8 Ways to Exfoliate Naturally

These natural methods will give you glowing skin, while avoiding abrasives and plastic microbeads.

exfoliate naturally with papaya, sugar, yogurt, lemons, and honey on mat

Treehugger / Jenn Parker

Scrubbing your skin gently with a product to achieve a smooth, clear complexion is called exfoliation. Exfoliants, which are the products you apply to your skin, remove dead skin cells either physically or chemically from the top layer of your skin. Chemical exfoliants contain alpha-hydroxy acids that work on a molecular level to degrade dead skin, while physical exfoliants work by physically abrading dirt and dead cells.

Regular exfoliation can help moisturize dry and damaged skin, promote new cell growth, and give you a clear, glowing complexion. It can unclog pores, which is particularly useful for acne-prone individuals, and allow other skincare products to penetrate and work more effectively. It is not required, however, as your skin will naturally turn itself over every 27 days or so; exfoliating merely speeds the process along.

It's most commonly done on the face, although your entire body can benefit from the practice—from your lips to your arms to your feet. You do not want to overdo it, as too much exfoliation can result in redness, sensitivity, and irritation. Start once per week and then increase if you wish. Older people may benefit from more frequency, as it takes longer for skin cells to replenish as they age.

The key to successful exfoliation is to be gentle. Many manufactured exfoliants contain plastic microbeads, which are potentially harmful. These can damage your skin by creating micro-abrasions or small tears. They also pollute rivers and seas because they are tiny enough to slip past wastewater filtration systems.

So, instead of reaching for these at the store, turn to your kitchen cupboards. You can exfoliate at home using many natural and edible ingredients. These "natural exfoliators" have just enough abrasion or acidity to remove those lingering dead skin cells without added chemicals, packaging, and cost.

Choosing the Right Exfoliants for You

There's no perfect exfoliation routine for everyone, so consult a dermatologist for personalized advice.

Determining Your Skin Type

woman touches face with hand to determine what kind of exfoliation she needs

Treehugger / Sanja Kostic

To get the most out of exfoliation, you need to know your skin type. Your skin is unique and will respond well to some exfoliants and poorly to others. Skin types are primarily determined by your skin's level of oil or sebum production and can be divided into four categories:

  • Oily: You may want to exfoliate with honey, yogurt, or papaya.
  • Sensitive: You may want to exfoliate with oatmeal or turmeric.
  • Dry: You may want to exfoliate with sugar, coffee, or oatmeal.
  • Combination: You may want to exfoliate with lemon juice or papaya.

Skin Irritation

If your skin gets red or irritated, the regime you're using may be too harsh. If this happens, stop exfoliating to allow your skin to heal.

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textured glass jar full of honey with wooden honey dipper dripping

Treehugger / Jenn Parker

Honey isn't just healthy for you, it's also great for your skin. It has antimicrobial properties that promote healing and humectant properties that promote hydration. It even has medicinal applications, with small amounts of gluconic acid and other alpha-hydroxy acids. Honey has been used for centuries to help treat disorders such as psoriasis and dermatitis.

To exfoliate with honey, squirt a dime-sized dollop into your hands and apply to your face with your fingers using a circular motion. Rinse with water.

Honey can be used on its own or as an ingredient in DIY facial scrubs. You can also mix in a little bit of baking soda for slightly more abrasion. Raw, organic honey is best.

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large silver bowl filled with thick white Greek yogurt for exfoliation

Treehugger / Jenn Parker

Yogurt contains lactic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that helps dissolve and remove dead skin cells and stimulate new growth. Exfoliating with lactic acid can give you a more even complexion.

Yogurt's pH is around 4.5, which is low enough for it to work as an exfoliant. But as SELF explains, it only has around 0.9% available acid after fermentation, which is quite a bit less than conventional over-the-counter exfoliants that have 5-10% AHAs. Buttermilk, by comparison, has 3-4% lactic acid, but is messier to apply. Yogurt is therefore a very gentle and subtle exfoliant, but it can still work.

To exfoliate with yogurt, apply one tablespoon plain yogurt to your face with your fingers using a circular motion or with a brush using short strokes. Let sit for 20 minutes and rinse with water.

The potential benefits of using fermented dairy products topically are still being studied, but some research suggests the probiotics found in yogurt interact with your skin barrier to fight infection and reduce inflammation.


If you have a lactose sensitivity, exfoliating with yogurt may damage your skin. Check with a dermatologist or do a patch test before you exfoliate with yogurt.

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glass bowl filled with white sugar with wooden scoop nestled inside for exfoliation

Treehugger / Jenn Parker

The glycolic acid found in sugar cane is a natural chemical exfoliant that can help separate dead cells from new cells in the outermost layer of your skin. When applied gently, this can help safely and effectively remove dead skin. Please note that sugar scrubs are recommended for the body, not the face, as the crystals tend to be quite large and can cause harm if rubbed aggressively into sensitive skin.

To exfoliate with sugar:

  1. Combine one tablespoon raw sugar and one tablespoon of your favorite natural oil (i.e. coconut, olive, jojoba, almond) to form a thick paste; adjust amounts as needed to achieve this consistency.
  2. Apply to skin with your fingers using a circular motion or with a brush using short strokes.
  3. Let sit for 10 minutes.
  4. Rinse with water.

Sugar scrubs are great exfoliants for those with dry skin.

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Lemon Juice

large glass pitcher filled with lemon juice and water with fresh cut lemons nearby

Treehugger / Jenn Parker

As a source of citric acid, another alpha-hydroxy acid, lemon juice, is also a natural chemical exfoliant. In addition to helping you shed dead skin cells, lemon juice may plump and brighten your skin.

To exfoliate with lemon juice:

  1. Combine one tablespoon of lemon juice and one tablespoon of cane sugar to create a mildly abrasive paste.
  2. Apply gently to face or body with your fingers using a circular motion or with a brush using short strokes.
  3. Let sit for between two and five minutes.
  4. Rinse with water.

Perform a patch test on a small portion of your face before exfoliating with lemon juice. People with sensitive skin or abrasions may experience burning and irritation. Sugar can also be overly abrasive for faces, so blend it more finely or restrict to body use only.

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large papaya with seeds cut in half rests on wooden table and blue cloth

Treehugger / Jenn Parker

The enzyme papain is what makes papaya an effective exfoliant. Papain dissolves the keratin in dead skin cells to smooth your face. Papaya can help promote blood circulation and elasticity.

To exfoliate your face at home with papaya:

  1. Mash fresh papaya into a smooth paste.
  2. Apply to face with your fingers using a circular motion or with a brush using short strokes.
  3. Let sit for 15 minutes.
  4. Rinse with water.

Papaya is an ideal exfoliant for combination or oily skin because these skin types tend to overproduce sebum, resulting in clogged pores. The papain in papaya can help cleanse pores and prevent acne formation or infection. Papain is most potent in young fruit, so use green papayas if possible.

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diy ground coffee scrub for exfoliation in glass jar on linen cloth

Treehugger / Allison Berler

Ground coffee is an excellent manual exfoliant that can help scrub away dead cells and debris when massaged into the skin. On top of that, caffeine has been shown to plump skin and fight signs of aging such as wrinkles and dark spots.

To exfoliate with coffee:

  1. Combine one-quarter teaspoon used coffee grounds with one tablespoon of your favorite natural oil to form a thick paste (adjust amounts as needed to achieve this consistency).
  2. Apply to face with your fingers using a circular motion.
  3. Let sit for five minutes.
  4. Rinse with water.

Some physical exfoliants are too rough and can damage your skin. The St. Ives Apricot Scrub, for example, contains hard walnut shell pieces that cause micro-abrasions for many users. Finely ground coffee, combined with a carrier oil such as coconut oil to help soothe and hydrate your skin as you exfoliate, makes a much gentler scrub. You can also use coffee grounds as a stimulating mask, rinsing off for a tingly, exfoliated effect. Try this premade version from Lush.

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warm oatmeal exfoliation in glass jar with spilled honey and wooden dipper nearby

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

Oatmeal is a common ingredient in skincare products. Known for its therapeutic anti-inflammatory properties, oatmeal is gentle and non-irritating for most. It may also help protect the skin against harmful UV rays.

To exfoliate your face at home with oatmeal:

  1. Combine one tablespoon finely ground oats with one tablespoon of your favorite natural oil or honey (the oats need something smooth to bind to).
  2. Apply to face with your fingers using a circular motion.
  3. Let sit for five minutes.
  4. Rinse with water.

Oatmeal is an ideal ingredient in exfoliating scrubs for people with dry or sensitive skin. Be sure to use organic oats that have not been treated with pesticides or chemicals.

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bowl and spoon of ground turmeric with fresh turmeric root

manusapon kasosod / Getty Images

More than just a versatile spice, turmeric is a capable exfoliant. Turmeric contains curcumin, the compound that gives it its yellow color and many of its health benefits. Turmeric is used medicinally to treat skin conditions throughout South Asia and has been shown to reduce inflammation and fight infection when used as an exfoliant.

To exfoliate with turmeric:

  1. Combine one teaspoon ground turmeric with yogurt, natural oil, or water to form a paste (amount needed will vary). You can also add some chickpea flour for added abrasion, if you wish.
  2. Apply to face with your fingers using a circular motion or with a brush using short strokes.
  3. Let sit for 10 minutes.
  4. Rinse with water.

Turmeric is a good exfoliant for all skin types, especially sensitive skin. Look for Kasturi turmeric (Curcuma aromatica) in Indian grocery stories, as this variety is non-staining.

How Often Should You Exfoliate Your Face?

red-haired woman pats face dry with blue towel after exfoliating

Treehugger / Alexandra Cristina Nakamura

How often you should exfoliate your face depends on your skin type, age, and existing conditions. You want to exfoliate often enough to remove dead cells and uncover new skin, but not so often that you damage your skin's natural protective barrier. Try exfoliating once per week to start and increasing frequency as needed. You may need to exfoliate more if you are in the process of treating a skin condition.

As you age, the cells of your epidermis tend to regrow more slowly. Cell turnover typically takes between 40 and 60 days for adults over the age of 65 and 28 days for adults between the ages of 18 and 25. Older adults may benefit from more frequent exfoliation than young adults. Exfoliating mature skin regularly can promote cell regeneration and reduce the effects of aging.

Tips for Trying a New Natural Exfoliant

a diy coffee scrub spread on inside of arm with with glass jar nearby

Treehugger / Allison Berler

Be mindful of the fact that the skin on your face is likely much more sensitive than the skin on the rest of your body. Some exfoliants that work well for your body will be too rough for your face, so use extra caution with facial exfoliation. Follow these tips when trying a new natural exfoliant at home:

  • Do a patch test before trying a new exfoliant by applying a small amount to your arm and monitoring for adverse reactions.
  • Ensure that your hands and applicators are clean prior to application.
  • Always massage exfoliant gently into your skin for no more than one minute.
  • Rinse with water that is around room temperature.
  • Moisturize after exfoliating with a high-quality moisturizer.

Experts recommend exfoliating in the evening as most cell growth takes place overnight.

View Article Sources
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