The Best Exfoliants to Use in Your Daily Routine — and What to Avoid
Exfoliants may not be the most glamorous or enjoyable skincare product on your shelf, but they're likely the most important. And thanks to an influx of new technology and formulations, the variety of new products available on the market lets you achieve a fresh, smooth complexion without turning your skin beet red.
But how exactly does exfoliation work?
“Exfoliating will remove any dead skin cells or buildup on the skin," says NYC-based dermatologist and dermatologic cosmetic surgeon Howard Sobel. "Even on days where you don’t apply any products to your face, sweat, oils, and dirt in the atmosphere can stick to our skin and clog our pores, making it really important to thoroughly cleanse and exfoliate daily. This will provide you with a healthy, clean and fresh base each day.”
The benefits of daily exfoliation are pretty much endless, but with so many options, choosing the facial exfoliator that’s right for you isn't necessarily easy.
That's why we've tapped top dermatologists for their insight on the latest innovations for every skin type, so you can unlock your smoothest, brightest skin yet.
Should I Be Exfoliating Daily?
If your skin is generally healthy and not irritated, the answer is yes.
In our 20s, dead skin cells turnover every 28 days, but as we age, the shedding process slows way down to 40, 60 or even 80 days, explains Dallas-based dermatologist Elizabeth Bahar Houshmand. The result? Dull, discolored skin, clogged pores, and an overall blah skin tone.
Even worse, without exfoliating daily, this layer of buildup on the face prevents other skincare products, like serums or oils, from effectively penetrating the surface. "When this layer is removed and pores are unclogged, you can get the full benefits of the products,” says Sobel.
What Are My Options When It Comes to Exfoliants?
There are two kinds of exfoliators: physical and chemical. A physical exfoliant is usually called a “scrub” because it contains granules, large or small, and is used by scrubbing the product on the skin. Physical exfoliants have a reputation of being a bit harsh, as they can easily cause irritation or skin breakage if you’re rubbing into skin with abandon. But as long as you’re buffing skin gently, they can effectively improve skin texture.
A chemical exfoliant relies on acids or enzymes to break down the dead skin on the skin’s surface and are applied to skin by saturating a cotton pad, swiping across your face, and rinsing off after a few minutes.
Which Ingredients Should I Be Mindful Of?
Exfoliants formulated with ingredients glycolic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid are all great. "They work by breaking down the buildup and they don’t have to be rubbed in or left on for a long time," explains Sobel.
He adds that with these ingredients, most people will see visible results after just a few uses.
Any Cons to Exfoliation?
There aren’t many detriments to exfoliation per se, says Bahar Houshmand. However, how you use the products and making sure to match a product to your specific skin type is what matters most.
“Don't switch from one kind of exfoliant to another or use one active exfoliant one night and a different active the next night,” she cautions. “You may cause irritation and damage to your skin barrier, drying it out, and causing redness, flakes, itchiness, breakouts, premature fine lines, and excess oil production.”
The Best Exfoliators for Sensitive Skin
Many people believe that sensitive skin should not be exfoliated, says Sobel, but it absolutely should be incorporated into a skincare routine. Regular exfoliation will help to remove the dead skin to help brighten and re-texturize the skin, as well as help with product absorption.
“Those with sensitive skin should use a gentle exfoliant, such as a product that is formulated with gluconolactone,” Sobel explains. “This is a much gentler ingredient than the more well-known AHA’s, yet can still thoroughly exfoliate the skin.”
He recommends the Exuviance Age Reverse BioActiv Wash to his clients with sensitive skin to use as a daily cleanser that works to clear and smooth skin without causing redness or irritation.
To shop: $38; dermstore.com
If you’re looking to ease your sensitive skin into new exfoliating territory, Bahar Houshmand recommends starting off with a mild exfoliant, like the lactic acid-based Isdinceutics Melaclear Serum Lactic acid “tends to be the gentlest of the alpha hydroxy acids, which exfoliate the surface of your skin by drawing in moisture while keeping skin hydrated,” she explains. You can work your way up to daily use.
To shop: $80; walmart.com
One of the most important application tricks here, cautions Bahar Houshmand, is to “wait 10 full minutes before applying the rest of your skincare” after using the exfoliant to give skin the opportunity to rebalance and work its way back to neutral. Otherwise, you may be triggering inflammation or redness.
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The Best Exfoliators for Dry Skin
For those with dry, flaky skin, a daily exfoliant is a total hero product that will give your dull skin life. Selecting an exfoliator that has moisturizing properties is key here. "It removes these visible flakes while adding hydration back into the skin," says Sobel.
Bonus: the best product is probably sitting in your kitchen cabinet, if you’re up for a DIY, homemade oatmeal scrub, which he says is an extremely gentle ingredient to restore the skin.
"Mix together oatmeal, honey and warm water until it forms a paste,” he instructs. "Gently massage into the skin in a circular motion. This should leave you with glowing and supple skin.”
If a science project isn’t exactly up your alley, rest assured that a glycolic acid product like Bahar Houshmand’s go-to Caudalie Glycolic Peel Mask, is “a bit stronger and faster-acting” in removing dead skin cells to make way for healthier skin.
To shop: $39; sephora.com
Best Exfoliator for Normal or Combination Skin
To keep skin clear and bright, “normal or combination skin can really benefit from regular exfoliation,” advises Sobel. It will scoop out grime from clogged pores to leave your skin prepped and ready to absorb the next skincare layer.
“Whether your skin concerns are dark spots or signs of aging, you won’t be receiving all of the benefits of your products if there is a layer of dead skin,” he explains. “I suggest trying The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA for an affordable option that offers a mild exfoliation and rejuvenates the skin.”
To shop: $7; sephora.com
The Best Exfoliators for Oily or Acne-Prone Skin
A common problem with oily skin is that it’s hard to tell when dead skin has built up on the surface, says Sobel, because the oil prevents the tell-tale flaky red flag from flying. And when the dead skin and buildup aren’t removed, it causes “tons of bacteria to live on the skin,” perpetuating the cycle of acne.
To clear out pores and prevent acne, beta hydroxy acids are a great option because they are oil soluble, meaning that the acid can cut through any oil on the skin’s surface to effectively treat blackheads, whiteheads and zits. Sobel tells his acne-prone patients to try Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant for a two-pronged approach to remove dead skin and proactively stop future breakouts, thanks to the salicylic acid formulation.
To shop: $30; nordstrom.com
For a zit-busting spot treatment, Bahar Houshmand favors the anti-inflammatory Perricone MD Intensive Pore Minimizing Toner treatment.
To shop: $45; sephora.com
This is Skin Deep, where we’re looking beyond the surface. Here, you’ll find all the tools you need to get your beauty routines back on track.