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How to Exfoliate Skin Naturally, According to a Dermatologist

Dermatologist Dr. Claire Wolinsky, MD, explains the difference between natural and physical exfoliants and how to exfoliate skin naturally.

Written by
Jenna Mignano

Homemade, natural skincare has been a hot-button topic within sustainable circles for many years now. People want to find ways to pamper themselves right from home without all the plastic packaging and complex ingredient lists. Totally reasonable, right? The issue is that some of these recipes aren't formulated by skincare specialists and can end up doing more harm than good to your skin.

Natural exfoliants are an especially popular area of interest. Many consumers were happy with the plastic microbead ban, which rid harmful microplastics from our skincare routines for good. But during that industry shift, news broke that eco-alternatives like walnut scrubs can cause microtears in the skin, depending on the product's formulation.

This understandably damaged consumer trust in moving forward with more natural alternatives. We wanted to understand how to use natural exfoliating alternatives safely, and see which options were dermatologist-approved—so we spoke with one.

Claire Wolinsky, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at Mount Sinai Hospital. While she says it's always a good idea to consult a dermatologist who can give you personalized advice on your specific skin concerns, she shared some of her thoughts on exfoliates and sustainable solutions, as well as who they're best suited for.

Physical vs. Chemical Exfoliants

The most important thing to know is the difference between the two main types of exfoliation: chemical and physical.

Chemical exfoliation comes in the form of products that use certain chemicals to remove the top layer of dead skin cells. Dr. Wolinsky says that common chemical exfoliants include AHAs and BHAs such as glycolic, mandelic, lactic acid, and salicylic acid. Additionally, she mentions that some more natural-based acids, papaya and pumpkin enzymes, also function as chemical exfoliants.

On the other hand, physical exfoliants are products that you use in a circular motion to gently, manually remove the top layer of dead skin. This is the category that most homemade, all-natural recipes fall into. Examples of physical exfoliants that she provided include plant-based granules and microcrystals.

So, which option will suit individual skin concerns better? "For sensitive skin types or those with rosacea (broken blood vessels and redness), I would avoid physical exfoliants at first," Dr. Wolinsky shares. "Lactic acid is sometimes better tolerated since it’s a larger molecule which limits its penetration, as compared to other AHAs, making it less irritating. It’s best to start exfoliating only twice a week and increase if desired and tolerated to reduce the risk of irritation and inflammations."

Dr. Wolinsky states that aggressively scrubbing and rubbing the skin is never recommended. Gentle physical exfoliants and light chemical exfoliants are the way to go for at-home care. She also says to avoid exfoliation on open cuts, sores, and on freshly-shaved or waxed skin that can be sensitive.

How to Exfoliate Skin Naturally

If you're wondering how to exfoliate skin naturally, the options are endless. From oats to salt to baking soda, there are numerous ingredients you can add to a homemade sugar scrub.

"Finer particles, like sugar and baking soda, are better for facial physical exfoliants. Coarser particles, which are aggressive for facial skin—like coffee grounds—should be reserved for body exfoliants," Dr. Wolinsky says. "These are all physical exfoliants and should be applied to the skin using gentle circular motions starting 1 to 2 times a week as tolerated, making sure to cleanse the skin of residue after."

Well, what about natural garden-grown loofahs and sea sponges? Dr. Wolinsky says to practice caution when it comes to these items.

"In general, I'm concerned about all loofahs, as they can harbor bacteria when used multiple times," she says. "If using a loofah, I recommend a light massage, using it only a couple times a week, and replacing the loofah every couple of weeks. Rubbing the skin too frequently or harshly, while it may feel nice, can also inflame the skin and cause the skin to thicken and darken over time."

To conclude, is natural exfoliation the perfect solution for everyone? Not exactly. But there are some options like coffee ground body scrubs and sugar-based facial scrubs that could really end up working for you—especially if your skin isn't too picky.

"I like the idea of using what you have around the house for physical exfoliation from an eco-friendly perspective and also for ease of use reasons," Dr. Wolinsky says. "Store-bought products have a lot of ingredients in them sometimes. These additional ingredients that serve as preservatives or fragrances can lead to allergic reactions."

So as long as you're cautious and well-informed, go ahead and experiment with what feels right for you. Who knows—you may discover your new favorite skincare ingredient right in your pantry.