The 9 Best Gentle Exfoliants for Everyday Use

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + Hyaluronic Acid 2% Exfoliating Serum does wonders for all skin types.

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Best Gentle Exfoliants for Everyday Use

Amazon / Sephora / Dermstore

Exfoliation may not be the current star of your skincare routine — but it should be. Exfoliation does it all, from smoothing out texture to minimizing signs of aging, exfoliation does so much for the skin. 

"Exfoliating will remove any dead skin cells or buildup on the skin," says NYC-based dermatologist and dermatologic cosmetic surgeon, Howard Sobel M.D. "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."

With beauty store aisles filled with brightly colored exfoliating serums and sweet smelling scrubs, it can be easy to overindulge or choose the wrong exfoliant for your skin type. So, in order to find the best skin-sloughing saviors, we interviewed top dermatologists and skin experts to find out which exfoliators are worth trying. Ultimately, The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + Hyaluronic Acid 2% Exfoliating Serum pulled through to earn our top spot thanks to its affordability and gentle formula that’s suitable for all skin types. 

Read on to find the nine best daily exfoliants.

Best Overall

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% Exfoliating Serum

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% Exfoliating Serum

Sephora

What We Love: This high quality formulation can be yours for under $10. 

What We Don’t Love: Not a single thing.

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + Hyaluronic Acid 2% Exfoliating Serum earned our top spot for its impressive formulation, high quality ingredients, and reasonable price point. We’re not the only ones impressed with this souped up serum, though: Jaimie DeRosa, M.D., a double board certified facial plastic surgeon and founder of DeRosa Center Plastic Surgery & Med Spa stands behind this sensitive skin-friendly serum, too. In addition to lactic acid, “it also contains purified Tasmanian pepperberry which helps to reduce inflammation and sensitivity,” says Dr. DeRosa. “Hyaluronic acid helps to hydrate the skin and combat excess drying from exfoliation.” So though it is a strong treatment, these inflammation-reducing and hydrating ingredients make it a great option for all skin types. 

Price at time of publish: $8

Size: 1 fl oz. | Type of Exfoliant: Chemical (Lactic Acid) | Skin Types: Normal, Dry, Combination, and Oily

Best Budget

L’Oréal Paris Revitalift 10% Glycolic Acid Resurfacing Serum

Revitalift 10% Glycolic Acid Resurfacing Serum

Walmart

What We Love: This lightweight serum absorbs quickly without feeling tacky.

What We Don’t Love: This serum is formulated without fragrance or dyes, but if you are looking for natural skincare, this one is not for you.

Loretta Ciraldo, M.D., a Miami-based board certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare, recommends this silky serum for anyone looking for an affordable way to help resurface skin. It features glycolic acid, a chemical exfoliant that works by dissolving dead skin cells. While it is formulated with a higher level of acid, the serum isn’t harsh, even for those with sensitive skin. “The acid has been partially neutralized which makes it more compatible with sensitive skin,” says Dr. Ciraldo. Start by using it once or twice a week to allow your skin to become accustomed to it, then you can up the usage to once a day. 

Price at time of publish: $15 (originally $33)

Size: 1 fl oz. | Type of Exfoliant: Chemical (Glycolic Acid) | Skin Types: Normal, Combination

Best Splurge

SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

Amazon

What We Love: Though this cleanser is a bit pricey, it comes with six ounces of product, so you are getting more for your money. 

What We Don’t Love: If you are switching from a gentle cleanser, we suggest slowly incorporating it into your routine to avoid irritation. 

Ever wonder what dermatologists use in their skincare routine? Us too. Tracy Evans, M.D., a San Francisco-based board certified dermatologist, MOHS surgeon, and medical director of Pacific Skin, gives us some insight on that. This exfoliating cleanser has been one of her go-tos for years. “Formulated with both alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids as well as biodegradable granules, this gentle but effective scrub is a go-to for many dermatologists,” she says. 

Think of this product as the marriage between your favorite cleanser and facial scrub — you can use it to break down the day’s debris, scrub away pollution, and fully cleanse your skin. As you wash your face, the blend of acids gently smooths uneven texture and reduces the appearance of pores. Though almost $50 may seem like a lot for a facial cleanser, you get a lot of product. Plus, you’ll want to start using it once a week until your skin gets used to the formula, so you’ll have it for a long time. 

Price at time of publish: $44

Size: 6 fl oz. | Type of Exfoliant: Chemical and Physical (Glycolic, Mandelic, Citric, and Lactic Acids, and Jojoba spheres | Skin Types: All

Best Scrub

Zo Skin Health Exfoliating Polish

ZO Skin Health Exfoliating Polish

Zo Skin Health

What We Love: The ultra fine crystals take care of business without being harsh. 

What We Don’t Love: The jar is not an ideal format for this product. We wish that it came in a tube.

No matter where you're at in your skincare journey, it’s time to graduate from sandpaper scrubs — you know the type: Ones that feel scratchy, harsh, and leave your skin looking red and raw. (Newsflash: Exfoliants shouldn’t do that to your face!) This option from ZO Skin Health delivers the same satisfying clean from a scrub, but with the gentleness of a serum. “​​It’s a physical scrub that works great for all skin types with its non-irritating, ultra-fine magnesium oxide crystals that help to remove dead skin cells and debris,” says Dr. DeRosa. The fine crystals leave your skin feeling smooth while the vitamin C evens out your complexion. 

Price at time of publish: $68

Size: 2.3 oz. | Type of Exfoliant: Physical (Ultra-fine magnesium oxide crystals) | Skin Types: All

Best for Acne

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

4.8
paulas-choice-skin-perfecting-2-bha-liquid-exfoliant

Amazon

What We Love: Salicylic acid keeps your pores clear without causing irritation. 

What We Don’t Love: This product frequently sells out, so make sure to grab it before it's gone. 

Consider this your first class ticket to glowing skin — it’s Paula’s Choice’s number one best-selling product worldwide, and for good reason. “It is a super gentle leave-on product that contains salicylic acid, so it’s great for those who have acne breakouts and sensitive skin looking for an exfoliator,” says Dr. DeRosa, “It helps to unclog and shrink pores, reduce wrinkles, and even out skin tone.” It’s gentle enough to be used twice daily, and the liquid formula quickly sinks into the skin without leaving any residue. We like using it as our toner. After cleansing your face, swipe it on before layering your serum and moisturizer on top. 

Price at time of publish: $13

Size: 4 fl oz. | Type of Exfoliant: Chemical (Salicylic Acid) | Skin Types: Dry, Normal, Combination, and Oily

Best Pads

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel

4.7
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta® Universal Daily Peel

Sephora

What We Love: The wipe format is super convenient for travel. 

What We Don’t Love: The price is a little steep for the amount of pads you get.

If you want to significantly improve your skin texture and tone, booking a chemical peel with your dermatologist is one of the best things to do. But if you don’t have the time or money, or don’t want a drastic change, try these peel pads instead. Think of them as a mini, at-home chemical peel. The two-step process contains two pads: The first wipe contains a unique blend of AHAs and BHAs to reduce signs of aging and keep pores clear. The second neutralizes acid activity and hydrates. Not only are these quick and convenient, they’re also great for traveling because they’re so compact. 

Price at time of publish: $17 for five treatments

Size: 35 Wipes | Type of Exfoliant: Chemical (Glycolic, Malic, Lactic and Salicylic Acids) | Skin Types: Dry, Normal, and Combination

Best Multi-Tasker

Revision Skincare Papaya Enzyme Cleanser

Papaya Enzyme Cleanser

Dermstore

What We Love: This gentle but effective formula works for everyone — even those with sensitive skin.

What We Don’t Love: The bottle is a little hard to squeeze, making it tough to get all of the product out.

We’re all about simplifying our skincare routines, so we love multi-use products that offer a slew of benefits, like Revision Skincare Papaya Enzyme Cleanser. Another one of Dr. DeRosa’s favorites, this twofer breaks down dirt and debris, and banishes dead skin. “It gently removes dead skin cells and leaves the skin brighter and smoother,” she says, “It is also great for those struggling with acne breakouts.” The papaya enzyme (aka papain) doesn’t just exfoliate — because it’s packed with vitamins and minerals, it also works to nourish the skin, too. 

Price at time of publish: $38

Size: 6.7 fl oz. | Type of Exfoliant: Chemical (Papain and Salicylic Acid) | Skin Types: All

Best Powder

Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant Exfoliator

5
Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant

Ulta

What We Love: The formula is like a fun at-home science experiment — once mixed with water, the powder becomes smooth and foamy. 

What We Don’t Love: Some reviewers say this makes their face feel tight after use.

If you want to avoid the scraping from a scrub but don’t want to give up the sensation of a physical exfoliant, try a powder instead. These science-y formulas are activated with water, and using them turns exfoliating into a fun, self-care experience. “This one has both physical and chemical exfoliating qualities with rice bran and salicylic acid,” says Dr. Evans, “Plus it finishes with colloidal oatmeal to minimize irritation and soothe skin.” It’s gentle enough to use daily, but be wary as some reviewers have said their face can feel tight after use. To avoid this, immediately layer on your moisturizer. 

Price at time of publish: $64

Size: 2.4 oz. | Type of Exfoliant: Chemical and Physical (Rice Bran Derived Phytic Acid, Papain, and Salicylic Acid) | Skin Types: Normal, Combination, Oily

Best Overnight

Kinship Self Smooth 10% Glycolic Resurfacing Serum

Kinship Self Smooth Serum

Kinship

What We Love: Each bottle is made out of 50 percent PCR (aka recycled plastic) and is 100 percent recyclable. 

What We Don’t Love: We couldn’t find anything we didn’t like about this serum.

The bright pink packaging is the first thing that drew us to this overnight exfoliant, but it’s the results that keep us reaching for it again and again. A combination of glycolic acid, white oat extract, and strawberry extract simultaneously fight unwanted build up while soothing and brightening the skin. Simply swipe it on before bed, and you’ll wake up with velvety soft, smooth skin. 

Price at time of publish: $28

Size: 2.2 fl oz. | Type of Exfoliant: Chemical (Glycolic Acid) | Skin Types: All

What To Keep In Mind

Type of Exfoliant

There are two types of exfoliators out there: chemical and physical. “Chemical exfoliation is done with an acid, and physical exfoliation is done with particles or even just a rough surface,” says Dr. Ciraldo. “For example, AHA's like glycolic acid are chemical exfoliants, and your favorite scrub is considered physical exfoliation.” 

Both types of exfoliation serve a purpose. “Chemical exfoliation will penetrate deeper since the molecules have a very low molecular weight, whereas a physical exfoliant is solely a surface removal of dead cells,” she adds. Choosing which type of exfoliant comes down to your skin type and preferences. Those with acne-prone or oily skin can see great results from chemical exfoliants, like our best overall pick The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + Hyaluronic Acid 2% Exfoliating Serum. For those with normal skin, physical exfoliants, like ZO Skin Health Exfoliating Polish, can dramatically brighten your skin.

Acids

For gentle exfoliation, experts agree AHAs and BHAs, or acids, are preferred as they are more gentle. Some common AHAs include glycolic, lactic, malic, and mandelic acids, while salicylic acid is the most common BHA. “Chemical exfoliants help to loosen and dissolve dead skin cells so that they wash away gently without the trauma of a scrub,” says Dr. DeRosa. 

Just remember that after using an acid, your skin is more susceptible to sun damage. We recommend finishing off your routine with an SPF 30 or higher. The Dr. Loretta Urban Antioxidant Sunscreen SPF 40 protects against UV rays as well as free radicals.  

Your Questions, Answered

Should I Be Exfoliating Daily?

Most dermatologists advise against exfoliating every day as it can strip your skin of important oils. If you are using a new product, it is best to ease your way in. Start off using it one to two times a week before amping up to a more regular cadence.

What Type of Exfoliant is Good For Sensitive Skin?

Dr. Evans stresses the importance of using exfoliators that contain mild acids, such as glycolic or lactic acids, which help dissolve the outer layer of skin rather than scrub it off. These are usually far gentler and reduce risk for redness and irritation. SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser is a great option for those with sensitive skin.

Why Shop With Us

Anneke Knot is a full-time fashion and beauty freelance writer. Before freelancing, she wrote for Real Simple and Health magazines. Now, she writes about beauty and fashion for multiple publications. In order to find the best exfoliants, Knot put top products from trusted brands to the test. In addition, she interviewed dermatologists, so they could provide their top recommendations.

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