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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 might be exfoliation. Why? While your skin does naturally shed dead cells, it can’t always get them all off. This natural process also slows over time (joy).
“As we age, dead skin cells take longer to shed from the surface of the skin,” explains dermatologist Dr. Emily Arch. That may not sound like a huge deal, but let those dead cells sit and accumulate for long enough and you can end up with a long list of complexion concerns—dullness, clogged pores, more noticeable fine lines, and flaky patches specifically, Dr. Arch says. Not to mention that this can also make it much harder for all of your skincare products to penetrate, ultimately rendering them less effective. The bottom line: “Proper use of exfoliants ideally creates a smoother, brighter complexion and allows skincare product and makeup application to be more effective and even,” Dr. Arch explains.
So, how to choose a face exfoliator? They’re generally split 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 it comes down largely to a matter of both personal preference and skin type.
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.
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 Mask: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial 25% AHA + 2% BHA Mask
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. (Who says exfoliation can’t make for a nice moment of self-care?) Do this once a week, and your skin will feel, you guessed it, baby soft, and you’ll see why this product is so top-rated.
Best Organic: Golde Papaya Bright Face Mask
When we say get your fruits and veggies, we're talking about this brightening face mask. It's made entirely of organic edible superfoods that go from a powder to a gel when activated with water to gently exfoliate your skin. Users notice a smoother, brighter complexion right away, plus it smells like a tropical vacation.
Best Splurge: Tata Harper Regenerating Exfoliating Cleanser
A little bit of this guy—which is gentle enough that you can use it daily—goes a long way. Two different forms of exfoliation give you the ultimate bang for your buck. Apricot seed powder polishes skin to perfection, while pomegranate enzymes dissolve dead, dry skin. At the same time, willow bark and French clay help pull out and purify pores, making this an especially great pick for anyone prone to blackheads. The formula is also super clean, free of a long list of questionable chemicals, and using many ingredients from organic farming.
Best Drugstore: Neutrogena Hydro Boost Exfoliating Cleanser
Lactic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that works to exfoliate the skin. Its molecule is slightly larger than glycolic acid, meaning it works a bit slower and doesn't penetrate the skin's outermost layer as easily.
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.
If your skin tends to be drier or more easily irritated, using gentle chemical exfoliants is less likely to irritate, says Dr. Arch.
Best Scrub: SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub
When you really want to get that satisfying, scrub-y feel, this can’t be beaten. There are no jagged or harsh particles here that can wreak havoc on your skin; just microbeads made from diatomaceous earth (essentially, clay) that evenly slough, without ever irritating. Bonus points for the addition of soothing aloe.
Runner-Up, Best Scrub: TULA Skincare So Polished Exfoliating Sugar Scrub
There are so many physical exfoliators on the market to navigate, but this heavenly formula stands out from the bunch. It packs on the power that you expect in a scrub with the gentleness of natural ingredients. Since sugar is water-soluble, it dissolves as you go to prevent the harsh results of over-exfoliating. This product is also full of probiotics that protect your skin's natural barrier and lock in hydration.
Best Chemical Exfoliant: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
This leave-on exfoliant (the brand’s number one product worldwide, NBD) touts salicylic acid. A beta-hydroxy acid, sal acid is great at gently exfoliating and unclogging pores by dissolving the oil and other gunk and grime that can get lodged in there. Also nice: It’s a leave-on formula, so all you have to do is swipe it on and go. Try using it on areas on your body prone to breakouts too, think your back or chest.
Best Pads: Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
For those looking for a method of exfoliation that’s easier and more convenient than ever, pads can’t be beaten. All you have to do is swipe and go, no water required. Among the many versions out there now, these remain our perennial fave. The two-step system features pads that are pre-dosed with a blend of five different exfoliating acids, followed by a retinol and resveratrol (a potent antioxidant) formula for added anti-aging benefits.
Best Overnight: Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment
Yes, in theory, it takes time to see lasting results from skincare products, but devoted fans of this leave-on exfoliant say they see the effects after just one night. Lactic acid does the exfoliating duties, though it also contains brightening ingredients such as licorice and lemongrass, perfect for anyone dealing with dark spots. Apply a thin layer at bedtime and be prepared to be amazed when you look in the mirror come morning.
Best Cleanser: Reflekt Skincare Daily Exfoliating Face Wash
Skincare minimalists (or just the lazy girls among us) should opt for an exfoliating cleanser to combine two essential steps in one. Enter this pick, a favorite of Byrdie editorial director Faith Xue, that’s so gentle it can be used twice daily. Jojoba esters are the star of the sloughing show, lightly buffing off dead cells, and the wash is also packed with hydrating hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and panthenol to help ward off dryness.
Best Tool: Dermaflash Luxe Anti-Aging Dermaplaning Exfoliation Device
The tech-savvy set will appreciate this multi-tasking, battery-powered tool, though anyone who appreciates instant gratification will appreciate the results. Pop in a single-use edge (kind of like an ultra-, ultra-thin blade) and glide it gently across your skin. In a few seconds it takes off not only fine peach fuzz but also built-up dead, dry skin cells with it; you can actually see them on the edge after, equally gross and satisfying. We promise you it’s much easier to do than it sounds, and that your complexion will feel insanely soft and smooth afterward.
Best Weekly: Glytone Rejuvenating Mini Peel Gel
“Chemical exfoliation with alpha-hydroxy acids offers additional benefits beyond helping to slough off dead skin cells. They can brighten skin tone, decrease the appearance of fine lines, and help with acne,” says Dr. Arch. She especially likes this glycolic acid-based gel, meant to be left on for up to 10 minutes, once a week, then rinsed off with warm water. “I use it once a week for a deeper at-home chemical exfoliation to help with fine lines and pigmentation,” she says.
Best for Brightening: HoliFrog Como Popp-E Renewal Scrubby Wash
By definition, regular exfoliation can help leave your complexion brighter and glowier, though this newbie takes it one step further. Yes, it checks the requisite exfoliation boxes, thanks to a combo of both poppy seeds and bamboo stem powder for physical sloughing. But it also delivers a big dose of protective vitamin C and astaxanthin (a mega-antioxidant that’s 550 times more powerful than vitamin E), which both ward off future damage and help brighten skin over time, too. We also love the innovative oil-gel texture, which transforms into more milk when mixed with water.
Best for Mature Skin: Biossance Squalane + Glycolic Renewal Facial
Among all the exfoliating acids out there, glycolic earns top marks when you also want to score an anti-aging boost; not only is it a great exfoliator, it can also help stimulate the production of collagen. In this mask, it’s combined with three other alpha-hydroxy acids for extra brightening effects, plus hydrating squalane and hyaluronic acid to give more mature skin the extra dose of moisture it so often needs.
Best for Sensitive Skin: The Inkey List PHA Gentle Exfoliating Toner
PHAs (poly-hydroxy acids) fall under the AHA family. They are much larger in size compared to the more common AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid. They're used commonly for their exfoliating, skin smoothing, moisturizing, and anti-aging benefits.
You’ve heard of AHAs and BHAs, but what about PHAs? Poly-hydroxy acids are also exfoliating acids that work by dissolving dead, dry, dull skin. The difference: Because they’re slightly larger molecules, they don’t penetrate as deep, making them notably gentler and a great option for those whose skin is easily irritated. In this leave-on toner, they’re also combined with soothing aloe and redness-reducing niacinamide, both choice ingredients for the sensitive set.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Alba Botanica Acnedote Deep Pore Wash
You can’t scrub away acne, and you definitely want to careful to not over-exfoliate acneic skin. That being said, you should be using salicylic acid regularly to help unclog clogged pores (and prevent new clogged pores from forming). This exfoliating face wash touts a 2% concentration of sal acid and also has the added benefit of working well on both face and body…since we all know that bacne is a very real thing.
Best Natural: Elina Organics Skincare 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 scrub 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.
Best Gel: Beauty Strike Pineapple & Papaya Exfoliating Mask
This gentle exfoliating mask will make you feel like you're doing this whole adult thing right. Taking care of your skin while being good to the planet and supporting a small business? You're on the right path! The formula is loaded with enzyme-rich papaya and pineapple that naturally work to slough away dead skin cells without irritating. The results are hydrated skin that looks noticeably brighter.
Best Powder: Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant
There are many things we like about this formula. One, it’s gentle enough that you can use it daily, though effective enough that it also works well as a once or twice weekly add-on to your standard skincare routine. Two, it delivers a combination of both physical and chemical exfoliation, thanks to rice powder and papaya enzymes, respectively. And three, because it’s a spill-proof powder, it’s the ideal exfoliator to take with you when you travel.
Best For Men: Bevel Exfoliating Toner
We know, we know — your guy can use your exfoliator and be just fine, but since he won't, try introducing him to this non-abrasive exfoliating toner. It uses a signature blend of lavender, green tea, and glycolic acid for a deep clean that gets rid of dead skin cells and prevents ingrown hairs. This is a tried and true product for anyone with textured hair that shaves their face.
It’s always best to ease into exfoliation, making it a part of your skincare routine once or twice weekly at first, and giving your complexion some time to acclimate before increasing the frequency, says Dr. Arch.
Exfoliating is one step of your skincare routine you should definitely not skip. The Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment is an oldie but goodie, a classic product that relies on both chemical and physical exfoliants. For skincare minimalists looking to combine cleansing and exfoliating in one easy step, the Reflekt Skincare Daily Exfoliating Facial Wash is a Byrdie favorite, highly effective yet gentle enough to be used twice daily. On the flip side, if you’re looking for a more intense, weekly option, try the Glytone Rejuvenating Mini Peel Gel or the Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial, a cult classic that’s well-deserving of all the hype. And yes, you can exfoliate even if you have sensitive skin. The key is choosing a product that relies on ultra-gentle polyhydroxy acids, or PHAs, like the Inkey List PHA Gentle Exfoliating Toner.
What to Look For In a Face Exfoliator
These work by dissolving the “glue” that keeps dead skin cells stuck together and on the surface of the skin, allowing them to slough off. Alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic, lactic) are most commonly used; fruit enzymes are also popular. Since many of these do more than just exfoliate, it’s a nice way to get an added bang for your buck.
Mechanical exfoliants work by physically buffing or scrubbing off the dead cells. Certain options—think certain seeds and shell particles—can be unevenly shaped and with jagged edges that can be damaging to your skin. Instead look for gentle particles that are all evenly-shaped, like jojoba beads, rice powder, or bamboo powder.
Why Trust Us?
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. While there was a time where she admittedly was a little bit of an exfoliation slacker, she now exfoliates regularly—rotating between many of the products on this list.
Meet the Expert
Emily L. Arch, MD, is a Chicago-based dermatologist specializing in general and medical dermatology. She’s well-versed in all kinds of skincare ingredients, products, and formulations, including, exfoliators.