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Should you keep your nuts off your face?

May 20, 2019

It was hard not to be affected by the keyboard warrior backlash Kylie Jenner got last week after announcing that her new skincare line would include a walnut facial scrub. Being a 90s teen I didn’t really think too much of it at first. I came of age in an era before political correctness, when nobody questioned where you put your nuts but hey, times have changed and so have I!

So what’s going on?


Picture from here. 

Walnuts, that’s what.

If you read even a handful of the comments online it leaves you with the impression that there is nothing worse for your skin than a dollop of walnut face scrub.  As a cosmetic chemist that is often asked to incorporate natural scrub particles into cosmetic products I wanted to dissect this backlash a little, flesh it out, play with these ideas a little, work out where the truth lies.  I did this first from my perspective as a cosmetic chemist and then by chatting to the lovely Amy Erbacher, facialist-to-the-stars and someone with heaps of up-close-and-personal insights into what people do to their skin and how the skin takes it.  Chemists don’t really have that sort of insight you see.

The backlash – a semi-scientific appraisal.

So what people seem to be upset most about are these things called ‘micro tears’ that allegedly form on the skin after you scrub it with walnut particles.

After thinking on this for a moment, I found myself wanting to form a mental picture of how ‘this’ rates against ‘that’. What that means is, if I assume that the people are right, that Walnut does form micro tears on the skin and that they are bad, how does that compare with other exfoliating particles, with harsh towelling of the skin,  with environmental factors (sand, wind, dust etc) and with other things we might do to our skin (needling, microdermabrasion, lasers etc).

Walnut particles are abrasive. They are abrasive because they are hard and un-yielding (they aren’t squishy like a sponge) and they also have some jagged rather than smooth edges. It is likely that these jagged edges could cause tiny skin tears.

Here are two microscope images of some Walnut scrub particles that came out of St Ives Apricot Scrub. The left side is at 4 x magnification and the right side is 10x. You can see some big particles and some small, some clumps and some individual particles. You can see the rough edges but generally these are just bulky and woody with little spiked bits.

A while a go, I looked at a whole bunch of other exfoliant particles. They are shown below. Looking at this you can see a range of natural and an un-natural particle. The Jojoba beads are round and soft-edged. These also melt at around 45-50C which is face-wash temperature.  The micro-plastic is somewhat round but with little jagged bits in the background.  The other materials, sugar excepted, are quite jagged and un-even.

Exfoliant particle line up

How can looking at this help with understanding micro tears?

If it is true that walnut particles cause micro tears to the skin, looking at the above range of exfoliant particles it would seem reasonable that at least some of the above could also cause the same.  This to me is interesting as the response online to Kylie Jenner’s launch was very emotional and ultra specific about Walnut shell.  Some early responders also cited a law suit brought against St Ives that got into the USA court system late last year.   As fairly typical of people trying to drive home a fast point, they neglected to inform their readers that the law suit application failed. Maybe looking at the above gives us some idea of why…

desk scrub

So what does using scrubs like this do to the skin?

This is where I couldn’t really answer and is why I got Amy Erbacher involved.

About Amy

Amy came to me a few years ago when she wanted to develop her own range of skin cleansers based on what she had learned from years in the beauty trade.  Amy explained that she often picks up visual signs that a clients skin has been treated too harshly during her practice as a facialist. Typical signs of past trauma include hyper pigmentation, irritation, adult acne and/or hypersensitivity.  Of course, being a facials Amy doesn’t give any medical diagnoses but it is her job to attempt to bring the skin back to looking and feeling good.

So they are the symptoms but what about the causes?  

Amy thought it entirely possible (even probable) that the habitual use of harsh abrasives, especially when applied vigorously and often to the skin,  could be contributing  to the symptoms she sees.  However, she felt it unlikely that physical exfoliant of the type purchased over-the-counter are the only cause of clients woes with  UV exposure, lifestyle habits such as smoking and a poor diet,  over-use of AHA’s and Enzymes and our addiction to instant results also playing a part.  On that front, as a facialist, Amy has observed clients growing appetite for cosmeceuticals as a potential double-edged sword.  Demands for stronger AHA products, faster-acting serums and deeper dermal delivery have (potentially) pushed the skin barrier to its limits for some clients resulting in various symptoms of premature ageing. When talking to Amy there was a clear vibe coming from her that the best approach to skin care was to take it gently and…care for it.

Stopping there for a moment there are clearly some subtleties to the case of ‘nut gate’ that we must address. Maybe it’s time for a little self-analysis and therapy?

Going back to my teenage years I just could not get enough facial scrub into my life. I had acne and part of that was blocked pores and blackheads. I was convinced that a good old scrub was the best way to get that dirt out.  Coming into modern times I’ve had more than one client send back the scrub samples I sent them for a bit of ‘toughening up’ when I went a bit too easy (gentle) on the physical exfoliation.  So while Amy is clearly telling me to calm it down in one ear, my other ear is hearing ‘give it to me hard baby’.  Who do I listen to!

Balance, perspective and application.

Amy clearly has a point.  The skin (and remember, we are talking facial skin here) is delicate but it is not pathetic.  This report looks at how skin resists tearing  and by looking at that we can clearly see that a little exfoliation isn’t likely to cause long-term damage when used sparingly and with care.  As we have eluded to above, there are many cosmetic procedures and practices that leave our skin slightly traumatised, indeed, that’s often how we get fast results.  Acids, needles and microdermabrasion treatments all stimulate the skin, instructing them to repair, re-build and restore the skin hopefully to its brighter, smoother and more youthful self.  In that way we could say that our trauma led to personal growth  – what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.  So maybe the only trouble when it comes to exfoliating our skin is knowing when enough is enough…

When exfoliation has to stop. 


In Amy’s professional practice she recommends only the gentlest of scrubbing in all cases  and never for skin with live acne pustules – see that’s where I used to go wrong. I had the mindset that the scrub would set the pimple free and leave my skin clean and un-clogged. Looks like all I was doing back then is spreading the germs around!  So that’s one down-side of physical exfoliants – spreading microbes around the skin.  Are there any more?

Sensitive types. 

Amy points out that another down-side of harsh scrubbing is the disturbance of the micro biome. We are only just starting to learn how our few Kg’s of microbes that live in and on us keep us safe and well.  While exfoliants won’t damage the microbiome per se, they do ‘clean’ a bit more thoroughly than a product without them and for some people this can leave their micro biome a little scattered and when that happens, the skin can become more sensitive.   Again, it is a case of ‘less is more’.

Damaged Skin.

Amy points out that it is really tempting for those with sun-damaged thickened skin to go crazy with exfoliants but again this isn’t recommended.  The skin is thickened due to sun damage and so scrubbing that off won’t really help long-term as you are just layering more stress onto already stressed skin.   From my perspective these probably are the clients that ask for harsher scrubs.  From now on I’ll be talking to them more about cosmetic retinol products and gentle chemical exfoliants as safer alternatives.

When you have an addiction to harshness.

I have had several conversations with Amy over the years and there definitely does seem to be a section of the population that just can’t get enough when it comes to beauty treatments.  I think I was semi-addicted to the ‘freshly scrubbed’ feeling I used to get from my walnut exfoliant even though it was probably not doing me any good.  This behaviour is definitely going to result in long-term skin complications if it is kept up but it pays to remember that this is NOT, I repeat NOT the nuts fault.

The bottom line in nut-gate.

Amy is clearly in the ‘treat it ultra gentle’ camp whereas I like it a little rough (probably based on my earlier facial abuse) so who is right?

Amy is coming from a strong evidence-based mindset that over-exfoliating is one of the contributing factors leading to skin issues down the track. Because of that she strongly warns her clientele against harsh scrubs.  This advise is backed up by many other facialists, dermatologists and skin professionals.

When I look at the St Ives Apricot Scrub I see that it suggests using it 3-4 times a week, the Kylie Jenner product is apparently gentle enough to use every day or, as the pack suggests, 2-3 times a week.  I don’t know if the exfoliation rate is equivalent for these two products but having worked with Walnut exfoliant as an ingredient for many years it is unlikely to deviate much from the general shape, size and hardness typical of this ingredient.  What could vary is the dose,  the cushioning effect of the base and potentially the formula pH, perfume and preservative, all of which can contribute to the overall harshness or gentleness of a formulation.

Do we do what the packet says?

Looking back to my most addicted period I think I used the St Ives scrub 1-2 times a day in my bid to ‘clean my pores’.   Clearly it would be reasonable to expect a difference in results between people that over-use a product and those that follow the  normal/ recommended use pattern. That said, Amy was strongly of the opinion that 2-3 times a week would be too much, in general for skin to handle and I feel inclined to agree.  Maybe the days of exfoliating the shit out of our faces should be resigned to history, like the Spice Girls, Shell Suits and Cherry Coke…

So where does that leave nut-gate?

Ummmm, I think it is all a bit more nuanced than the good folks of the inter webs would like us to believe.  There is a clear ‘OMG NO, are you trying to kill us Kylie’ vibe going on online at the moment but maybe that’s all a smart publicity ploy, one never knows.

Traumatising the skin is a strategy that some cosmetic products and procedures use to their advantage so to single out walnut scrub as the worst thing to have ever happened to the skin is a bit silly really and does nothing to progress the conversation.  Micro tears are a type of trauma that a scrub could produce, but physical exfoliants won’t tear up your skin to any noticeable degree unless you scrub like a daemon, have skin that is already damaged or use the product in excess (and excess is going to differ for everyone) – all things being equal. If you are an abusive scrubber then you should not just be wary of walnut scrubs, you should be wary of any hard-particulate scrub agent that can generate sufficient friction.  There is nothing inherently worrying about walnut when compared to other natural exfoliants unless you are allergic to nuts and nut products.

I think the last word has to be to plead to our sense of balance.

If, like me, you like exfoliating scrubs then use them carefully, sparingly, gently and in a way that doesn’t damage your skin or spread infection.  I can see why the skin professionals hate them and I do agree that a gentle approach to skin care is most likely the best plan.

Most of us don’t know how to ‘do’ moderation but that’s not Kylie or the professionals fault, that’s ours.  That said, in telling us that she uses this product (which I haven’t tested) 2-3 times a week but that you COULD use it daily to achieve a skin like hers (which is kind of perfect) is somewhat irresponsible especially given that her audience is quite young, potentially acne prone and highly susceptible to celebrity marketing messages.

So should you keep your nuts off your face?


Amanda x









3 Comments leave one →
  1. Amanda permalink
    May 21, 2019 11:44 am

    Great article thanks. I’m guessing activated charcoal in a cleanser is considered abrasive also? My teenagers battle with blackheads and a few pimples so knowing what’s the best way to help them without setting them up for future damaged skin is hard. They already have some broken capillaries (genetic from me I believe) 😩

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      May 21, 2019 11:56 am

      Activated charcoal is super tiny, hard particles. If it isn’t abrasive to the touch, it won’t be in the same category as walnut exfoliant so may not be an issue. Typically activated charcoal is used as a drawing agent rather than exfoliant.



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