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Scrub Swap

Contact Author Danae Markland, PCA

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Scrubbing the face

In their decades on the market, microbeads found their way into a wide variety of products, including toothpastes, and facial and body scrubs. Although gentle and effective mechanical exfoliants, the unintended consequence of their use has had a negative environmental impact.

Plastic microbeads do not biodegrade, and once they are washed down the drain, they go through our waste stream to end up in waterways. These small, spherical particles are the size of a grain of sand and cannot be filtered out of bodies of water.

Therefore, over years of use, microbeads have inundated waterways and are causing negative health issues for marine life and our aqueous ecosystems. Although we have become attached to these small particles in our products, have no fear, there are many effective alternatives.

Why Exfoliation is Necessary?

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In a perfect world, our skin is a self-renewing organ. New cells are born at the basal layer and rise up through the epidermis, ultimately flattening and turning from keratinoctyes into corneocytes. Approximately every 28 days, these cornecytes go through a complex biochemical process called desquamation, which cleaves and sheds dead cells away from the stratum corneum, leaving a fresh and bright skin surface behind. Unfortunately, there are many roadblocks to this all-important process of desquamation. Even simple skin dehydration can impede normal cell turnover. Add stress, pollution, poor lifestyle choices (smoking, drinking), age, insufficient skin care habits and the result can be impacted, dull, rough and unhealthy-looking skin. The best way to overcome this is regular, gentle exfoliation. Healthy cell turnover can be achieved by either chemical or mechanical means. There are a variety of chemical exfoliation options that can be used in place of microbeads, while there are also numerous substances and techniques that can be used as microbead alternatives for mechanical exfoliation.

Mechanical Exfoliation

By definition, mechanical exfoliation is the process of physically scrubbing or removing any surface build-up of corneocytes, or dead skin cells. As more time goes by after the deadlines pass for the Microbead-free Waters Act (H.R. 1321)—which banned the manufacture of, formulation with and sale of products containing microbeads— there will certainly be many more options on the horizon. Below are some of the most common options.

Fruit pits, seeds and nut shells. When crushed, there are a number of stone fruit pits and nut shells that are good to use for body exfoliation. Although these particles can have jagged edges, they are good for ridding feet, elbows and thicker body skin of build up. They can be used in varying particle sizes in formulations, but even the fine particles from pits and shells can be too aggressive for delicate facial and décolleté skin. Some of the most commonly used sources for these particles are apricot pits and coconut or walnut shells. Other fruit seeds and fibers like those from raspberries, cranberries and blackberries can also be used, but are not as common in commercial products. Most of these can be ground into fine powders, making them less aggressive, yet are still best left for use on the body.

Beads and waxes. Hydrogenated beeswax and castor and jojoba waxes and oils can be used to create clear and odorless beads. They are gentle, yet some downsides are that they can darken with exposure to oxygen, making them not cosmetically elegant for some formulations. Additionally, they are large in size and can be difficult to use in some types of packaging.


Grain powders. Many beneficial grains can be ground into gentle exfoliative powders. Some of the most popular and effective are oats, rice and chickpeas. Oat flours and powders can be a good option for more sensitive skin due to the natural calming properties of Avena sativa (oat). Rice is an excellent choice, as the particles are gentle and effective for a wide range of skin types and conditions. Used for centuries in Asia for skin clearing, rice powders and flours contain a variety of vitamins and amino acids.

Salts and sugars. Even when milled to a small dimension, these particles are best for body use. Salts are well known for their high concentration of minerals that can be beneficial for dry skin conditions. Minerals such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and bromide are the most prevalent. The most common are Dead Sea, black Hawaiian sea, Himalayan and basic sea salt.

Sugars are also best for foot scrubs and body scrubs. Their natural humectant properties help to keep the skin moist after use. The natural sweet aroma can also be a draw for many looking for a more spa-type experience from their body scrub.

Because many of these materials have their own set of benefits, it is also a good option to look for products that contain a blend of several to maximize results.

Chemical Exfoliation


Although many incorrectly assume that the use of chemical exfoliants must be more aggressive than mechanical methods, this option can be an excellent way to keep skin healthy and radiant. This method covers a wide range of options. Deeper peels, such as 30%+ TCA solutions, are only used several times a year, while gentle, low-percentage Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and enzymes can be used with the same regularity as microbeads.

AHAs. Lactic, glycolic, citric and malic acids, among others, are included in this category. These acids offer many ancillary benefits, including humectant qualities, inhibition of P. acnes bacteria, reduction of hyperkeratinization and an inhibition of the melanogenesis process. Some studies indicate AHA may have the ability to promote collagen deposition in addition to increasing desquamation.

Beta hydroxy acid (BHA). Salicylic acid (SA) is the only BHA currently used in skin care. It is a lipophilic keratolytic that has the ability to dissolve impactions in the follicles, reducing the occurrence of acne breakouts. Due to its anti-inflammatory benefits, SA is also a good choice for sensitive skin conditions, higher Fitzpatrick skin types I-VI and rosacea. It can be safely used in combined modality protocols.

Retinoids. All forms of vitamin A are included in this category, with retinoic acid, retinaldehyde and retinol being the most commonly used in professional treatment products. For use at home, retinol products used at night can have a dramatic effect in normalizing cell turnover and improving overall skin health. Because retinol is notoriously unstable in formulations, this beneficial ingredient is best used in a well-formulated nighttime treatment product, not a scrub. In general, retinoids help increase cellular turnover, smooth uneven skin texture, boost collagen production and improve skin discoloration.

Enzymes. Enzymes are catalyst proteins that start or accelerate an action. Fruit-derived enzymes such as papain from papaya and bromelain from pineapple are used most often in skin care. Enzymes are able to digest the keratin filled corneocyte, revealing the healthy cells below while living cells are left unaffected. These are also typically gentle at low percentages. You can find enzymes in many topical products and home-use treatments.

We Won’t Miss Microbeads

Our environment will thank us for getting rid of microbeads. Whether using alternative mechanical exfoliation materials or opting to use gentle chemical options—or even a combination of both—there are strategies to have skin turning over at a healthy rate and appear glowing, smooth and healthy.


Danae Markland, L.E., CMLT, has been a licensed esthetician for 14 years. She currently serves as vice president of business development for PCA SKIN and is an advanced educator.

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