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Pretty much everyone can benefit from a nice physical exfoliant. It sloughs away dead skin cells, gets rid of dirt and debris, and prepares your skin to absorb all of your actives and skincare ingredients.
The problem? With so many options - and the recent controversy surrounding problematic scrub ingredients like walnut shells - it’s hard to know what’s good for your skin or which products to use.
In the big picture, you’re looking for a gentle, natural face scrub that’s free of synthetics, harsh abrasives, microbeads, alcohol, and overly-harsh acids. Here’s where today’s most popular particles fit in.
No matter which product you choose, avoid over-exfoliation. Most people tend to over-scrub in a misguided effort to achieve a totally matte, pore-less glow - but this can backfire and exacerbate existing conditions by causing microtears in the skin.These small scratches weaken the skin’s barrier and make it prone to dryness, flakiness, bacteria, redness, and signs of sensitivity - yikes!
That’s why it’s important to use a gentle face scrub 1-3 times a week. Always start with just one application a week and take it up slowly from there (particularly if you have sensitive skin).
How do you know if you’re choosing a gentle scrub? The harshness of a scrub has a lot to do with the particle size, the particle shape (round is ideal), and how finely the particles are milled in the factory.
A good test? Try a little bit on the back of your hand - the skin is not as sensitive there. If it feels even slightly scratchy on that spot, it’s way too intense for your face.
That said, there are gentler ingredients - and others that you should avoid altogether.
Bamboo powder is the best natural exfoliant option because of its gentle yet effective properties. It’s made primarily of natural silicon - or silica - extracted from bamboo sap. Studies suggest that silica can:
Because of its ultra-fine texture and even exfoliation, bamboo powder is commonly used for microdermabrasion face treatments.
Jojoba oil is a powerful and hydrating face oil - but did you know that jojoba can also be a great physical exfoliant?
Jojoba beads are essentially jojoba wax in its fully hydrogenated, or hardened, form. They’re odorless, colorless, all-natural, and they imitate the structure and consistency of sebum, the oil naturally produced by the skin.
This similarity means that applying jojoba beads topically can actually trick your body into thinking it’s producing enough sebum, thereby lowering your natural oiliness and protecting your skin against acne breakouts.
Jojoba beads are extremely round and smooth, so they won’t cause the microtears and related issues that come from using microbeads and other harsh exfoliating ingredients.
Oat flour - or ground-up oatmeal - is a gentle manual exfoliant that’s suitable for all skin types, particularly sensitive skin. It removes dead skin cells without causing irritation or creating microtears in the skin.
Oat flour is also rich in zinc, which is known to:
Thismakes oat flour a particularly effective option for sensitive skin types.
Plus, it can soak up excess oil in the skin, treat acne, and soften skin.
Made from the outer layer that surrounds each kernel of rice, rice bran is usually ground into an extremely fine powder. This makes it an ideal exfoliant for sensitive and oily skin types. It gently removes dirt and dead skin cells while:
Rice bran also contains powerful antioxidants and amino acids. The former fight free radicals and aging. The latter break down and remove dead skin cells.
Sugar isn't just a great exfoliant, but also a natural humectant. This makes it particularly effective for those with dry or dehydrated skin.
Sugar is a natural source of glycolic acid, a powerful AHA that can help “unglue” dead skin cells and slough away dry, damaged skin.
The texture of sugar particles allows for gentle, effective agitation of the skin’s surface without a high risk of irritation.
But doesn’t sugar cause breakouts? Not when applied topically! So slather it on - and if a few grains get into your mouth, so be it!
You may be surprised to find on a list of exfoliants. After all, aloe vera is primarily for hydration and sunburn, right?
This cactus-like plant contains vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and amino acids. It also has anti-viral, anti-fungal, and cell-regenerative properties - along with salicylic acid, a natural exfoliant.
All of this makes aloe vera a particularly beneficial gel to apply topically. Besides lightly exfoliating the skin, it’s also shown to:
Just remember to look for products with a high percentage of natural aloe vera - and low synthetics or fillers.
Avoid any scrubs that can create microtears and cause irritation - particularly if you have sensitive skin, eczema, or rosacea. That includes:
But here’s the thing - these ingredients aren’t going to harm everyone, and some people swear by them. So if one of them is your go-to, then you do you!
That said, here are the most popular ingredients in this category that we believe should be no-gos:
This scrub ingredient recently gained attention - and major criticism - because it’s the major component of Kylie Jenner’s body scrub. The problem? Walnut shells are harsh exfoliant particles and can create microtears in the skin. In turn, those tears can introduce infection, bacteria, and other serious issues.
This is another hot-button ingredient! The St. Ives Apricot Fresh Skin Scrub even faced a lawsuit back in 2017, with plaintiffs claiming that the crushed walnut powder creates microscopic tears in your skin and that its label's claim of being noncomedogenic (i.e., it doesn't clog pores) was not correct - yikes!
The lawsuit was eventually thrown out, but the message was loud and clear - and we’ll be skipping this fruit pit for now.
Microbeads are the worst of the worst. Commonly made of polyethylene, these miniature plastic beads are too small to be filtered out of wastewater. This makes them a major environmental hazard since they often wind up in the oceans where they’re consumed by fish, other animals, and even people.
That’s why President Barack Obama signed the Microbeads-Free Waters Act of 2015, which officially banned microbeads in the personal care industry starting in 2017.
That said, not everyone cleans out their medicine cabinets as often as they should - and you may still have a few products that contain microbeads in rotation. If so, make sure that you stop using them as soon as possible - this stuff is bad news!
Now you know the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to scrub particles. But what about the rest of your exfoliant formulation? Look out for other helpful ingredients that can take your face scrub to the next level, including: