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Blackheads? Exfoliate. Uneven skin tone? Exfoliate. Dull, tired-looking skin? Exfoliate. Okay, we admit we might be oversimplifying things a little here, but regular exfoliation—if done correctly—really can change the look and texture of your skin. While there is no one-size-fits-all exfoliating solution, exfoliation should have its place in your skincare routine. And what easier way to sneak it in there than by using an exfoliating face wash? Or, not so easy. There seem to be so many options out there and opting for the most expensive exfoliating face wash that you can afford isn’t necessarily the answer. So, where do you even begin? Our round-up of the best exfoliating face washes, which includes options for all skin types and needs at a range of price points, is a good place to start.
But, before we explore specific products, let’s talk about the nitty-gritty of exfoliation…
Why is exfoliation important?
Using a cleanser twice a day keeps your face clean—on the surface. But what about inside your pores? Dead skin cells, excess sebum and impurities have a nasty way of hiding out in your pores, clogging them up and leading to breakouts. Regular exfoliation helps to rid your skin of blackheads and reduce the risk or severity of acne. Pores that are no longer clogged up are less noticeable too, giving your skin a smoother texture.
Regular exfoliation also helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and other signs of aging. Your skin follows a natural process of shedding dead skin cells to make way for newer skin cells. As you age, this cellular turnover slows down and the dead skin cells tend to build up on the surface of your skin, leaving it looking dull. Exfoliating not only removes these dead skin cells to reveal the more radiant skin underneath, it also helps to speed up the process of cellular turnover, which can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Exfoliation also boosts the rest of your skincare routine. You aren’t getting the most out of your expensive serums and moisturizers if you’re applying them to a layer of dead skin cells. By removing them, you improve product absorption and can reap the full benefits of whatever treatments you apply to your skin.
Chemical vs. mechanical exfoliation
Hesitant to intentionally put acid on your face? Totally normal. But we’re not talking battery acid here. The acids that are generally used in exfoliators are known as hydroxy acids, and, at the right concentration, they can actually be less abrasive than mechanical exfoliators.
Mechanical exfoliators are exfoliators that contain small physical particles that literally scrub the dead skin cells off your face. These particles tend to have natural sources—think sugar, salt, grains, seeds or ground-up fruit pits—which is great. However, it’s important to note that certain ground-up particles such as those of walnut shells or apricot pits may have uneven edges that can create microscopic lesions in your skin, causing damage. If you decide to opt for a mechanical exfoliator, look for one with fine, evenly-shaped particles such as bamboo powder, rice powder or jojoba beads.
Chemical exfoliators typically contain hydroxy acids or enzymes derived from plants such as papaya, pineapple or pumpkin. Plant enzymes, which provide the mildest form of chemical exfoliation, work by breaking down keratin and dissolving the uppermost layer of dead skin cells. Hydroxy acids can be divided into two broad categories: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). At higher concentrations, hydroxy acids are used in chemical peels that are administered by aestheticians or dermatologists; in over-the-counter exfoliators and cleansers, the concentration of these acids tends to be very low.
Alpha-hydroxy acids, which are water-soluble, work by penetrating the dermis (the top layer of skin) and dissolving the substance that binds the dead skin cells to the skin. Alpha-hydroxy acids that are often used in exfoliators include glycolic acid (derived from sugarcane) and lactic acid (derived from sour milk). Exfoliators containing AHAs are typically used to improve skin tone and texture.
Think of polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) as the newer generation of AHAs—the molecular structure is slightly bigger, meaning that they don’t penetrate the skin as deeply as AHAs and they provide a milder exfoliation. The polyhydroxy acids most commonly used in exfoliating skincare products include gluconolactone, galactose and lactobionic acid. In addition to providing a mild yet effective exfoliation, PHAs also slow down a process known as glycation—a chemical process related to aging that weakens the collagen and elastin in your skin. To boost their anti-aging properties, PHAs are packed full of antioxidants and water-attracting properties that help your skin retain moisture.
The beta-hydroxy acid most commonly used in skincare products is salicylic acid, which occurs naturally in willow bark and sweet birch. Because beta-hydroxy acids are structurally slightly different to alpha-hydroxy acids, they are lipid-soluble, which means that they can penetrate deeper into the epidermis of the skin, removing dead skin cells, sebum and impurities from the pores. This ability to provide a deep exfoliation means that salicylic acid is often used in face washes and exfoliators aimed at treating acne.
Whether you use a chemical exfoliator or a mechanical one, the process of exfoliation makes your skin more sensitive to potential sun damage. So, if you aren’t already applying a daily sunscreen with an SPF greater than 30, now is the time to incorporate it into your morning routine! Using an exfoliator at night—rather than in the morning—means that your freshly scrubbed skin has time to recover before being exposed to sunlight.
The best exfoliating face washes
1. Blu Atlas Exfoliating Scrub
There’s something about applying natural products to your skin that just feels good. It’s like the cosmetic version of eating your veggies and is one of the reasons why we love this exfoliating scrub from Blu Atlas—98% of the ingredients used in this product are of natural origin. There are no sulfates, parabens or phthalate in this vegan, cruelty-free scrub.
So, what does it have? Most importantly: bamboo stem extract, hibiscus flower extract and jojoba oil. The bamboo extract, which has antimicrobial, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, provides a gentle exfoliation that reduces inflammation, breakouts and hyperpigmentation. The jojoba oil—which has a similar chemical structure to the sebum produced by your skin—helps to clean out your pores whilst delivering vitamins, antioxidants and moisture. And the hibiscus flower extract adds a further boost of antioxidants to combat skin-damaging free radicals.
Online reviews highlight the fact that while this exfoliator is a scrub, it isn’t in any way abrasive and is gentle enough for use on sensitive skin. One reviewer, who believes this scrub takes exfoliating “to the next level”, writes:
“I have been using this product every other day for the past month and could not be more satisfied. Paired with daily use of the Volcanic Ash Face Cleanser, my face has never felt so clean and cared for. Literally cannot recommend this product enough!”
2. Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
Can’t decide whether you would prefer to use a mechanical or chemical exfoliator? This cleanser from Murad does it all. Not only does it include both alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids, it also includes a physical exfoliant in the form of biodegradable jojoba beads. Salicylic acid, lactic acid and glycolic acid work to cleanse your pores and even out skin tone, while the gentle jojoba beads buff away dead skin cells.
If you’re worried about what all this exfoliating action will do to your delicate skin barrier, you’ll be pleased to know that this cleanser also contains sodium PCA. The salt form of an amino acid called pyrrolidone carboxylic acid, sodium PCA can be found naturally in your skin. It is a humectant that helps the skin attract and retain moisture. Not only does this ingredient boost your skin’s protective barrier, it also reduces inflammation. These two characteristics make sodium PCA a great addition to an exfoliating face wash.
While this exfoliator should not be used every day, incorporating it into your cleansing regime two to three times a week should leave you with softer, smoother, more radiant skin.
3. Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant
Another exfoliator that combines mechanical and chemical exfoliation, this product from Dermalogica comes in the form of a powder. Add about half a teaspoon of this powder to very wet hands and rub your hands together to form a creamy paste. The powder becomes activated when it comes into contact with water, releasing papain (papaya enzymes), salicylic acid and rice enzymes that gently slough away dirt and dead skin cells when you massage the paste into your skin. A complex of phytic acid, which is derived from rice bran, as well as white tea and licorice leave the skin looking brighter, while colloidal oatmeal and allantoin soothe the skin.
Whether you’re looking to get your acne under control, even out your skin tone, or just want glowy, radiant skin, this staple from Dermalogica does the trick. It doesn’t come cheap, but a little goes a long way and online reviews are almost entirely positive.
“My skin always feels amazing after using this product,” writes one reviewer. “Almost as good as after a facial with microdermabrasion! My moisturizer also works much better afterwards and my skin is so smooth and hydrated. I don’t ever want to live without this! Plus, with really sensitive skin, it is not at all irritating.”
4. SkinCeuticals LHA Cleansing Gel
While this exfoliating cleanser works well for oily, combination and aging skin types, it is particularly beneficial for those who struggle with acne or frequent breakouts. The combination of lipo-hydroxy acid, glycolic acid and salicylic acid effectively decongests the pores and brightens the skin.
Mild enough for daily use—in fact, the product directions suggest that it can be used twice daily—this exfoliating face wash also contains glycerin and sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that is used in skincare products as a hydrating agent, to ensure that your skin doesn’t become overly dry or irritated.
5. Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser
This best-selling cleanser from the Tata Harper brand is packed full of natural goodness—100% of the ingredients are of natural origin and 80% are organic. Not only does this cleanser—which can be used twice daily—buff and polish your skin, it also has pore-refining and hydrating ingredients. A combination of pomegranate enzymes, apricot seed powder, and white willow bark (salicylic acid) work to dissolve buildup in your pores. French pink clay, pink grapefruit and bergamot thoroughly clean the skin and help to refine your pores, while aloe vera, coconut liquid crystals and kimchi ferment pump up the hydration.
All of these natural ingredients give this regenerating cleanser a scent that reviewers love almost as much as the feeling of their skin after using this product. In an online review, one devotee writes:
“The regenerating cleanser is the best when it comes to refreshing and brightening my skin. With every wash my concern of having dull, lackluster skin is whisked away! The benefits of this cleanser include brightening, softening, cleansing and rejuvenating the skin. The ingredients are such that it refreshes and nourishes with every wash. I highly recommend it!”
Unlike many cleansers, this product is best applied to dry skin. Massage the product into the skin to gently activate the exfoliators and then rinse with warm water. The only downside? It doesn’t come cheap.
6. Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
There’s a reason why this exfoliator is the best-selling Paula’s Choice product worldwide: it’s effective! An independent consumer panel found that 91% of users had noticeably healthier skin, 90% saw an improvement in skin texture, and 82% experienced smaller pores. While technically not a face wash because you don’t wash it off, we’re sneaking this exfoliator into our round-up of the best exfoliating face washes because who doesn’t want healthier, younger-looking skin?
As the name suggests, salicylic acid is the key exfoliating ingredient here. The lightweight formula, which also includes green tea for its anti-aging benefits, has an optimal pH range of 3.2-3.8 to maximize the efficacy of the active ingredient. While this liquid exfoliant can be applied up to twice a day, it’s a good idea to start off slowly—once a day three times a week, for example—and augment usage based on your skin’s response and tolerance.
To use, simply apply to your face and neck after toning and cleansing. Do not rinse and if you apply the product in the morning, be sure to finish your skincare routine with a strong sunscreen.
7. Philosophy The Microdelivery Exfoliating Facial Wash
This popular exfoliating face wash combines an amino-acid-derived cleaning system with diatomaceous earth (fine grain desert earth) and vitamin C to deeply clean and resurface the skin. In addition to tackling clogged pores and blemishes, daily use of this gentle mini-peel helps to stave off the development of fine lines and wrinkles by encouraging skin cell turnover and improving the absorption of serums and moisturizers.
“This is one of the few things in my skin repertoire that I go to again and again,” writes an online reviewer. “I’ve been buying this for years and have never had any issues. I have tried other similar products, but always return to it! The scrub is subtle and gentle enough for everyday use, but it’s very effective.”
8. Cetaphil Extra Gentle Daily Scrub
Switching your usual face wash out for this gentle daily scrub from Cetaphil is an affordable way to introduce exfoliation into your skincare routine. Not only is this exfoliating face wash budget-friendly, it is also gentle enough to be used on sensitive skin on a daily basis. It contains micro-fine particles that buff away dirt and dead skin cells, as well as glycerin and vitamins B5 and E to hydrate and soften the skin.
“I have extremely sensitive skin and I have acne spots along with dry patches right next to each other and this exfoliates and clears the pores with no drying out,” writes one reviewer on Amazon. “I haven’t been so satisfied with a face cleanser since I found Proactiv in my late teens.”
While online reviews of this product are largely positive, a few reviewers have complained about the added fragrance—not only from the perspective of sensitivity, but also simply because they don’t like the scent.
9. EltaMD Foaming Facial Cleanser
This foaming cleanser from EltaMD gets its exfoliating properties from bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapples that not only loosens dead skin cells and impurities, but also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the skin.
The bromelain gives this cleanser its distinctive foaming feature and leaves skin feeling soft and smooth. The key here is giving the ingredients time to work. Massage the cleanser into damp skin and then wait 30 seconds for it to foam up, before rinsing off with lukewarm water. While most online reviewers rave about the foaming feature, some have complained that despite waiting the allotted 30 seconds foam did not form. In such cases, the brand recommends you rinse and repeat to ensure a thorough cleansing.
Gentle enough for twice-daily use, this pH-balanced cleanser, which includes a blend of amino acids, is suitable for all skin types.
10. Acure Brightening Facial Scrub
Cracking the #3 spot on Amazon’s best-seller ranking in the category of facial scrubs, this exfoliator from Acure promises to even out and brighten skin tone. The fact that 75% of more than 20,000 buyers on Amazon have given this product a five-star rating suggests that Acure delivers on that promise. And the best part? It’s oh-so-affordable.
This vegan product, which is free of sulfates, mineral oil, petrolatum and formaldehyde, uses lemon peel and French green clay to cleanse and exfoliate the skin. Other radiance-inducing ingredients include detoxifying sea kelp and brightening Madonna lily. For that fresh-faced glow, massage this scrub into moist skin three times a week.
A word of caution: the scent and texture of this scrub seems to be polarizing. While some reviewers adore the gritty texture and earthy fragrance, others find the texture to be a bit too abrasive for sensitive skin and the scent to be overwhelming.
11. La Roche-Posay Effaclar Deep-Cleansing Foaming Cream
This exfoliating face wash from La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar line is a great option if you have enlarged pores or skin that’s prone to breakouts. Salicylic acid tackles the excess sebum, dead skin cells and impurities trapped in your pores, while alpha-hydroxy acids exfoliate the surface of your skin. Coco-glucoside ensures that your skin is thoroughly cleansed, while glycerin promotes hydration.
A little of this foaming cream goes a long way. Combine a small dollop of the cream with warm water and work it into a foam between your palms. Massage it gently into your face before rinsing with warm water. While it is not necessary to let this product sit on your skin, doing so will give the hydroxy acids more time to work.
12. Vichy Normaderm PhytoAction Daily Deep Cleansing Gel
Finally on our list of the best exfoliating face washes is this gel-to-foam exfoliating cleanser from Vichy which unclogs and tightens pores, reduces blackheads and blemishes, and leaves the skin looking smoother and more even. The exfoliating action can be attributed to the inclusion of salicylic acid in the formula. While salicylic acid can sometimes aggravate sensitive skin, the low concentration of this ingredient (0.5%) makes this cleanser gentle enough to be used on a daily basis without drying out the skin.
In addition to salicylic acid, this formula also contains zinc to reduce excess oil and copper to renew the skin’s surface. As is the case with all Vichy products, the Normaderm PhytoAction Daily Deep Cleansing Gel contains Vichy Volcanic Water, which is sourced directly from volcanoes in the Auvergne region in France. This water contains a specific blend of 15 minerals that have been shown to possess fortifying, regenerating and antioxidant benefits to the skin.
Frequently asked questions
How often should I exfoliate?
How frequently you choose to exfoliate depends not only on the strength of the exfoliator, but also on your skin type. If you have very sensitive skin, you might find that exfoliating once or twice a week is enough. If you have oily skin, on the other hand, you might find that your skin is happiest when you exfoliate daily. Whether you choose to exfoliate in the morning or at night is a matter of personal preference, but if you do exfoliate in the morning, don’t forget the sunscreen!
If you are introducing exfoliation into your skincare routine or are changing the product you use, remember to ease into it. Begin by using the exfoliator once a week, see how your skin reacts, and adjust accordingly. Be careful about over-exfoliating as this can weaken your skin’s protective barrier. Signs of over-exfoliation include: irritation, burning or peeling, inflammation, and increased sensitivity to other products in your skincare routine.
When is exfoliation a bad idea?
While exfoliation is generally considered to be a necessary addition to any skincare routine, there are times when it should be avoided.
- If you have a rash or eczema, exfoliating might make the situation worse.
- If you have recently started using a new active ingredient—such as retinol—lay off the exfoliation until your skin adjusts to the new product.
- If you have an appointment for a chemical peel or an in-salon treatment such as microdermabrasion, don’t exfoliate in the days leading up to the appointment.
- If you plan to spend the day at the beach—or a lot of time in the sun—skip the exfoliation.
- If you are using a treatment such as isotretinoin for acne, you should not exfoliate.
How do I know which active ingredients to look for?
When it comes to exfoliation, what works best has a lot to do with your skin type. If, for example, you have oily or acne prone skin, an exfoliator that contains salicylic acid is a good fit because it can penetrate deep into the pores. For those with very dry or sensitive skin, products containing alpha-hydroxy acids or polyhydroxy acids, which are structurally larger than beta-hydroxy acids, might be preferable. For those with sensitive skin, active ingredients to look out for include lactic acid, mandelic acid, or gluconolactone.
If you are more comfortable using a mechanical exfoliator, remember to avoid scrubs with particles that may have uneven edges as these might be too abrasive. Opt instead for finely ground-up particles such as rice or bamboo powder.
Why did my skin break out after I started exfoliating?
Sometimes introducing exfoliation into your skincare routine can have the undesired effect of a breakout, particularly if you start using a product with an active ingredient. This is known as purging. If you start shedding dead skin cells at a faster rate than usual, dormant pimples and underlying comedones will be exposed. A common characteristic of skin purging is that blackheads, whiteheads and pimples seem to suddenly occur all at once. A purge may last anywhere between two weeks and two months—depending on how congested your skin was—but once it passes, you should experience fewer breakouts.
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