Physical Exfoliation

Physical Exfoliation

Now that we’ve covered hydroxy acids and how effective they can be, let’s look at scrubs and other manual exfoliation. The old-school style of exfoliation. I’ll admit, I had no idea chemical exfoliation existed before I started this blog so don’t feel embarrassed if you only knew about scrubs as an exfoliant. Look at us learning!

Essentially the end results are the same – dead skin cells are removed and you’re left with beautifully smooth exfoliated skin. The mechanism is just slightly different. In chemical exfoliation, the bonds holding the cells in place are broken with chemicals (shocker!) while physical exfoliation basically uses friction to remove the dead skin cells. It’s a bit like sandpaper. Not a great image considering how harsh sandpaper can be.

There is a lot of talk about how physical exfoliants cause microtears (small tearing of the upper skin layer). I can’t find any studies proving this but it actually depends on:

  1. The type of exfoliant you’re using
    • Particle size
    • Edges of the exfoliant
    • Hardness of the particles
  2. How roughly you are using it. I see you: scrubs face with scrub and cloth until pink and shiny and half your skin is down the drain. Don’t do that. That’s bad and could wreck havoc with your skin just like over-cleansing.

That being said, slightly injuring the skin is not all bad and can actually promote skin renewal and collagen production. But this needs to be small, uniform and performed in a controlled way like micro-needling which is a whole other topic.

So the bottom line is go gentle and if in doubt use it only on your feet and body. Here are some examples of physical exfoliation agents.


We all know these are terrible for the environment since they have contributed to enormous amounts of microplastics entering the aquatic ecosystems. Microbeads were popular because they are cheap to produce and they are produced to have smooth edges. Smooth edges are less likely to cause microtears.

They are mostly made from polyethylene, polypropylene or nylon. You can look out for these on the back of your scrub products. These days most companies are steering clear of microplastics anyway but there are always the stubborn few. Microbeads are not officially banned in South Africa as far as I am aware but they are in the US, and as much as we claim that we don’t want to follow US trends, we do. So here’s hoping it becomes official.

Cellulose acetate beads

Cellulose acetate beads are a good alternative to conventional plastic microbeads because they have the same feel and effectiveness as well as being super stable within cosmetic formulations, unlike unmodified cellulose beads. They are made from wood pulp which is modified with acetic acid (the acid found in vinegar FYI) in an acidic environment. So from a raw materials perspective, it is more sustainable than polyethylene (PE) beads which use less sustainable raw materials. In terms of the end product impact, its biodegradability, it is considered biodegradable. What criteria need to be met for something to be considered biodegradable though? How long it takes to degrade? In what environment – sea, wind, soil? This is another topic I want to explore in a separate post which I will link back. For now, lets say its a better option than PE beads.

Jojoba beads

It’s allll an illusion

These look like microbeads but are not! It’s all an illusion. The jojoba oil is processed by hydrogenating the oil to make it a solid wax at room temperature. The wax is moulded into hard little balls with smooth edges. This whole process may not actually be very green… Another topic I’d say. Alas! They’re a good alternative to microbeads as they are biodegradable. There are also other natural oil ingredients that can be processed in a similar way to get little wax beads but jojoba seems to be the most popular. You can even buy some online and mix them into your favourite cleanser once a week.

Fruit kernels

Now here’s the offending culprit. Ground up fruit pits like apricots are usually large and sharp and these are the main offender for the perceived microtears. These are popular in the natural brands but I’d steer clear of these, especially for your face. Smaller sized particles could be ok for a body/foot scrub. LÓreal talks about “Apricot Seed Powder” where the particles are powdered and small so this ingredient should be better than those of roughly blitzed kernels.

Sugar and salt

Dirt cheap and available in your kitchen; these are popular in a lot of brands. I’ve tried one or two and I must say that the salt option, for me, feels like it dries out my skin. It may be a mental thing though and probably depends on the formulation. Chemically, all I can think about is water leaving my skin because of the difference in salt concentration, but it’s probably no different to sugar. Again, look at the particle size. Smaller is better. Luckily this option also dissolves as its getting used so it can be gentle if you don’t attack your face while washing. I would keep this for body exfoliation as the particles have sharp edges at the start of the process.

What’s nice about this option is you can sort of make your own with a cleanser you like, although I don’t condone mixing your skincare products. Why mess with something that has been carefully formulated?! Saying that, I’m talking about body exfoliation here so you can use basic shower gels and creams to mix with the salt or sugar.

Baking soda

No. Don’t use it. It has a high pH (alkaline) while our skin is more acidic naturally. All you’ll be doing is stripping your face of oils and upsetting the acid balance of your skin. No. Put it down, step away from your baking supplies.

Oatmeal and nuts

Oatmeal actually has its own properties as a skincare product such as anti-inflammatory properties but I’ll focus on it as an exfoliant for now. It tends to be softer than the other options. I imagine that it soaks up water and whatever other liquids are in the product which softens the particles, so it is a relatively gentle option. Nuts (the soft inside part) are similar. Both are ideal for DIY body scrubs, if you’re gentle enough even face scrubs. Just blitz it in a blender and mix with your wash. Here in South Africa, nuts are “kaaaaaak duur” (shiiiiiit expensive) so I would most likely not be doing that.

Pumice and other rocks

Volcanic rock powder again depends on the size of the particles. The smaller the better and remember to press gently. I think it’s best left to body scrubs.

Face cloth and rubber face scrubs

Your mom and grandmother probably advocate this. This is the old school “go wash your face and everything will be better” option. This and those silicone face brushes are as gentle as you want to be. Also keeping them clean is essential. You can’t expect to help your acne if you’re roughly scrubbing away at it with bacteria infested cloths.

Keep away from rough loofahs and hand mitts for your face. That’s better for your body.

Dermaplaning and derma-abrasion

Leave it to the professionals. If I could afford it, I’d go with this option always. They use very skilful techniques involving blades to remove the top layer of your skin and *bonus* your hair so you’re left with baby-soft skin. Derma-abrasion is just the fancy way of using a cloth or silicon face brush to remove the dead skin cells.

This was a lot longer than intended but I hope this was at least a little enlightening! I have one or two I would like to review.

Any favourite scrubs that you use? Comment below and let me know.

Also is it microbeads, micro-beads or micro beads? English is a strange language…

*Updated 9th May 2020 – cellulose acetate section added* Look at me growing and learning 🙂


  1. The ban on microbeads
  2. Nature article on scar-free skin healing
  3. Jojoba wax beads
  4. Efficacy of wax beads compared to microbeads
  5. LabMuffin post
  6. Cellulose acetate beads

Featured Photo by David Alberto Carmona Coto from Canva

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