I’ll be honest: I feel like the concept of exfoliating as a skincare step has taken some beating in recent years. Once upon a time, exfoliating (the process of removing dead skin cells from the surface of the skin) was considered an essential part of every at-home skin routine. Once or twice a week, we were encouraged by experts to use either a scrub or an acid treatment to help unclog pores, remove dead skin cells and reveal brighter, clearer skin.
But then scrubs got cancelled. Experts and brands told us that we were destroying our skin barriers and causing our complexions major upset as a result, so the industry moved us onto non-abrasive, acid exfoliators. But now, it seems as though they too can cause issues, and so the concept of using an at-home exfoliant has slowly faded out. Instead, we’re encouraged to champion hydration and nourishment wherever we can and protect our skin barriers at all costs.
But the truth is that as with most things in life, the real sweet spot for our skin sits somewhere in the middle. Yes, we need to be protecting our skin barriers, but exfoliation is also key in keeping skin glowy and free from congestion. As someone with oily, congested skin, I had to figure this out the hard way.
You see, I’ve grappled with blackheads my whole life. I genuinely can’t remember a time when my nose wasn’t covered in those pesky, pin-prick dots. Over the past couple of years, with beauty messaging telling me that I should prioritise the health of my skin barrier, I had become somewhat scared of exfoliation. As a result, my blackheads got a whole lot worse.
I have since realised that exfoliation does have its place. It’s about taking things easy, choosing the right products and listening to your skin so that you know when to stop. Since picking up exfoliating treatments once or twice a week and concentrating on areas that need them most, I have noticed a significant improvement in both blackheads and skin radiance. If you’re also struggling to navigate the complex world of exfoliating, keep scrolling to shop the 16 best facial exfoliators for every skin need.
1. Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment
This stuff means business, so if your dry skin is prone to sensitivity, I urge you to do a patch test and leave this treatment on for no longer than one minute. It contains a very gentle physical scrub (which I’m not wild about) along with enzymatic exfoliators and alpha-hydroxy acids. After just a minute of use (the tube says two minutes, but I’d definitely recommend working your way up to that), skin looks instantly glowy, smoother and more radiant.
2. Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial
If it’s smooth, soft skin you’re after, look no further than this truly wonderful exfoliator by Drunk Elephant. Don’t be misled by the pretty, baby-pink bottle because what’s inside is far from delicate. A powerful concoction of alpha-hydroxy acids and beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid), it works to reveal brighter, glowing skin and unclog pores to reduce congestion. My advice? Use it no more than once a week in the evenings, and slather on a hydrating cream straight after for clearer, glowing skin come morning. It really is like a facial in a bottle.
3. Pixi Glow Tonic
This product is a cult-favourite for a reason. With a powerful concentration of glycolic acid, it really has glow in mind, making it ideal for lacklustre, dry skin. Although lots of people use this product every evening, it’s wise to use it once or twice a week to make sure you’re not destroying your skin’s natural moisture barrier (no matter how much you love that glow).
4. Ren Clean Skincare Glycol Lactic Radiance Mask
This mask is one of my go-to exfoliating treatments for when my skin is feeling a little dry and dull. Slather on a thick layer, leave it for 10 minutes and let those alpha-hydroxy acids do their radiance-boosting thing. It’s normal to feel a little tingle, but if it feels intense or uncomfortable, it’s best to rinse it off.
5. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant is considered one of the best exfoliating treatments that money can buy, especially if your skin is oily and prone to congestion. Salicylic acid helps to unclog pores, reduce the appearance of blackheads, and soothe skin while it’s at it. Just swipe it over your face after cleansing in the evening, and hit the hay—it will get to work overnight.
6. Clinique Exfoliating Scrub
Scrubs certainly have their place, although they should be avoided if your skin is prone to sensitivity. More tolerant, oily skin types are most likely to benefit from physical exfoliants. This one from Clinique helps to boost glow and unclog congested pores.
7. Dr. Barbara Sturm Enzyme Cleanser
I have loved this cleanser for many moons but recently had to stop using it as it didn’t marry up well with some new acne medication I have been prescribed. Essentially, it’s a powder containing exfoliating enzymes that turns into a milky foam and activates when mixed with water. I passed it onto a friend who wanted something supercharged to help blitz his breakouts. He called me a week after to tell me that it is without a doubt the most effective product he’s tried. I’ll be honest: I miss it dearly.
8. Goldfaden MD Doctor’s Scrub
If your skin is really tolerant and your excess oil production leaves your complexion looking clogged up and dull, I urge you to try this scrub. You must be gentle and use it once a week at the most, but once you’ve experienced the almost unbelievable pore-refining, skin-smoothing, glow-boosting results, you’ll never want to be without it.
9. Fresh Sugar Strawberry Exfoliating Face Wash
Combination skin can be tricky to tackle when it comes to exfoliation. You want to look for products effective enough to decongest oily areas but gentle enough to not upset drier areas. This gel face wash utilises gentle grains that can be worked into areas that need it the most and gently rolled over other areas to deliver next-level softness.
10. Murad Vita-C Triple Exfoliating Facial
I love this treatment for its versatility. It contains some pretty aggressive physical exfoliants, but you needn’t worry about going in too hard. You work the product into wet skin, gently rolling rather than scrubbing. The second the orange cream turns white, stop and let it sit for up to 10 minutes. It has vitamin C to deliver antioxidant benefits and enzymatic and chemical exfoliants to resurface, so it’s one hell of a way to get facial-like results at home.
11. Alpha-H Liquid Gold
Liquid exfoliants like this one can be applied only to areas where you feel like you need them the most. This glycolic acid concoction will help to resurface skin and even out pigmentation and texture.
12. Youth to the People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant
Mandelic acid is a great ingredient to reach for if you have combination skin thanks to its gentle approach to exfoliation. This solution contains mandelic acid to even skin tone, salicylic acid to unclog pores and dissolve excess oil and gluconolactone (a polyhydroxy acid) to resurface and support your skin barrier. It’s one of my favourite exfoliators of the moment.
13. Trinny London Tiptoe In
Sensitive skin types must be very careful with exfoliation. Instead of alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy acids, look for products like this one that contain polyhydroxy acids. They have a larger molecule size, which means they buff away at dead, pore-clogging skin cells without causing too much upset. As if that isn’t enough, they also help to restore moisture to prevent any future irritation. Just pat this product into cleansed skin, and leave it on to do its very best exfoliating work.
14. Byoma Clarifying Serum
If your skin is prone to breakouts but sensitive, this clarifying serum is ideal. It’s formulated with barrier-loving ceramides as well as polyhydroxy acid and zinc to gently exfoliate without stripping the skin of essential moisture.
15. Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel
You might have heard of Dr. Dennis Gross’s Alpha Beta Peel Pads before. Beauty insiders swear by their congestion-busting, glow-boosting powers. However, they are strong. But the brand released this ultra-gentle formula so that sensitive skin types can benefit from the magic, too. It does all of the same stuff in a much more delicate way.
16. Erborian Milk & Peel Balm
The key to nailing gentle exfoliation is ensuring your treatment is full of hydrating ingredients to act as a buffer for irritation. This milky cleansing balm soothes and nourishes skin while delivering enzymatic exfoliation to gently remove dead skin cells and refine the appearance of pores.
Next up, I turned 30 and made these changes to my skincare routine.