Like moisturizing and applying sun protection, skin pros and obsessives consider exfoliation a practical obligation. And since there are all kinds of products, DIYs, and treatments promising to rid you of excess dead skin cells, trying to choose the best face exfoliator for your needs can be daunting. Before you resign to selecting at random, take a few minutes to read up on the ins and outs of facial exfoliation and browse some of the best options.
What Does a Face Exfoliator Do for Skin?
First, a word on what exfoliation is and why you should care. Your skin exfoliates itself as part of a natural renewal process, says Sandy Skotnicki, M.D., a dermatologist and author of Beyond Soap. "You get a new upper skin layer approximately every 30 days," she says.
Problem is, as you age, this process starts to slow down which can result in rough, scaly skin, says Suzan Obagi, M.D., associate professor of dermatology and plastic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. And that's where exfoliating products come in — they help prevent the buildup of dead skin cells. This allows for new healthy cells to come in and can even help your other products penetrate better, says Dr. Obagi. By removing the build-up of dead skin cells, you're making it easier for the products you apply afterward to better sink into your skin. "Exfoliation is such an important part of our skincare routine to help make the skin feel smooth, unclog pores and blemishes, and give our skin a nice glow," she says. (Related: 10 Facial Exfoliators That Will Completely Transform Your Skin)
How to Choose the Best Face Exfoliator for You
Exfoliants can be divided into two categories — physical and chemical exfoliants — and a product can incorporate either or both. "Physical exfoliation is essentially the mechanical removal of dead skin cells," says Dr. Skotnicki. "Physical exfoliation products usually contain bead-like formulas that have the result of physically sloughing off the dead skin." If you own a face scrub, it likely fits into this category. Face brushes and abrasive washcloths, which you can use while cleansing, also qualify.
Chemical exfoliants, on the other hand, utilize acids to dissolve the proteins that act as a 'glue' holding dead skin cells together, which allows the dead skin cells to be washed off. Under this umbrella, you'll find products that contain alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). BHAs (e.g. salicylic acid) are known for their ability to travel deeper within pores compared to AHAs (such as glyolic and lactic acids), which is why pros commonly recommend BHAs to people with oily, acne-prone skin. PHAs (like gluconolactone and galactose) are larger in molecule size that AHAs and BHAs, so they're only able to exfoliate the outer layers of skin, thus they're considered a gentler alternative.
Got all that? There's more: Chemical exfoliants also encompass enzyme exfoliants, which exfoliate via enzyme reactions. They work similarly to acids: "On a basic level, enzymes called proteolytic enzymes break down the binding proteins which act as a 'glue' to hold dead skin cells at the skin's surface together," says Dr. Skotnicki. "They work similarly to AHA but are more gentle." The most common enzyme exfoliants include bromelain, papain, and pumpkin enzyme, which are sourced from pineapple, papaya, and (you guessed it) pumpkin, respectively, she says.
When it comes to exfoliation, the possibility of going overboard is very real. "Over exfoliating the skin can result in making your skin sensitive and irritated," says Dr. Obagi. "We need an intact stratum corneum (the dead outermost layer of skin) to trap in moisture and prevent harmful agents [like bacteria] from penetrating the skin. By over-exfoliating, you are removing this protective layer resulting in irritation and sensitivity." If your skin feels raw, red, and irritated, that might be a sign that you're going overboard, she says. (You can overdo it either with a harsh formula and/or how often you're exfoliating.) Most derms recommend exfoliating once a week, but it's often appropriate to increase frequency with age, notes Dr. Skotnicki. (Again, your skin's natural cell turnover process can slow down over time.)
Dermatologists tend to recommend going with chemical exfoliants over physical exfoliants, says Dr. Skotnicki. "Physical exfoliants can be unnecessarily abrasive and harsh on the skin, and this damage can then lead to dryness and irritation," she says. "Physical exfoliants can cause micro-tears resulting in skin damage over time, leaving it prone to irritability." If you do want to go with a scrub, take a look at the ingredient list. "It's best to avoid the more abrasive scrubs with harder ingredients like nut shells and fruit pits because they are more abrasive to the skin," says Dr. Skotnicki. If you want to go with a scrub, you're better off with formulas that incorporate sugar particles or biodegradable water-soluble beads as their abrasive, she says. (Related: People Are Dragging Kylie Jenner for Including a Walnut Face Scrub In Her Skin-Care Line)
Chemical exfoliants also have the potential to cause irritation, especially if they contain acids in relatively high concentrations. For instance, formulas with an AHA in a concentration of more than 6 percent can leave your face irritated, says Dr. Obagi. With acid-containing products, the concentration of the ingredient will typically be labeled on the packaging.
But as long as you don't take it too far, exfoliation can help you become your glowiest self. If you're ready to send your excess dead skin cells packing, here are some of the best face exfoliants to add to your routine.
Best Face Exfoliators
Dr. Barbara Sturm Enzyme Cleanser
If you want in on the gentle exfoliation enzyme cleansers can provide, consider Dr. Barbara Sturm Enzyme Cleanser, which contains the enzymes subtilisin and lipase. It comes as a powder, and you add water to it to create an exfoliating paste. Powder skin-care products are more eco-friendly in general, and adding water activates the enzymes. (Related: The Best Face Scrubs to Achieve Bright, Smooth Skin)
Obagi Professional-C Microdermabrasion Polish Mask
For patients who find that even the daily use of an AHA or PHA product doesn't suffice, Dr. Obagi likes to suggest incorporating physical exfoliation by using this microdermabrasion brightening mask from her own brand every one to two weeks. "It exfoliates while infusing 30 percent Vitamin C into the skin," she says. "Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps protect the skin."
Philosophy Purity Made Simple Pore Extractor Mask
Dealing with blackheads and pronounced pores? Philosophy Purity Made Simple Pore Extractor Mask incorporates salicylic acid (a BHA) for a deep clean. It also contains kaolin and bentonite clays to absorb excess oil.
La Roche Posay Ultra-Fine Exfoliating Scrub Face Wash
If you want to try out a physically exfoliating scrub, you can opt for La Roche Posay Ultra-Fine Exfoliating Scrub Face Wash. Made with fine pumice particles that provide physical exfoliation, it's meant to be used two to three times per week.
Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
This leave-on liquid, which you apply after cleansing and toning, is the best daily face exfoliator judging by its popularity — it's currently an Amazon bestseller and the brand's top seller worldwide. The formula contains salicylic acid to clear out pores but is gentle enough that it's intended for daily use.
Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant Exfoliator
Likewise a contender for best everyday face exfoliator, Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant calls on papain and salicylic acid to unclog pores. Once you've used it up, you have the option to buy the powder-to-foam exfoliator in refill packets, which use up 92 percent less plastic than the original packaging. (If you already have a suitable container, you can go straight for the refill packets.)
Tatcha The Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Cleanser
With papain and rice enzymes, this fine powder is another just-add-water option. It comes in "gentle," "calming," and "deep" variations, so you can but the option that's best for your skin's needs. Each contains green tea and algae, which are both rich in antioxidants, which can help reduce free radical damage.