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Cells on the outermost layer of your skin are constantly dying. Although it’s a natural process, they can build up on the surface of your skin, causing clogged pores and blemishes. Sounds gross, but don’t worry — there’s a fix.
Exfoliating helps remove dead cells from the surface of your skin, keeping your skin looking healthy and youthful. It does this by stimulating circulation, helping synthesize collagen, and promoting cell turnover. It also helps prevent breakouts, reduces pore size, and improves overall skin tone — a win-win.
Here are some of our top picks for all skin types.
How we chose
There are a ton of facial exfoliators out there, and few, if any, of these products are one-size-fits-all. On this list, we aimed to present a range of quality facial exfoliators at various price points, including choices for all needs and skin types.
The products that made it onto this list were chosen because they contain skin-friendly and environmentally responsible ingredients. They all come highly rated by customers in online reviews.
Facial exfoliators range widely in price. In general, the cost depends on the brand, type, and ingredients. Low-end exfoliators may be priced at as little as $10, while high-end products can cost upward of $100.
Our choices use the following pricing guide:
- $ = under $25
- $$ = $25–$50
- $$$ = over $50
Types of exfoliators
You’ll find both chemical and physical exfoliators on this list.
Chemical exfoliators use acids and enzymes to loosen and remove dead skin cells without any scrubbing. They penetrate deeply into the skin and often include active ingredients like alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and beta hydroxy acid (BHA).
Physical or manual exfoliators, on the other hand, use friction and small particles such as grains, seeds, or ground nut shells to dislodge dead skin cells.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), gentle chemical exfoliators are a better choice for people with sensitive, dry, or acne-prone skin. They’re also a good choice for people with darker skin tones, since harsher exfoliants may cause hyperpigmentation.
Those with oily skin may have more success with stronger chemical exfoliators or physical exfoliators. It’s always best to start with something lighter if you’re not sure how your skin will react, though.
Best all-around chemical exfoliator
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
The thousands of reviews of this product across various third-party sites are overwhelmingly positive. In fact, a number of customers go so far as to claim they can’t live without this exfoliant. According to the brand, it’s a “cult favorite.”
Suitable for all skin types, it’s a gentle chemical exfoliator that contains 2 percent BHA, more commonly known as salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is recommended by the AAD for the treatment of mild acne.
This product is meant to be left on the skin and can be applied up to twice daily — though some reviewers say it causes redness, peeling, and dryness when used too frequently.
You can feel good about Paula’s Choice Skincare, a company that’s upfront about the ingredients in their products and the science backing them. Their entire line is fragrance- and cruelty-free.
Best 2-in-1 product
OLEHENRIKSEN Transforming Walnut Scrub
A favorite at Sephora, this vegan two-in-one exfoliator and cleanser uses walnut shells to slough off dead skin. With ginseng and chamomile extracts, reviewers say it has a light scent that’s not overpowering.
This scrub is paraben-, sulfate-, and phthalate-free. However, it also contains benzyl alcohol, an ingredient that can irritate the skin, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit that analyzes ingredients in skin care products.
As with many physical exfoliators, this product may not be the best choice for sensitive skin. Other skin types should be fine with using it once or twice per week. You don’t need to apply a lot or use a lot of pressure to rub it in.
A word of caution: Walnut-based scrubs have sparked controversy in the past. St. Ives Apricot Scrub, which contains crushed walnut shell powder, was the subject of a 2017 lawsuit in which the plaintiffs claimed that it creates microscopic tears and clogs pores. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed over a lack of evidence.
ACURE Brightening Facial Scrub
Another ground walnut shell scrub, this physical exfoliator also contains sea kelp, French green clay, sage, and lemon peel for a mask-like feel. Many reviewers, including several with sensitive skin, claim it’s gentler than similar products on the market but still gives the impression of a deep clean.
They also mention the thick texture and dark color — you may have to rinse your sink or shower out carefully after use. The manufacturer suggests using it around three times per week.
ACURE’s products are vegan and cruelty-free. The brand is transparent about their ingredients, and they don’t use parabens, sulfates, mineral oil, or formaldehydes.
Best nighttime formula
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
This powerful chemical exfoliant contains a blend of AHAs, including glycolic, tartaric, lactic, and citric acids. It also contains 1 percent salicylic acid (BHA).
The vegan-friendly overnight formula is designed to target signs of aging, including wrinkles, fine lines, uneven skin tone, and age spots. It may also help reduce the appearance of pores and blackheads. It’s meant to be used alongside an oil, such as Drunk Elephant’s marula blend, for best results.
It takes part of its funky name from raspberry extracts, which may help protect skin cells from free radicals. It also contains horse chestnut extract, an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compound known to improve the appearance of capillaries.
Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a splurge, especially if you plan on using it every day. Some customers say they wish they could use it all the time, but they’re torn by the steep price tag.
Best for oily skin
Clinique Exfoliating Scrub
Formulated especially for oily and combination skin types, this water-based chemical exfoliant is beloved by Sephora customers, where it has a 4.7 out of 5 rating, and 98 percent of reviewers say they’d recommend it. It’s a gentle formula that leaves your skin feeling refreshed.
This exfoliant is reasonably priced compared to similar products on the market. Clinique is a well-established and trusted name in cosmetics, but what you might not know is that they use all vegan ingredients and a formula that’s free of fragrances, parabens, sulfates, phthalates, alcohol, gluten, and other potential allergens and irritants.
Best for men’s skin
Baxter of California Facial Scrub
Testosterone changes the look and feel of the skin, making it more susceptible to acne and irritation, while shaving can cause dry, itchy skin and ingrown hairs. This physical exfoliator from Baxter of California is formulated to address these particular issues. Its main exfoliating ingredients are ground walnut shell powder and cornmeal.
As with other walnut shell scrubs, it may be too abrasive for people with sensitive skin. Use a small amount once or twice per week after you wash your face and before shaving for best results. Be gentle when massaging it into your skin to reduce your risk of over-exfoliating.
This product contains soothing natural extracts such as almond, honey, and lavender, which also give it an earthy scent. Customers say it leaves their skin feeling soft, clean, and refreshed afterward.
Best for dry skin
SkinCeuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub
This physical gel scrub cleanses and smooths the skin with a naturally occurring soft sedimentary rock called diatomaceous earth. Although it’s described as mild, it’s not suitable for people with sensitive skin.
It also includes aloe vera, which adds moisture to the skin and is known to help with skin issues such as eczema and acne. It has a very mild, almost unnoticeable scent.
One of the cons is that this formula contains ethylparaben, butylparaben, isobutyl paraben, and propylparaben. Parabens are easily absorbed through the skin and can interfere with hormone-driven functions in the body, such as menstruation and reproduction.
Best for morning
Origins GinZing Refreshing Scrub Cleanser
For normal, combination, and oily skin, this microbead gel is best used in the morning to help your skin wake up for the day. Customers say it’s more of a cleanser than a hardcore exfoliant, making it gentle enough to use as part of their daily skincare routine.
Mint, citrus, and grapefruit extracts give it a punchy, invigorating scent. Skin-friendly ingredients include ginseng, an antioxidant that may help with conditions such as eczema, and caffeine from coffee beans, an ingredient that has been shown to have numerous benefits for skin.
Origins products are vegan, cruelty-free, and gluten-free. They’re known for their commitment to safe and natural ingredients and environmental causes.
Best anti-aging formula
DRMTLGY Microdermabrasion Scrub
This affordable facial scrub uses pumice stone granules to remove dead skin cells and improve tone and texture while reducing the appearance of pores. Reviewers say it’s gentler than other physical exfoliators since the pumice particles are very fine. Many mention improvements in the appearance of blemishes.
Other potent ingredients (and chemical exfoliators) include glycolic acid from sugarcane extracts and apple fruit extract, which contains AHAs. Green tea leaf extracts provide antioxidant action.
Free of parabens and gluten, it’s suitable for all skin types. It comes in a jar and is easy to apply and rinse off. The company suggests using it several times per week.
Best enzyme-based formula
Savor Beauty Pumpkin Enzyme Peel
This product harvests the power of pumpkins, along with lactic and gluconic acid, to gently exfoliate the skin. It also contains beta carotene, an antioxidant that promotes skin health and may reduce sun sensitivity.
With a goopy texture, it’s somewhere between a gel and a mask. The company recommends applying it with a brush and leaving it on the skin for a few minutes before rinsing.
It’s appropriate for all skin types, though the company warns against using it while pregnant. Reviewers say it looks and smells as yummy as a pumpkin spice latte, making it the perfect way to indulge in a bit of self-care.
Bluemercury M-61 PowerGlow Peel
A bestseller on both Bluemercury and third-party sites, this 1-minute exfoliating peel is applied to the face using a presoaked towelette. After waiting 1 minute, follow up with moisturizer — no rinsing is required.
Though this is called a “peel,” it doesn’t actually make your skin peel. The active ingredients are glycolic acid (AHA) and salicylic acid (BHA). Both ingredients can help even out skin tone and texture while also reducing pore size. Extracts such as bilberry provide antioxidant action, while the chamomile and lavender extracts give it a pleasant scent.
It’s vegan and cruelty-free. It doesn’t contain parabens, gluten, phthalates, sulfates, or synthetic dyes. Available in packs of 10, 30, or 60, it’s pricier than most tube and bottle formulas, but the wipe format is convenient for traveling and skin care on-the-go.
Best facial-style exfoliator
Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Pore Exfoliating Treatment
Formulated for all skin types, this best seller is a favorite among celebrities and beauty writers. Also known as the Hollywood 2-minute facial, it comes from well-established Los Angeles aesthetician Kate Somerville.
What makes this product unique is that it uses both physical and chemical exfoliators — including salicylic acid, lactic acid, silica, and plant enzymes — to do the job. It also contains a bevy of skin-friendly antioxidants, including aloe vera, honey, and vitamins A, C, and E.
It’s pricey but definitely more affordable than a facial at a salon. Users say it has an incredible smell and leaves their skin feeling cool and clean while also improving texture. Others warn that this isn’t a product for people with sensitive skin.
Cetaphil Extra Gentle Daily Scrub
This sensitive-skin formula is designed for everyday use. It both cleanses and exfoliates, using micro-fine granules to buff the skin. It also contains skin-nourishing compounds like vitamin B5 and vitamin E.
In the United States, this brand has long been backed by dermatologists. It has a reputation for gentle skin care products, and it doesn’t test on animals. However, this and other Cetaphil products contain a few ingredients that have been flagged as potentially risky by the EWG. These include sodium hydroxide, sodium benzoate, and phenoxyethanol. The scent is somewhat clinical.
How to shop
Start by identifying which skin issues you’re hoping to improve by exfoliating. Do you want to control acne? Improve your skin tone? Minimize pores? Reduce signs of aging? Most products target some — but not all — of these issues. Choose products that align most closely with your needs.
In addition, you can narrow down products by identifying whether they’re recommended for your skin type. It might also be helpful to look for reviews or recommendations from customers who have the same skin type as you.
In general, if you’re new to exfoliators, it’s best to start with a mild chemical exfoliator. That way, you can see how your skin reacts before you try something more potent. If you want to try a physical exfoliator, use gentle pressure.
Remember that it may not be possible to know what will work best on your skin until you try it.
Ingredients and values
If possible, check the product’s ingredients before you buy. It’s best to avoid products that contain potentially harmful or irritating ingredients like alcohol, sulfates, parabens, phthalates, and formaldehydes. The EWG provides a comprehensive list of ingredients to avoid.
In addition, be wary of claims that a product is “hypoallergenic,” “clean,” “organic,” or “all-natural.” These claims are often unverified.
Next, keep in mind your budget and values. For instance, is it important to you that the product be cruelty-free or vegan?
Considering all these factors, you should have a list of at least a few products that suit your needs, skin type, budget, and values.
Sometimes, finding the best product for you is a matter of trial and error. You should only try one new product at time to best monitor the results.
How to use
If you already use over-the-counter or skin care medications, such as retinol or benzoyl peroxide, consider talking to a dermatologist before adding an exfoliator to your skin care routine. These products can make your skin especially sensitive.
Before applying a new exfoliator to your face, test it on a patch of skin elsewhere on your body — like on the underside of your wrist. Wait 24 hours and see if you experience any redness or irritation. If you don’t experience a reaction, you’re likely good to go.
For best results, follow the instructions provided on the product label. Chemical exfoliators can usually be applied with a cotton pad or a cloth. Physical exfoliators can be applied with your fingertips. Rub them into your skin using a circular motion for around 30 seconds.
Some products are meant to stay on your face, while others should be washed off. If you’re using a wash-off product, rinse your face with lukewarm water and apply a moisturizer immediately to avoid drying out your skin.
How often should I exfoliate?
How often you should exfoliate depends on the product and your skin type. Some products are harsher and it’s enough to use them once or twice a week. Gentler products can be used on a daily basis.
According to the AAD, people with dry skin may need to exfoliate less frequently and people with oily skin may need to exfoliate more frequently.
If you notice skin redness or irritation, you may be over-exfoliating. Stop using the product and talk to a dermatologist about how frequently you should exfoliate.
Exfoliating on a regular basis helps to keep your skin looking healthy by removing dead skin cells that might otherwise clog your pores.
There are tons of quality exfoliators out there. Finding the right product for your skin type and budget can take a bit of time, but it’s worth it.