All About Exfoliation Guide.

Welcome to Part VI of our exfoliation guide!

As explained elsewhere, exfoliants can be broken down broadly into chemical and physical exfoliants. Skin care products that use physical exfoliants are often called scrubs because they rely on something gritty or grain to physically scrub away skin. Scrubs often come in either a cream or gel base, with creams for more moisturizing effects, and gels for less moisturizing applications. These are some of the more common physical exfoliating agents we have come across:


Salt scrubs tend to be popular DIY gifts, but have largely gone out of fashion as part of an active beauty routine, particularly for the face. One of the chief issues is that salt is highly abrasive, and often forms large enough crystals to scratch rather than exfoliate skin. You are most likely to see it available commercially as a hand or foot scrub, and salt, particularly dead sea salt scrubs can make wonderful foot care products.


Sugar is a gentler alternative to salt, and (disclaimer!) Lacewing & Kettle’s physical exfoliator of choice, so excuse us if we wax a tad lyrical here. As compared to salt, sugar has a far lower melting point and sugar molecules are round rather than square. This means that sugar has comparatively less abrasive crystals that easily melt easily into the skin with warm water, making for a far gentler form of exfoliation. Sugar is also a natural source of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs -- the chemical exfoliants) and a humectant, meaning it helps draw moisture into the skin. As a result, sugar packs a triple skin-benefiting punch, of polishing away the top layer through physical and chemical means while softening and moisturizing. See why we're sweet on it... (and what we did there?)

Nut Shells

There is something of a controversy surrounding whether walnut shells in particular are safe to use, with two women launching a class action lawsuit in 2017. This was later dismissed due to a lack of evidence that the product they had sued over caused damage, but you may have heard either about this case, or heard somewhere that physical exfoliators more generally cause damage as a result of this incident. As we’ve said a number of times, using the wrong exfoliant or the wrong technique will absolutely damage your skin, with the type and severity of the damage depending on what the product was and how it was applied (more on application later.) That said, at this point in time, it cannot be said that walnut shells specifically or physical exfoliation generally is dangerous. Whether a particular product is damaging will have a lot to do with the quality of the product/manufacturer, and how you are using it. We here at L&K find nut shell exfoliators by and large too harsh for faces, but see nothing wrong with using it elsewhere.

Seeds, Nuts and Grains

A huge variety of nuts, seeds and grains have become available as natural exfoliants. In fact, there are so many, that we can’t hope to cover them here. Some of these ingredients may be too abrasive for use on delicate skin, others may be perfect. Additionally, some may, like sugar, have other benefits either in the form of a natural chemical exfoliant, moisturizer, or astringent. One more common ingredient, especially in bar soap, is oatmeal, which can offer a very gentle, soft and moisturizing exfoliation. Care should be used however in selecting any of these products, given the wide range of ingredients and qualities available. Make sure that they do not contain anything you are allergic to (this is particularly true if it is not immediately clear from the name/front of a product that it uses a nut flour to exfoliate). Finally, bear in mind that any whole seeds will be gentler than crushed or broken ingredients, as jagged edges will (obviously) be more abrasive.


Also known as bubbles, these are tiny particles of solid plastic that have been ground down to particular small sizes. Some also were advertised as being filled with other ingredients. Microbeads were all the rage in skincare some years back, before concerns about their impact on human health and the environment lead them to be banned outright in some countries, and generally fall out of favor elsewhere. Since they are washed down the drain, the use of microbeads could lead to a plastic buildup in runoff water, only to enter the food as animals of varying size ate either the plastic, or other animals containing it. Given the bad press, several beauty giants have made commitments to stop manufacturing products with microbeads. There have also been reported cases where consumers or individual doctors claimed that microbeads have scratched eyes, or cause gums to recede, although at this point, there is not a consensus that they are dangerous to human health from direct use.

Natural Microbead Alternatives

Owing to concerns about the safety of microbeads in particular, and about moves more generally away from plastic, manufacturers have come out with natural alternatives to microbeads made out of wax, or other materials. As beads are manufactured, they can be made round and smooth, leading these beads to be advertised as a safe alternative for sensitive skin. Additionally, the size of the beads can be carefully controlled, allowing a far greater level of control over the level of exfoliation. However, it is important to note that these are too new for much evidence to accumulate as to either their long-term benefits or harm, and there are no real limits on what they may be made of, other than that they are not made from plastic.