Considering the recent press surrounding sugar’s addictive and waistline- expanding properties, it may seem counterintuitive, but sucrose is a bona fide beauty heavyweight. When used in skincare treatments, it packs a serious punch instead of packing on the pounds. This organic compound exfoliates without clogging pores and inherently retains liquid, according to Heather Lindbergh, Epicuren’s director of media and public relations. “As a natural humectant, sugar draws in moisture, keeping the skin hydrated and supple,” she says. “Nature’s troublemaker is also a natural glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that sloughs off dry, lifeless skin cells, promoting cellular turnover to generate more youthful-looking skin.”
According to Paul Heslop, owner of Salt of the Earth, natural glycolic acid not only conditions and moisturizes but also protects skin from toxins, helping to eliminate blemishes and restore the natural balance of surface oils. “As we get older, our cell renewal rate slows,” he says. “Glycolic acid breaks apart the ‘glue’ that holds dead skin cells together and helps them desquamate faster. It also helps with fine lines, wrinkles, and acne.” Sugar features prominently in the company’s line of scrubs, custom-blended for each of its 500-plus clients, and in its Blend Bar Mix Stations.
Sweet Scrubbing Action
A high-demand face and body treatment staple, white sugar is often used as a gentle alternative to coarser salt-based scrubs. At The Spa at Pelican Hill (CA), the California Sugar Glow treatment (starting at $130, 50 minutes) uses the spa’s signature California Sugar Scrub, a natural product that blends pure cane sugar with plant extracts, to gently buff and nourish the skin.
Salt of the Earth’s Sugar Glow Hand & Body Scrub, a simple yet effective combination of cane sugar, essential oils, and vitamin E, also takes advantage of sugar’s exfoliation benefits. “Our Sugar Glow helps create the perfect mani-pedi and body treatment,” Heslop says. “It’s a mild exfoliation, so if guests have just shaved their legs or have any cuts or abrasions, it won’t sting at all.”
Brown sugar is an even milder option. It has a higher molasses content than refined white sugar, so it’s more hydrating and easier on sensitive skin, according to Stephanie Phelan, spa director at The Spa at El Encanto (Santa Barbara, CA). Brown sugar also offers a “better glide for the scrub and adds a pleasant aroma to the treatment,” says Phelan. El Encanto’s Pinot and Cabernet Crush Sugar Scrub ($160, 50 minutes) relies on a mix of the two sugars, though organic brown sugar features more prominently than its organic white counterpart.
When it comes to selecting a sugar, “less coarse granules will prevent micro-tearing of the skin,” says Lindbergh. “The granular structure of brown sugar is finer than that of white sugar and also has water in its makeup, which delivers moisture to the skin.” It plays a key role in Epicuren’s Cinnamon Vanilla Brown Sugar Scrub used in the Vanilla Bean Latte Scrub, Tub & Rub Sampler ($150, 60 minutes) at Auberge Spa at The Inn at Palmetto Bluff (SC). “We will always have a sugar-based scrub available on the menu,” says Angela Comfort, lead spa therapist at Auberge. “Not everyone can tolerate a salt.”
For FarmHouse Fresh president and founder Shannon McLinden, the choice between exfoliating agents comes down to the desired texture of each product. “Our signature sea-salt scrubs are fabulous for removing calluses from feet and keeping cracked heels at bay,” she says. “Brown sugar brings a warm scent to our more wintery creations, and it dissolves easily on the skin. We use white sugar in our thicker cream-based scrubs—the grain is a bit smoother to the touch.”
Éminence Organic Skin Care uses organic raw sugar for its products, says Boldijarre Koronczay, the company’s president and founder. “The sugarcane is grown without any synthetic pesticides or herbicides, thus offering a green alternative benefit for the skin and the environment,” he says. Sugar is the basis of many of the company’s hydrating and repairing concoctions, such as the Éminence Cranberry Pomegranate Sugar Scrub. A vitamin-drenched body scrub, it teams raw sugarcane granules with the titular antioxidant powerhouses to protect and balance the skin.
It should come as no surprise that sugar goes well with fruit—this versatile ingredient complements anything that could be found in a baked good or a cocktail. FarmHouse Fresh’s gingersnap-pecan-scented Bourbon Bubbler Brown Sugar Scrub is a key element in the Gingersnap Manicure ($45, 50 minutes) and Pedicure ($65, 50 minutes) at The Woodhouse Day Spa (multiple locations), while a Chardonnay sugar scrub from Olavie is one of the most popular exfoliants at The Spa at the Broadmoor (Colorado Springs, CO). “The sugar is so refined that it melts into the skin after exfoliating and does not leave any small cuts or abrasions like other scrubs can,” says spa director Cassie Hernandez.
Not just for the holidays, sweet treatments are a year-round favorite. Says McLinden, “Sugar-based scrubs are always in demand. They cause less irritation on fresh-shaved skin, so they are preferred—especially in the summer in pedis.” Phelan concurs that sugar scrubs are popular in the summer, citing guests’ overexposure to the sun. “They want a more gentle exfoliation,” she says. Nicole De Rosa, spa director at Relâche Spa at Gaylord National Resort (National Harbor, MD), takes the opposite view. “Our guests always love sugar-based treatments, but they are great for the winter because the skin is drier from the weather and in need of nourishment.”
Sugaring, in which a paste made of sugar, lemon, and water is used to remove unwanted hair, is perhaps the most radical use of sucrose as an exfoliant. According to Paola Girotti, owner of body-sugaring boutique Sugarmoon (multiple locations), the mixture is applied against hair growth. Unlike waxing, hair is then removed in its natural direction, which helps eliminate breakage. “Sugar is gentle for all skin types,” Girotti says. “It is antibacterial, but, moreover, it does not stick to the skin. It sticks to dead skin cells and hair only, leaving the live cells intact.”
Though sugar is most commonly found in exfoliants, it’s a surprise element in many other beauty products as well. Jurlique relies on several types of sugar-based ingredients, and “deciding which ones to use all depends on the type of formulation, its unique performance attributes, and its end function within the product,” says Richard Pietz, global director of product development. “Sugar is a renewable resource and has various functions that are great for skin. New science technology over the years has given rise to new skin benefits that come from sugar molecules.” Mannitol, a fermented corn sugar that acts as a solvent, is used in the company’s Herbal Recovery Antioxidant Gel Mask; sclerotium gum, another fermented sugar, gives the skin a velvety texture and features in the Purely Age-Defying Hand Treatment. Biosaccharide gum-1, polysaccharides derived from plant sugars, provides moisture in formulas such as the line’s new Calendula Redness Rescue serum.
On the makeup front, GloMinerals’s Jeweled Eye Pencils use sugar because its “skin-conditioning properties give that smooth, even application,” says product manager Anna De La Cruz. In the Sugar&Butter Lip Exfoliator/Plumper from Jane Iredale—The Skincare Makeup, organic brown sugar is used to gently remove dull, dry skin. “No chemical preservatives or synthetic dyes are used, so you can actually eat the sugar crystals right off of your lips,” says Tricia Campbell, director of education. Perennially popular, versatile, and safe for all skin types, with a multitude of natural benefits, sugar has earned its place on the spa menu— cavities not included.—Maya Stanton