The Power of Plant-Based Exfoliants

Here's everything you need to know about these ingredients, which include azelaic acid, bakuchiol, and papain.

There's no denying that exfoliating is an essential step in any skin care routine. After all, it helps slough off dry skin, fade hyperpigmentation and even unclog pores. And while you might be familiar with physical exfoliants (like scrubs), plant-based iterations are being praised for their radiance-boosting properties—and it's easy to see why. These naturally-derived exfoliants use enzymes and acids to shed dead cells and can be less abrasive and just as effective as their grainy counterparts. Plus, some of these powerful plant-based ingredients are gentle on the skin, making them a smart choice for those with sensitive complexions. So, what are the different types of plant-based exfoliants and what, exactly, do they do? We asked a board-certified dermatologist to find out.

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Azelaic Acid

This plant-based acid is proof that you don't need to use a scrub to exfoliate. "Azelaic acid is a favorite of dermatologists because it helps brighten the skin and reduces dark marks," says Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology. The ingredient is derived from various whole grains, like wheat and rye, and is also produced naturally by the yeast that lives on your skin. Azelaic acid also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that help fight acne and reduce redness (which is good news for those who are rosacea prone!)


If you're looking for a retinol alternative, bakuchiol is your plant-based solution. Extracted from the seeds and leaves of the babchi plant, bakuchiol functions similarly to retinol by increasing cell turnover and collagen production while gently resurfacing the skin.


Papain is extracted from the raw fruit of the papaya plant. Not just for eating, this delicious fruit contains proteolytic enzymes that act as gentle exfoliators when applied to your face. Since papain's main function is to breakdown lipids, products that contain this enzyme are ideal for congested and hyper-pigmented skin. Papain is not nearly as harsh as BHAs or AHAs, so it's another safe choice for sensitive complexions.


Bromelain is an enzyme found in the stem, fruit, and juice of the pineapple plant. Much like papain, bromelain is a protein-digesting enzyme that works to shed layers of dead skin and unclog pores. Since pineapple is rich in vitamins C and E, you'll find that products containing this enzyme will not only brighten your complexion, but also protect your face from environmental stressors. Plus, this ingredient is known for its anti-inflammatory benefits and can help reduce bruising and swelling.

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is most commonly derived from sugarcane and belongs to a group of plant-based acids called alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). This resurfacing acid is found in many skin care products works to fight acne, shrink pores, and fade dark spots. Because glycolic acid is a small molecule, it can penetrate deep layers of the dermis to stimulate collagen and hyaluronic acid production, which can help reduce fine lines and wrinkles.

Mandelic Acid

"Mandelic acid is ideal for sensitive skin, as it is less irritating than other acids like glycolic and lactic acid," says Dr. Levin. Derived from bitter almond, mandelic acid promotes cell turnover by dissolving surface cells to reveal a brighter and smoother visage. While mandelic acid is the most gentle of the AHAs, overuse of any exfoliator can lead to irritation—and can even make breakouts worse for sensitive complexions. So, if you're redness-prone, it's best to start out slow and always follow exfoliation with a moisturizer.

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