20 Face Exfoliators That Are Your Golden Ticket to Smoother Skin

Whether you consider yourself skincare-savvy or a novice at best, you’ve probably heard the term “exfoliator” dozens of times. You may have come across an exfoliating routine on your FYP, maybe as a suggestion from your dermatologist, or even labeled on some of your favorite skincare products. No matter where and when you first heard […]

Whether you consider yourself skincare-savvy or a novice at best, you’ve probably heard the term “exfoliator” dozens of times. You may have come across an exfoliating routine on your FYP, maybe as a suggestion from your dermatologist, or even labeled on some of your favorite skincare products. No matter where and when you first heard about them, we’re here to tell you that the hype is real: exfoliators truly are the golden ticket to glowing skin. Figuring out the proper exfoliation routine to help you get there, however, requires a delicate balance of methods and products because there are a slew of exfoliator facial cleansers, serums, and treatments to choose from.

Here, we spoke with three experts about why you need a facial exfoliator, the different types of exfoliators, and how often to incorporate them into your regimen. We’re also sharing our top 20 best exfoliators to help you kickstart your path to smoother skin. 

Our top 20 exfoliators, at a glance:

Why you need an exfoliator

Exfoliation removes the outermost layers of the epidermis to reveal new skin beneath, according to Dr. King. “This shedding of the outer layer unclogs pores, removes dead skin cells, and helps reduce acne breakouts. It also smooths and polishes the skin, decreasing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and evening out the texture,” she says. 

Regular exfoliation is necessary because, over time, it can increase cell turnover and stimulate collagen production, making your skin feel smoother—it can also encourage a healthier skin barrier, preventing breakouts, redness, and inflammation altogether. “Exfoliation may also facilitate enhanced absorption of active ingredient-containing skincare products and improve the penetration of laser treatments,” says dermatologist Dr. Rambhia.

What are the different types of exfoliators?

There are two types of exfoliators: physical and chemical. “Chemical exfoliants include alpha-hydroxy or beta-hydroxy acids, like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, fruit enzymes, citric acid, malic acid, etc., which may be applied in high concentrations by a dermatologist, or in lower concentrations in over-the-counter products,” says Dr. King. These acids act as ‘bond breakers’ and dissolve the glue-like substance that holds dull, dead cells to the skin’s surface. 

Chemical exfoliators are generally tolerated among most skin types, and exfoliating ingredients like lactic acid (AHA) and poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs) are known to be a little gentler on the skin. “Poly-hydroxy acid molecules are larger and cannot penetrate as deeply. This ensures that they work on the skin’s surface without affecting the layers underneath, making them less irritating,” Dr. King adds. PHAs are a great exfoliating option for those with sensitive skin types and remain effective for minimizing the appearance of discoloration, fine lines, and dullness.

Physical or mechanical exfoliators, on the other hand, involve physically scrubbing the skin with an abrasive ingredient to slough off the dead cells. Physical exfoliant formulas can include micro-beads, crushed seeds, kernels, shells, microcrystalline, sugar, salt, or pumice. “Physical exfoliating can also include microdermabrasion and mechanical brushes,” says Dr. Hassanali. “Physical exfoliators typically provide more immediate smoothness but can often be too harsh for sensitive or acne-prone skin.” Regarding using exfoliating scrubs, Dr. King recommends using products with small, fine particles. “Large, more abrasive particles can leave many tiny micro-tears and cause irritation,” she says.

And she’s right—the potential risk of damage from physical exfoliation can lead to irritation, inflammation, and, in some cases, infection. Because of this, when physically exfoliating, it’s important to use very gentle pressure during application.

What skin concerns do exfoliators address?

According to Dr. Rambhia, exfoliation can effectively address skin concerns such as uneven and dull skin tone, fine lines, and textural irregularities, improving the appearance of pores and acne. “Exfoliating the skin offers numerous benefits, including helping to unclog pores, fostering smoother and softer skin for improved texture, and elevating overall skin radiance,” she says. 

How often should you exfoliate?

When it comes to how often you should exfoliate, it all depends on your skin type. For drier, more sensitive skin types, Dr. Rambhia recommends using a mild chemical exfoliator no more than twice weekly. Oilier skin types can exfoliate three to four times weekly. However, it’s always important to start slowly when first incorporating exfoliators into your skincare regimen before ramping up use to multiple times per week,” she says.

According to experts, it is possible to over-exfoliate the skin. “If you notice any signs of irritation such as redness, flaking, or severe dryness, decrease the frequency or switch to a more gentle exfoliant,” says Hassanali. This is also why it’s recommended to use exfoliating formulas with a moisturizing base. Dr. King says to look for exfoliators that contain humectants like glycerin or hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin, emollients like triglycerides or ceramides to support the skin barrier, or occlusives like petrolatum to lock in moisture. Niacinamide, allantoin, and aloe vera are also great soothing ingredients for an exfoliating product. If you have certain conditions, like rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis, consult with your dermatology provider first, says Hassanali, as exfoliation can exacerbate these conditions. 

As for post-exfoliant care, avoid applying any potential skin irritants immediately after or for the rest of the day (e.g., no retinoids). It’s also a must to avoid sun exposure, and if you’re going to be exposed, apply a generous amount of sunscreen at the end of your skincare routine. “This approach helps maintain a balanced and optimized skincare regimen while minimizing the potential for adverse reactions,” says Dr. Rambhia.

Best toner: Farmacy, Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleaning Toner with Moringa + Papaya — $34.00

Key ingredients: salicylic acid, papaya enzymes

Incorporating an exfoliating toner into your routine is a must if you want to address dark spots, fine lines, or acne scars. We love this exfoliating pick that has 2% salicylic acid plus papaya enzymes to gently exfoliate and improve the appearance of dull skin and splotchy areas. It’s also an excellent mattifier, so oily skin will drink this right up.

Size: 4 fl oz

Best powder cleanser: Kiehl’s, Rare Earth Deep Pore-Minimizing & Polishing Powder Cleanser — $38.00

Key ingredients: Amazonian white clay, microcrystalline grains, AHA

Powder cleansers might not be the most user-friendly exfoliants out there, but hear us out: this pore-minimizing pick makes it worth the extra step. It contains Amazonian white clay and microcrystalline grains to exfoliate and suck up congested blackheads and pimples, plus AHA to clarify skin texture and tone.

Size: 3.5 fl oz

Best splurge: La Mer, the Resurfacing Treatment

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