Are You Using the Right Exfoliator for Your Skin Type?

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Jonathan Storey

Fact: Whether you’re new to the world of scrubs or consider double cleansing your exfoliator of choice, you could be harming your skin if you’re not using the right type of skin-sloughing agent. What's more, over-exfoliating with any type of scrub can cause irritation, especially in those with sensitive skin to begin with. All that said, exfoliating is a key component in skincare routines, it just needs to be used properly. Beyond getting rid of pore-clogging sebum, dirt, and oil that tend to sit on the surface of the skin, exfoliating makes the skin appear clearer and smoother.

As with all skincare products, your skin type plays a role. The best exfoliator for combination skin is different from what'd be recommended for dry skin, sensitive skin, oily skin—you get the gist. So, to get all the details on the best exfoliators for each skin type (including where most of us are going wrong), we turned to the pros: dermatopathologist Vermén Verallo-Rowell and esthetician Rianna Loving.

Meet the Expert

The Best Exfoliating Methods for Your Skin Type
Michela Buttignol / BYRDIE

Read on to find the right exfoliant for your particular skin type, whether oily, dry, or acne-prone.

Oily Skin

The best exfoliator for oily skin is a physical exfoliator (think: a scrub or a cleansing device). “You can control them by using lighter pressure, finer grains, or lower settings as needed,” Verallo-Rowell says. It’s easy to go overboard with physical exfoliators, which is why Loving also prefers scrubs that are not too abrasive. She recommends choosing light granules—like jojoba beads—to avoid damaging the skin.

No matter your skin type, make sure to analyze the type of exfoliating beads that are in your product, as certain shapes can cause micro-tears in the skin and cause irritation.

Clarisonic Mia 2
Clarisonic Mia 2 $169
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The OG cleansing brush, this two-speed, deep-cleaning oscillating brush cleans six times better than hands alone, making it perfect for heavy makeup days.

Dry Skin

“Dry skin types can benefit from exfoliators that remove dead, dull skin but also provide hydration,” Loving says. Try something with the finest grains in a creamy, lotion texture, one that contains moisturizing oils, or one that’s honey-based. “Scrubs that contain honey are perfect not only to exfoliate but to moisturize as well."

VMV Hypoallergenics Moisture Rich Mild-Mannered Cleansing Scrub
VMV Hypoallergenics Moisture Rich Mild-Mannered Cleansing Scrub $26
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This cleansing scrub features finely-milled pumice grains (to slough away dead skin) along with real coconut oil (to nourish and act as a lipid barrier to lock in moisture).

Combination Skin (Normal to Dry)

If your combination skin is more on the normal-to-dry side, you've got options. “You’re lucky enough to be able to use any exfoliator of your choice,” Verallo-Rowell says. Since your skin type is less sensitive to exfoliation and you don't have acne lesions to worry about, Verallo-Rowell recommends bumping up the exfoliating power with a medium-grade scrubbing particle.

Fresh Sugar Face Polish
Fresh Sugar Face Polish $25
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With an ingredient list that almost sounds good enough to eat, this scrub is made with pure brown sugar and real strawberries (vitamin C) to effectively buff and brighten.

Combination Skin (Normal to Oily)

Combination skin that’s normal to oily has the option to stick with a physical exfoliator or try a light chemical exfoliator. If your main concern is your oiliness, opt for a cleanser with alpha hydroxy acid (or AHA). “Using cleansers with AHA will gently exfoliate and prevent pores from getting clogged with oil and dead skin cells,” Loving says.

Pixi Glow Peel Advanced Exfoliating Pads
Pixi Glow Peel Advanced Exfoliating Pads $22
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These peel pads are made with 20% glycolic to resurface the skin for a serious glow and rose water to help hydrate and soothe.

Acne-Prone Skin

“Acne lesions are inflamed, so they need extra care to minimize further irritation,” Verallo-Rowell says. Avoid abrasive physical exfoliators with harsh grains, sugar, or salt, as well as facial brushes as much as possible. “If you have breakouts, use a chemical exfoliator to fight oil and acne from a deeper level in the skin,” says Loving. “AHA and BHA acids (like salicylic, lactic, and glycolic) will be most effective. These will not only fight oil and remove pore-clogging dead skin cells but also improve skin's texture and repair acne scars.” Also, if you have a serious skin condition or are sporting severely sensitive skin, consult your doctor for the best exfoliator for your skin.

Cutout Mermaid Gown
Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser $16
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This acid-based cleanser is designed to dissolve dead skin cells with extracts of chamomile, yarrow, sage, and St.-John's-wort. It can be a bit drying, so only use up to three times a week.

Mature Skin

Older skin tends to be sensitive and dry, but Verallo-Rowell says it still should be exfoliated in order to increase cellular renewal and allow active ingredients to penetrate the skin. Try a physical exfoliator with super-fine particles (like a microdermabrasion scrub) and aim to work in chemical exfoliation as well. “Chemical exfoliators can penetrate skin deeper to improve the appearance of fine lines,” Loving says. Products that pack a combination of AHA and BHA acids will be your best bet.

Derma E Microdermabrasion Scrub
Derma E Microdermabrasion Scrub $30
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This Dead Sea salt-infused scrub just needs water to reveal fresh skin cells and slough away dullness.

Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin types should avoid chemical exfoliation as well as most physical exfoliators. Loving says that light powders, like rice and oatmeal, are the safest option. Verallo-Rowell also points out that if you have truly sensitive skin due to a medical condition, you should skip the scrubbing all together. Consult your doctor if you're battling sensitive skin.

SW Basics Exfoliant Face Scrub
SW Basics Exfoliant Face Scrub $19
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This dry mix of gentle oat flour and almond flour works as a soft exfoliant—it's the bit of sea salt that does the heavy lifting. Mix with water to create a bespoke cleanser. (PSA: If the salt gets to be too rough, consider grinding up your own oat flour mixture with steel-cut oats at home).

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