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When it comes to establishing good skincare habits, cleansing correctly and using sunscreen daily are of utmost importance. But the unsung hero of any skincare routine just may be exfoliation. Why? While your skin does naturally shed dead surface cells, it can’t always get them all off. And that means that with time these dead cells can start to collect on the surface of your skin, ultimately increasing the likelihood of clogged pores and making your complexion appear dull and lackluster. Not to mention that they can also impede the penetration of any types of serums, moisturizers, or skincare products you’re using, ultimately making them less effective.
Exfoliators are generally split up into two categories; there are chemical exfoliants, which contain ingredients (usually acids or enzymes) that dissolve the glue that holds the dead skin cells together, and physical exfoliants, which use particles such as seeds, powders, or beads to mechanically slough off the dead skin. Both can be equally effective, and which one you choose ultimately comes down to a matter of personal preference.
While exfoliating regularly is a good thing, doing so too often can be detrimental, since it can potentially irritate your skin, especially if it’s on the sensitive side. Your best bet is to always follow the specific product directions.
Below, our picks of the top face exfoliators on the market.
Best Overall: Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment
Celebrity aesthetician Kate Somerville is responsible for the flawless complexions of some of Hollywood’s biggest A-listers, but if you (like most of us) can’t get in for one of her signature facials, you can still reap the benefits of her eponymous skincare line. This is her best-selling exfoliator; safe and effective for any and every skin type, it earns big points for packing a one-two exfoliating punch. A mix of lactic acid plus pineapple, papaya, and pumpkin enzymes work to dissolve dead skin, while also buffing away cells physically.
Pro tip: Use it while you’re in the shower since the steam can help loosen up any gunk and grime trapped in your pores and make this product even more effective.
Best Budget: Simple Smoothing Facial Scrub
On a budget? This face scrub is affordable and effective. It harnesses the exfoliator power of rice granules (no microbeads here) to buff away dead skin cells and leave your complexion looking—and feeling—smoother and brighter. Also nice: It contains skin-softening pro-vitamin B5 and nourishing vitamin E, but doesn’t contain any potentially irritating artificial perfumes or dyes.
Best Drugstore: L’Oréal Paris Pure Sugar Scrub Smooth & Glow
The beauty of using sugar as an exfoliant is that not only does it effectively slough off dead skin, it’s also hydrating (a good thing, since exfoliation, in theory, can dry out your skin). This wallet-friendly option blends together three different types of sugars, along with finely ground acai, to gently yet effectively exfoliate. The addition of grapeseed and monoi oils give your skin an extra dose of nutrients and hydration. Plus, it’s gentle enough to use on lips too, buffing away any pesky, dry flakes.
Read our full review of the entire Pure-Sugar Scrub range.
Best Chemical Exfoliant: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial
This is most definitely worthy of being called a facial since it does, in fact, leave your skin looking like you just got a professional treatment. Credit a combination of both alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy acids (glycolic, tartaric, lactic, citric, and salicylic) that both smooth your skin’s texture and help minimize the look of fine lines and wrinkles. Because the product is specially formulated to have a pH of 3.5, it’s extra effective without the risk of redness or sensitivity.
It also comes with a separate vial of the brand’s organic marula luxury face oil. Apply an even layer of the mask and leave it on for 20 minutes, then rinse off and apply a few drops of the oil for extra hydration and to help soothe skin. Do this once a week and your skin will feel, you guessed it, baby soft, and you’ll see why this product is so incredibly popular.
Check out other top exfoliators in our roundup of the best chemical peels you can use at home.
Best Hydrating: Neutrogena Hydro Boost Exfoliating Cleanser
In theory, exfoliating can leave your skin a little dry, which can be especially problematic if your complexion is already on the dry side to begin with. But that doesn’t mean you should skip this super important skincare step. The key is simply to find an exfoliant with added hydrating ingredients; this drugstore staple fits the bill.
The gel-to-cream uses glycolic and lactic acids, as well as papaya extract, to gently smooth skin, but is especially noteworthy for the addition of hyaluronic acid. One of the best hydrating ingredients out there, hyaluronic acid attracts water and traps it in the skin. This formula also doubles as a cleanser and is gentle enough for daily use, perfect for those who don’t want to deal with an extra step in their skincare routine.
Best Gentle: First Aid Beauty Skin Lab Resurfacing Liquid
Breaking news: Not all exfoliators are wash-offs. This leave-on leaves your complexion smoother, brighter, and more even, thanks to a combination of alpha hydroxy acids—glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and malic, all of which work synergistically for super effective exfoliation.
And yes, while acids may sound scary, especially for sensitive skin, these are gentle enough that they won’t cause irritation. Plus, this formula also contains the brand’s signature blend of hyaluronic acid, antioxidants, vitamin C, aloe, colloidal oatmeal, allantoins, and ceramides to help calm and soothe your skin. It’s so gentle that you can use it daily (before bedtime is a good time), and in a consumer study, a whopping 97% found it to be non-irritating.
Speaking of gentle, take a look at our guide to the best exfoliators for sensitive skin.
Best Natural: Elina Organics Organic Face Scrub
Celebrity aesthetician Elina Fedotova may be best known for her skin-changing facials, but she’s also a cosmetic chemist and has an extensive product line of both skincare and makeup. Her focus is entirely on holistic principles and natural, organic ingredients, which she sources from around the world. This skin slougher uses crushed walnuts to remove dead skin cells and unclog pores but also has hydrating rose hips, burdock root, honey, and green tea to keep your skin soft and ward off dryness.
Now that you have a face exfoliator picked out, browse our roundup of the best body scrubs to exfoliate the skin below your jaw.