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The Best Face Exfoliators for Soft, Glowing Skin, According to Dermatologists

Whether you prefer chemical or physical exfoliation.
By Rebecca Deczynski
February 24, 2021
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Skincare isn't just about the things you put on your face. Sometimes, the things you remove are just as important—yes, we're talking about exfoliating. Facial exfoliators come in all different forms—masks, pads, cleansers, and more—but they all have a similar function: to slough off dead skin cells and make your skin look and feel better.

A good exfoliator is important in any skincare routine, but the best product for your skin type and needs varies depending on your sensitivity levels and preferences. These are the ones that dermatologists recommend to their patients the most:

Essentially, exfoliators work by speeding up the turnover of skin cells, as dermatologist Sapna Palep, MD, founder of Spring Street Dermatology, explains. "The average cycle of skin cells is about 28 days, but there are a lot of factors that can slow it down or speed it up. The outer layer of the skin, where dead skin cells build up, is called the stratum corneum, and once it starts to thicken, skin looks dull, gets clogged, and breaks out," she says. "That's when we want to introduce an exfoliator."

While exfoliators come in many different forms, there is one key distinction to make: physical versus chemical. Physical exfoliants incorporate an abrasive to literally rub off dead skin cells—just like when you use a sugar scrub on your legs, but way more gentle. If you use a physical scrub with an abrasive that's too large, you run the risk of creating micro-tears in your skin, Palep explains. 

Chemical exfoliants, most commonly in the form of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), achieve the same effect in a way that many dermatologists say may be better for sensitive skin. Because BHAs (like salicylic acid) are oil-soluble, they're best suited to people who are dealing with acne and oily skin, says Palep—but if they're overused, they can lead the skin to produce even more oil. She more often recommends AHAs (like glycolic acid), which are water-soluble, can boost collagen production, and are less likely to cause any unwanted effects of over-exfoliation. After all, overuse can cause damage. 

"If you over-exfoliate, you won't glow, you will end up with dull skin that is red and irritated by damaging the outer layer of skin or the skin barrier," says dermatologist Robyn Gmyrek, M.D., of Union Square Laser Dermatology. "I recommend that you always moisturize after exfoliation to keep the skin hydrated." Assess your skincare routine to make sure that the cleansers, serums, or even moisturizers you're already using don't include any type of exfoliant to prevent yourself from accidentally doubling up.

How often you should exfoliate per week will depend on what products you're using and how sensitive your skin is. "I always say to exfoliate as frequently as your skin type allows. I'd rather people use a mild exfoliant daily—if their skin can tolerate it—than a more aggressive exfoliant once a week," says dermatologist Michelle Henry, M.D. of Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan. "With all exfoliators, I recommend people begin with once a week and then graduate to more frequent use to see where skin lands in terms of tolerability." And if you have any particular concerns about your complexion, talk to a professional who can best assess your needs before introducing a new product. 

Without further ado, these are the best face exfoliators to consider adding to your routine, according to dermatologists. 

Facial Peel
Credit: Amazon

Best AHA Cleanser: Neostrata Glycolic Foaming Wash

Buy It, $39

If you’re concerned about how your skin may fare with a chemical exfoliant, a cleanser with exfoliating properties can help treat your complexion without much risk of overdoing it. “I honestly recommend this to everybody—even people with acne or rosacea,” says Palep. 

This foamy face wash contains 18% glycolic acid, which she says is considerable—an in-office treatment would have about 30%. What sets this product apart from others on the market is that the acid is in a very pure form and not mixed with many other additives, which is what makes it great for clearing up different skin types, Palep adds. She recommends starting off by using it three times a week and working up to as much as twice a day (as long as you’re not already using another acid, like a retinoid).

Facial Peel
Credit: Amazon

Best BHA Cleanser: CeraVe Salicylic Acid Cleanser

Buy It, $13 (was $19)

If you deal with persistent acne or oily skin, you may prefer using a BHA, like the salicylic acid found in this cleanser that dermatologist Diane Madfes, M.D., recommends from TikTok-favorite brand CeraVe. Its moisturizing ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and niacinamide balance its powerful exfoliating effects to prevent skin from drying out.

Over 15,000 Amazon shoppers have given it a five-star rating, with reviewers specifically noting how gentle yet effective it is. “It dissolves away the clinging dead skin without damaging the healthy skin. I find that, after using it, some parts of my face are slightly pink and irritated, but I use it only once or twice a week at night, put on a heavy moisturizer after use, and wake up with smooth skin and without dryness or irritation,” one wrote.

Facial Peel
Credit: Amazon

Best Scrub: Neova SmartSkincare Serious Microderm Scrub

Buy It, $56

Physical exfoliants are great when you want softer and smoother skin immediately, but you want to make sure they’re gentle enough to not cause damage. Palep loves this option from Neova, which she uses herself once to twice a week. “It has really fine microderm particles, so you can’t get into too much trouble with it,” she says.

The scrub also contains glycolic acid, so it has some chemical exfoliating properties, too. Another key ingredient, aloe, ensures that it doesn’t dry out the skin.

Facial Peel
Credit: Amazon

Best Exfoliating Tool: Buf-Puf Gentle Facial Sponge

Buy It, $5

For a tool that will help you literally buff your skin—in a gentle manner, of course—Henry likes this budget-friendly facial sponge. It can be used with water or cleanser in circular motions to gently slough off dead skin cells. Replace it every four to six weeks to maintain cleanliness. 

It’s earned a five-star rating from over 7,600 Amazon shoppers, with many saying that it’s helped keep their skin clear and glowing. “Since I am older, I need to exfoliate… but most products are too harsh,” wrote one reviewer. “This little puff has solved my problem. I apply cleanser to my face and run water over the puff and very lightly run it over my face. It smooths it beautifully and has even helped lighten some stubborn sun spots.”

Facial Peel
Credit: Sephora

Best At-Home Peel: Sobel Skin Rx 30% Glycolic Acid Peel Concentrate

Buy It, $46

For a truly thorough exfoliating treatment, you’ll have to visit a dermatologist’s office—but this at-home alternative developed by Howard Sobel, M.D., founder of Sobel Skin and attending dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, is a great alternative. The concentrated treatment contains glycolic acid for its exfoliating properties and chamomile and cucumber extracts to soothe irritation.

The product is applied using a cotton pad and left on for just two minutes to avoid over-exfoliating. “Over time, the appearance of fine lines and pores is minimized, and stubborn skin conditions like melasma, sun spots and acne are addressed,” explains Sobel. “Skin is rebalanced for better absorption of other skincare products.”

Facial Peel
Credit: Amazon

Best AHA Leave-On Treatment: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Exfoliant Lotion

Buy It, $30

If your skin isn’t overly sensitive, you may prefer a leave-on AHA treatment, like this one that  Gmyrek recommends from Paula’s Choice. The light gel formula contains 8% glycolic acid, making it gentle enough to leave on, as well as green tea and chamomile to calm redness. Just be sure to apply an SPF afterwards if you use it during the day.

The brand recommends starting off by using it once every other day, then seeing how your skin responds before potentially increasing to twice a day. “This stuff got rid of all my skin problems! I had a mixture of milia, regular acne, and cystic acne on my face. I was using 16% glycolic acid, which only led to angry breakouts,” one Amazon shopper wrote. “My skin is very sensitive and this has not irritated it.”

CLINIQUE Clarifying Lotion 2
Credit: Sephora

Best BHA Leave-On Treatment: Clinique Clarifying Lotion

Buy It, $18

Clinique’s range of clarifying lotions, which have a lightweight texture and are applied just before moisturizer, is another favorite of Henry’s. The best part? You can pick whichever one is best suited to your skin type. Lotion 1 is for very dry skin, Lotion 2 for dry combination skin, Lotion 3 for oily combination skin, and Lotion 4 for oily skin.

While each clarifying lotion is formulated for different skin types, they all contain salicylic acid, making them ideal for anyone who might deal with acne or blackheads. 

Facial Peel
Credit: Sephora

Best Peeling Gel: Peter Thomas Roth FIRMx Exfoliating Peel Gel

Buy It, $48

A peeling gel is a good midpoint between a physical exfoliator and a chemical exfoliator, and Madfes recommends this option by Peter Thomas Roth. As you massage it on your face, you can feel dead skin cells gently sloughing away thanks to the pineapple and pomegranate enzymes in its formulation.

Sephora shoppers say that it works well to revive dry, flaky skin, and some even recommend using it on dry hands. It can be safely used up to three times a week.

Facial Peel
Credit: Sephora

Best Exfoliating Pads: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads

Buy It, $36

Exfoliating pads are another popular option. Each one is soaked in an AHA formula and disposed of after use. Gmyrek recommends these pads, which contain both glycolic and lactic acids as well as lemon peel, which has a brightening effect.

“The act of using a pad to wipe your skin adds a bit of physical exfoliation as well,” Gmyrek explains. “Lactic acid, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid hydrate, and licorice root extract is both helpful in removing unwanted pigmentation and decreasing inflammation.”

Facial Peel
Credit: Sephora

Best 2-in-1: Dr. Brandt Skincare Microdermabrasion Age Defying Exfoliator

Buy It, $79

Henry also likes this physical scrub, which uses tiny aluminum oxide crystals to buff the outer layer of the skin and lactic acid to get a thorough chemical exfoliation at the same time. It also includes soothing ingredients like jojoba oil and aloe vera.

One Sephora shopper even called it a “facial inside a bottle,” and others say it’s gentle enough to be used on sensitive skin.