Facial Exfoliation - Let's Get Physical

Originally, I planned on writing about exfoliation in a single article, but the text just kept growing until it was quite clear that exfoliation had decided – quite by itself – to become a mini-series.

So, welcome to part 2!

Today, we're going to have a look at physical exfoliants for the face and how to use them. I've worked with quite a few exfoliants over the years – both physical and chemical – from the scott free kind to the super pricey kind.  Some physical (and even chemical) exfoliants can be used 'as is', and some need to be added to a cleansing product you either make or buy.

Before We Get Started

Exfoliating rule number one: Always cleanse before exfoliating. The objective is to remove impurities – not rub them in.

Ground Oats

If you want to exfoliate gently and add a touch of moisturizing action at the same time, ground oats are for you. Not only are oats are extremely well tolerated - even by the most sensitive skin - they are ideal for all skin types and can be even be used 'as is'. Ground oats have been a staple in my clay and butter cleansers for years. Oats are gentle enough to be used daily. To make your own, simply throw a small handful of whole oats into a grinder or stick blender and whiz until the texture looks like full grain flour.

How to exfoliate with ground oats:
Wet a tablespoonful of ground oats with distilled water (or hydrosol). Massage the face and neck gently. Rinse.
Ground oats can also be added to a cleanser. Simply add a teaspoonful of ground oats to a teaspoon of cleanser and massage onto the face and neck. Ground oats are also an ideal addition to a soap-free cleansing bar. Check the how to page for cleansing bars with ground oats.

How often: 1-7 times a week


This must the most inexpensive exfoliating option around. And there's even extra good news: just because it's cheap, doesn't mean it doesn't do the job. Used correctly, your washcloth is quite an effective exfoliator that is also gentle enough to be used daily. The only real 'requirement' is using terrycloth. The texture of terrycloth has all the right qualities for achieving the perfect result.

How to exfoliate with a washcloth: 
Moisten a washcloth with hot water and wring it out. Leave the cloth on your face for about a minute so the steam can open the pores. Then, gently rub your face with the cloth using a circular motion. Don't rub too hard. Your skin shouldn't look flushed when you're finished – just fresh and glowing.

How often: 1-7 times a week

Ground Loofah flakes

If you like being able to 'feel the action' when exfoliating, ground loofah flakes are for you. The flakes are available in several grades (super-finely ground for face, finely ground for hands, coarsely ground for body) and can be purchased in some health food or hobby stores as well as soap-making suppliers. The flakes are often added to hand-crafted soaps. Be sure you are using flakes that have been ground specifically for use on the face. If in doubt, ask your supplier. If your supplier sounds unsure - don't use them on your face. The flakes also need to be proportioned correctly in the product (read: don't overdo it). A couple of downsides: loofah flakes are difficult to rinse off if you are not standing under running water. I've discovered bits hiding in both hair and ears hours later. Also, loofah flakes do not dissolve and may (with continued use) build up enough to clog your pipes.

How to exfoliate with ground loofah flakes: 
Add half a teaspoon of ground flakes to 2 teaspoons lotion or gel-based cleanser and gently massage the face and neck area with the mixture. Rinse. If you use a lotion or gel-based cleanser to begin with, then start with your cleanser, rinse off, and reapply with your added loofah flakes.

How often: once a week

Ground Adzuki beans

Years ago, I bought a smartly packaged face cleanser/exfoliator that consisted entirely of ground adzuki beans. I didn't have the best of luck with it. Correction: it was a disaster. The instructions on the package were quite simple: add water and massage on face. Rinse off.

Either the beans were not ground properly or this was a lousy product. The beans scratched my skin, leaving visible trails all over my face after every use. (Yes, I gave it a few chances before throwing out the product). This unfortunate experience kept me from trying adzuki beans ever again. If you have tried these and had good results, please do leave a comment! I still can't help wondering if I did something wrong. But on the other hand, I haven't seen that product available for ages...

How often: never

Fine Almond Meal

Like oats, fine almond meal will bring moisturizing action due to the natural oil content. Almond meal is a good choice for dry and combination skin. If you have very sensitive skin, ground oats is a gentler option. Note: Not all almond meals are alike. Almond meal should feel gritty – not scratchy – when it is massaged on the skin!

How to exfoliate with almond meal:
Wet a tablespoonful of almond meal with distilled water (or hydrosol). Massage the face and neck gently. Rinse.
Alternatively, add a teaspoon almond meal to 2 teaspoons lotion or gel-based cleanser, mix to a paste, apply, massage, rinse.

How often: 1-2 times a week

Flowers, dirt and food

Combining a few choice herbs and dried plants with clay will make an effective cleanser that also offers exfoliating action gentle enough to be used daily. Making your own exfoliating cleanser is fun, super easy and doesn't take very long to do. The best part: you can tailor the ingredients to your preferences. Here are 2 recipes to inspire you:
with lavender, cornflower and clay
with  oats, calendula and chamomile

How often: 1-7 times a week (depending on your ingredients)

Mother of Pearl

This exfoliator is seen as an addition to some store-bought products and is quite effective at 'polishing' the skins surface. Mother of pearl is available in several different grades. The super finely ground (for facial use) feels so silky it is almost undetectable. I have only seen this ingredient available with certain cosmetics ingredients suppliers. It's made to be added to a base cleanser of some type and shouldn't be used on its own.

How to exfoliate with mother of pearl:
Add to a finished product or to your own according to the directions of the supplier.

How often: once a week

Jojoba Beads

These colorful beads are hydrogenated jojoba with added color. They are both effective and gentle enough to be used daily. I used them in some of my clay cleansers some time ago, and loved the fact that they simply cannot scratch the skin. They also dissolve and disappear completely. The only downside is that they cannot be added to a heated mixture or they simply melt. Jojoba beads need to be added to an emulsion of a certain thickness/stiffness if they are to remain dispersed in the mixture. Jojoba beads are available at cosmetics ingredients and soapmakers suppliers in a wide range of colors. They are not meant to be used alone.

How to exfoliate with jojoba beads:
Add to a finished product or to your own according to the directions of the supplier.

How often: 1-7 times a week

Facial Exfoliating Tips

  • As a general rule, physical exfoliation shouldn't take any longer than 2 minutes
  • Always be gentle with physical exfoliation! Rubbing harder will only irritate the skin.
  • Always cleanse skin before exfoliating so you are not rubbing dirt and impurities in.
  • Remember to include your neck
  • Not too often - unless you are using a super gentle exfoliant like ground oats, daily exfoliation isn't recommendable. 

After Exfoliation Skin-Quenching Tips

  • Always rinse thoroughly
  • Pat dry with a clean soft towel
  • Mist your skin with a soothing, cooling skin tonic (Hydrosol-based tonics are excellent and bring extra moisturising goodness. A spritz of aloe vera is another option that will calm, soothe and balance the skin)
  • Apply a 10-12 drops of face oil, massaging into the skin gently
  • Apply your regular moisturiser
  • Remember to include your neck

Stay tuned for posts on

Chemical facial exfoliants
Body exfoliation

More Exfoliating Fun

About Exfoliation


María said…
My favourites are always clay (rhassoul, I absolutely adore it) and ground almond meal. Sometimes I make some kind of almond meal paste as the one you can see at L**h :)
LisaLise said…
OOh María I've never combined almond meal and rhassoul - what a great idea! Thanks for the input! (Must try this immediately) :D
p said…
Hi Lise! Do you know of any suppliers who sell mother of pearl powder? I've wanted to learn more about that ingredient for a while.

Oh, since you're on the topic of exfoliants, I thought you might be interested in this recent news piece on plastic microbeads turning up in lakes and oceans. All the more reason to use the exfoliants you're discussing! http://www.npr.org/2014/05/21/313157701/why-those-tiny-microbeads-in-soap-may-pose-problem-for-great-lakes
LisaLise said…
HI p - thanks for this great link! It really is disturbing that the 'harmless' bits of plastics that the industry has been using in cleansing products are turning up in the waterways.

As for buying mother of pearl, I purchased mine at New Directions - they have dept's all aver the globe -- check the sidebar for links. :)
Unknown said…
Hi Lise,
I just live Adzuki Bean as a scrub . I combined mine with brown rice flour and rose petals and whizzed it through my coffee grinder. Both my daughter's love it too. You just need to get past the bean smell however the rose petals soften it a tad.
LisaLise said…
Hi Kim - thanks for your input! I'm curious-- do you buy the beans whole and then grind them yourself? If so, what does the texture feel like? I like the idea of mixing them with rose - but having to 'get past the bean smell' does make this sound a little less tempting..
María said…
Hi Lise :)
What I do when I use those is mixing both rhassoul and ground almonds 50:50, and then I add glycerine (about 25%), oil (I like the lightness of macadamia oil) and EOs or cosmetic fragrances, depending on my mood :D
The glycerine at this proportion (and because this is not a leave-on product) also helps with preservation. I live in a quite humid place and I have never had issues with mould or bacteria contamination.
Hope this helps :)
p said…
Thanks for the info, Lise! I didn't realize New Directions carries it, and in fact it's not in their US or Canadian stores (but is in their UK and Australian stores). They don't have much of any info on it, beyond an MSDS. My aunt in Australia raves about a pearl powder facial at a local spa, and when she first told me about it, I thought it must be some sort of gimmick (really, pearls? how much?), and/or the pearl protein was hydrolized and functioning much as any other hydrolized protein... but this exfoliant really has me wondering! I'd love to see any any info or links you have on it!
LisaLise said…
Hi María - thanks for this info. I must admit I'm a little worried you are not using a preservative with glycerine added. It's great that you've never experienced a problem with mould, but there could be a whole bacteria party going on before the mould even starts showing.

Hi p - the mother of pearl powder I use is indeed from New Directions in UK. As I haven't used it for some time, I can't really add a whole lot of info to what I wrote above. I tried it because it intrigued me, and it seemed to do a lovely job of 'polishing' without feeling abrasive. Beyond that, I've never really done a lot of research on this ingredient- but now your question has me all curious to do a bit of digging! :)
María said…
Hi Lise.
Glycerin is used widely as a humectant (a very good and unexpensive one). However, a lot of sites talk about it as being irritant at high dosage (i.e. Colin, http://colinsbeautypages.co.uk/humectants/)
One thing we have to think about glycerin is that it is an alcohol: glycerol. And as an alcohol, it has the same characteristics. At high dosages (more than 25%), it could be irritant for some skins because of its incidence on the skin barrier, altering the skin by osmosis, and so does on bacteria and mould. Microorganisms feed and nourish a lot by osmosis, and high doses of glycerin make they literally dehydrate by osmosis, so then don't grow.
For me, I use glycerin in a very high doses in this product and really have no issues (and I swear Scotland is humid, OMG), and never had an issue in years.
Also, as this scrub is not a leave-on product, there is not this risk of drying and irritating skin that can be caused if glycerin stays longer.
I hope this helps :)
P.S. I know a lot of people who make versions of it (there are hundreds on the internet)adding potassium sorbate also with very good results.
LisaLise said…
HI María - forgive me for sounding like a mother hen! My knee-jerk reaction to any product with water-based anything and no preservatives is to start scolding and warning. That said, I can see you have done your research! :)
Unknown said…
What do you think of using Diatomaceous Earth as an exfoliant?

LisaLise said…
Hi Lynn - I actually have this ingredient on my to-do list, so I can't share any personal experience with you, but there are many commercial companies using Diatomaceous earth (INCI: Solum Diatomeae) as an exfoliating agent in their products (for example the French company Yves Rocher). As long as it is cosmetic grade, I would be fine with it.
Unknown said…
Thank you so much Lise. I just love it and the product I have is Food Grade. I will be looking forward to hear what you think of it.
LisaLise said…
Lynne - would you mind sharing your method? Feel free to email me directly if you donut want to post here. My email is on the sidebar (you'll need to view the 'web-version' of the blog to see it). Thanks!
Anonymous said…
I used to grind adzuki beans as an exfoliator and I found it to be great. I used a spice mill to grind them. Then I just put a little in my hand in the shower and rubbed it gently on my face.
LisaLise said…
HI Anon! Thanks for sharing. I used adzuki beans ages ago as an exfoliant but it was a purchased exfoliant and scratched my face something terrible.. I must revisit this and do my own grinding - I remember liking the scent of the beans when they get wet.