Why Citrus is a Terrible Exfoliator

Lemons — or one of their derivatives, vitamin C — can be great addition in many a skin care product. They can add a bright, fresh scent to your favorite cleanser, deliver vitamin C to your dull skin, and help exfoliate dead skin cells. Plus, they’re cheap — at less than $1 per lemon, rubbing a slice of lemon over your skin sounds like a cheap, easy way to get beautiful, glowing skin. But if you’re using lemon to fix hyperpigmentation on certain parts of your body — it’s a popular home remedy for freckles — you might be doing more harm than good.

If Your Skin is Dull, Lemon Just Might Fix That For You

Lemon can do a multitude of wondrous things for your skin. To start, one hundred grams of raw lemon, without peel, contains approximately 53mg of our favorite antioxidant, vitamin C, which can boost the effects of your sunscreen as well as scavenge free radicals formed as a result of UV exposure. And you’re not exactly wrong if you’re using lemon juice to lighten discolortion in your skin; vitamin C will reverse the process caused by o-DOPA QUINON that creates sunspots, helping to prevent future hyperpigmentation and fixing the dark spots you already have.

Lemon also contains about 7% to 10% citric acid (Patna University), which is an alpha-hydroxy acid similar to glycolic or lactic acids. Alpha-hydroxy acids can exfoliate dead skin cells to thin and smooth the stratum corneum (outermost layer of skin) to increase cellular turnover, stimulate collagen production, and increase skin flexibility (Skin Therapy Letter, Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin).

So at first, lemon juice sounds great for your skin. It’s going to brighten and tighten, and what better way to get rid of those dark spots than a cheap, at-home remedy?

But Lemons Sound Great for My Skin, So What’s the Problem?


While lemon juice can brighten your skin, it doesn’t come without some damage. First and foremost, lemon juice is a known irritant that can cause contact dermatitis, even in small amounts (International Journal of Molecular Science, Contact Dermatitis). Additionally, because it’s an alpha-hydroxy acid, it also is a known photosensitizer, making your skin more susceptible to sun damage and other signs of aging when you’re exposed to UV rays (University of Maryland Medical Center, JAAD). That means you could actually make dark spots worse!

Next, let’s focus on the pH level of lemon juice — a nice, low pH of 2. Your skin is slightly acidic as it has a pH ranting from 4.5-6.5, making lemon juice much more acidic than your skin. A mild acidic product would actually soothe your skin, helping it to retain moisture by strengthening the skin barrier. But since lemon juice has a much lower pH level, it’s going to irritate and damage your skin over time.

Additionally, according to Dr. Hanan Taha, M.D., because lemons contain about 80% water, they will dry out your skin. If you’re applying water without an occlusive moisturizer, like glycerin, the water in your skin, plus the water you’ve already applied, will evaporate together, leaving your skin even drier than before.

In Summary

In moderation, lemon juice will provide your skin with many benefits, helping to exfoliate and brighten your skin. The trick is, you’ve got to wash it off or use it in professionally formulated products. Applying straight lemon juice to your skin will cause irritation and photosensitivity, damaging your skin over time. The products in stores that contain lemon juice are specifically formulated to minimize the potential damage and irritation caused by citric acid and are best used by following the directions. If you’re taking your dark spot correcting into your own hands, you could end up results you never intended to get: irritation, dry skin, and accelerated sun damage (which would actually make sun spots worse).

For a safer, more effective way to lighten your skin, try our ViaBuff Exfoliators! With four different levels for every skin type and concern, it’s a surefire way to get custom exfoliation for even the most dry of skin — without damaging citrus extracts.

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