaving it red and aggravated.43 Keep these pointers in mind while you exfoliate.
1. Test exfoliants before use
Apply a little exfoliant, including herbal scrubs and masks, on a small patch of skin on your arm to see if it reacts before using it on your face.44
2. Perfect the technique
To get the best results from exfoliation, apply the exfoliant gently using small circular motions on your skin so that your skin does not get irritated or break out.45 Do this for only a couple of minutes. Aside from a circular motion, use upward strokes, moving from neck and chin to the forehead. Aim at a gliding motion rather than rubbing the scrub into your skin.
3. Don’t scrub too much
Rubbing in exfoliants harshly can loosen fragile facial skin and lead to unwanted wrinkles.46 This can also strip your skin of the oils that your skin naturally generates. They are, in fact, vital for helping your skin retain moisture and giving you a healthy glow.47
You may also be tempted to “scour” your skin if you have oily skin, but that can actually stimulate the oil glands into producing more oil.48
4. Don’t use hot water on your face
Hot water can dry out your skin. Lukewarm or cool water is best to rinse the face after exfoliating.49
5. Don’t use exfoliant in the undereye area
The skin under your eyes is extremely soft and sensitive, so avoid using exfoliants in this area.50
6. Do not exfoliate if your skin is cut or wounded or you have sunburns
Wait until your skin has healed or is less aggravated before resuming your exfoliation routine.51
7. Nourish and moisturize well after exfoliation
Any exfoliation results in a degree of thinning of the stratocorneum (the outermost layer of skin), thus stripping it of its protective acid mantle. This is where the second half of your skin rejuvenation treatment comes in. Immediately after exfoliating, always hydrate and nourish your skin with a moisturizer.52
How Often Should You Exfoliate?
The answer depends on your skin type and chosen method of exfoliation. If you use relatively aggressive methods (brush, scrub), space out your exfoliation schedule.53 As a rule of thumb, once a week is adequate for dry skin, and not more than twice a week for oily skin.54
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Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.