20 Face Exfoliators That Are Your Golden Ticket to Smoother Skin

Photo: Stocksy / Liliya Rodnikova

Whether you consider yourself skincare-savvy or a novice at best, you’ve probably heard the term “exfoliator” dozens of times. You may have come across an exfoliating routine on your FYP, maybe as a suggestion from your dermatologist, or even labeled on some of your favorite skincare products. No matter where and when you first heard about them, we’re here to tell you that the hype is real: exfoliators truly are the golden ticket to glowing skin. Figuring out the proper exfoliation routine to help you get there, however, requires a delicate balance of methods and products because there are a slew of exfoliator facial cleansers, serums, and treatments to choose from.

Experts In This Article

Here, we spoke with three experts about why you need a facial exfoliator, the different types of exfoliators, and how often to incorporate them into your regimen. We’re also sharing our top 20 best exfoliators to help you kickstart your path to smoother skin. 

Our top 20 exfoliators, at a glance:

Why you need an exfoliator

Exfoliation removes the outermost layers of the epidermis to reveal new skin beneath, according to Dr. King. "This shedding of the outer layer unclogs pores, removes dead skin cells, and helps reduce acne breakouts. It also smooths and polishes the skin, decreasing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and evening out the texture," she says. 

Regular exfoliation is necessary because, over time, it can increase cell turnover and stimulate collagen production, making your skin feel smoother—it can also encourage a healthier skin barrier, preventing breakouts, redness, and inflammation altogether. "Exfoliation may also facilitate enhanced absorption of active ingredient-containing skincare products and improve the penetration of laser treatments," says dermatologist Dr. Rambhia.

What are the different types of exfoliators?

There are two types of exfoliators: physical and chemical. "Chemical exfoliants include alpha-hydroxy or beta-hydroxy acids, like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, fruit enzymes, citric acid, malic acid, etc., which may be applied in high concentrations by a dermatologist, or in lower concentrations in over-the-counter products," says Dr. King. These acids act as 'bond breakers' and dissolve the glue-like substance that holds dull, dead cells to the skin's surface. 

Chemical exfoliators are generally tolerated among most skin types, and exfoliating ingredients like lactic acid (AHA) and poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs) are known to be a little gentler on the skin. "Poly-hydroxy acid molecules are larger and cannot penetrate as deeply. This ensures that they work on the skin's surface without affecting the layers underneath, making them less irritating," Dr. King adds. PHAs are a great exfoliating option for those with sensitive skin types and remain effective for minimizing the appearance of discoloration, fine lines, and dullness.

Physical or mechanical exfoliators, on the other hand, involve physically scrubbing the skin with an abrasive ingredient to slough off the dead cells. Physical exfoliant formulas can include micro-beads, crushed seeds, kernels, shells, microcrystalline, sugar, salt, or pumice. "Physical exfoliating can also include microdermabrasion and mechanical brushes," says Dr. Hassanali. "Physical exfoliators typically provide more immediate smoothness but can often be too harsh for sensitive or acne-prone skin." Regarding using exfoliating scrubs, Dr. King recommends using products with small, fine particles. "Large, more abrasive particles can leave many tiny micro-tears and cause irritation," she says.

And she's right—the potential risk of damage from physical exfoliation can lead to irritation, inflammation, and, in some cases, infection. Because of this, when physically exfoliating, it's important to use very gentle pressure during application.

What skin concerns do exfoliators address?

According to Dr. Rambhia, exfoliation can effectively address skin concerns such as uneven and dull skin tone, fine lines, and textural irregularities, improving the appearance of pores and acne. "Exfoliating the skin offers numerous benefits, including helping to unclog pores, fostering smoother and softer skin for improved texture, and elevating overall skin radiance," she says. 

How often should you exfoliate?

When it comes to how often you should exfoliate, it all depends on your skin type. For drier, more sensitive skin types, Dr. Rambhia recommends using a mild chemical exfoliator no more than twice weekly. Oilier skin types can exfoliate three to four times weekly. However, it's always important to start slowly when first incorporating exfoliators into your skincare regimen before ramping up use to multiple times per week," she says.

According to experts, it is possible to over-exfoliate the skin. "If you notice any signs of irritation such as redness, flaking, or severe dryness, decrease the frequency or switch to a more gentle exfoliant," says Hassanali. This is also why it's recommended to use exfoliating formulas with a moisturizing base. Dr. King says to look for exfoliators that contain humectants like glycerin or hyaluronic acid to hydrate the skin, emollients like triglycerides or ceramides to support the skin barrier, or occlusives like petrolatum to lock in moisture. Niacinamide, allantoin, and aloe vera are also great soothing ingredients for an exfoliating product. If you have certain conditions, like rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis, consult with your dermatology provider first, says Hassanali, as exfoliation can exacerbate these conditions. 

As for post-exfoliant care, avoid applying any potential skin irritants immediately after or for the rest of the day (e.g., no retinoids). It's also a must to avoid sun exposure, and if you're going to be exposed, apply a generous amount of sunscreen at the end of your skincare routine. "This approach helps maintain a balanced and optimized skincare regimen while minimizing the potential for adverse reactions," says Dr. Rambhia.

Best overall: Paula’s Choice, 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant — $35.00

Key ingredients: salicylic acid, green tea

There’s a reason that this liquid exfoliant is a favorite pick for many, and a go-to for beauty editors alike. It combines BHA (salicylic acid) plus green tea to minimize the appearance of large pores, even out skin tone and texture, and exfoliate clogged, congested areas. Your skin will be left looking blemish-free and radiant!

Size: 4 fl oz

Best for acne: Byoma, Clarifying Serum — $17.00

Key ingredients: blue tansy, poly-hydroxy-acids (PHA), Zinc

Acne is no match against this lightweight clarifying serum that exfoliates skin with poly-hydroxy-acids (PHA) and zinc. It also contains a tri-ceramide complex plus blue tansy to calm redness and inflammation, making it a great pick for those looking to reduce pimple size.

Size: 1 fl oz

Best for oily skin: Glow Recipe, Strawberry Smooth BHA + AHA Salicylic Acid Serum — $42.00

Key ingredients: salicylic acid, glycolic acid, strawberry

If you’re looking to mattify your skin, opt for this pick with a 10% acid complex that gently exfoliates the skin and reduces the appearance of excess oil and uneven texture. We love that this serum is also vegan, and the bottle is 100% recyclable.

Size: 1 fl oz


Best for dark spots: Urban Skin Rx, ​​BrighterDays Dark Spot 8% AHA Polish — $20.00

Key ingredients: glycolic acid, lactic acid, papaya extract

Made with melanated skin in mind, this dual chemical and mechanical dark spot-exfoliating polish is a must-try in our book. It contains a proprietary clear-tone complex blend of six ingredients that work to eliminate dark spots and reveal radiant skin and even texture.

Size: 2.5 fl oz

Best for dry skin: Tata Harper, Regenerating BHA Exfoliating Cleanser — $88.00

Key ingredients: salicylic acid, white willow bark, olive oil

We love that this triple-action exfoliating cleanser is dry-skin friendly. White willow bark and salicylic acid meet apricot microspheres in this gentle scrub, while an olive oil complex moisturizes and soothes the skin post-application, so it won’t feel stripped or tight.


Size: 4.1 fl oz

Best for sensitive skin: Aveeno, Calm + Restore Nourishing PHA Facial Exfoliator — $16.00

Key ingredients: poly-hydroxy-acids (PHA), oat oil

We’ll say it loud for those in the back: it’s ok to exfoliate sensitive skin. This calming facial wash makes the feat a little easier thanks to gentle exfoliation from PHA and hydrating oat oil. It will leave your skin feeling fresh and calm.

Size: 4 fl oz

Best face mask: Youth to the People Yerba Mate Resurfacing + Exfoliating Energy Facial with Enzymes + Niacinamide — $59.00

Key ingredients: yerba mate, papaya

For an exfoliating treatment you can incorporate into your next self-care routine, try this resurfacing mask. It has a combination of yerba mate, papaya, and pineapple enzymes, plus bamboo exfoliants to gently slough away dead skin cells. It’s a go-to chemical and physical exfoliant when my skin needs a jolt of energy.

Size: 2 fl oz

Best for acne scars: Alastin, Resurface Skin Polish — $68.00

Key ingredients: glycolic acid, perlite

Dr. Rambhia recommends this pick for resurfacing skin texture.“This dual-action physical exfoliating micropolish includes chemical exfoliants like glycolic acid to immediately improve skin smoothness and brightness. This should not be used more than once per week to minimize irritation,” she says.

Size: 2.3 fl oz

Best for dull skin: The Outset, Exfoliating Revitalizing & Energizing Caffeine Micro Polish — $34.00

Key ingredients: fine perlite, caffeine

Sometimes your skin needs a cup of coffee, and this energizing caffeine scrub can do just the trick. It plumps the skin and gently exfoliates with fine perlite minerals; not to mention, it also contains caffeine to help give dull skin a much-needed boost of radiance (and energy!).

Size: 3.3 fl oz

Best drugstore: Pixi, Glow Tonic 5% Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Toner — $18.00

Key ingredients: glycolic acid, aloe vera

Luminous skin is a few swipes away with this toner. It contains 5% glycolic acid to help clear congested pores and helps mattify and revitalize the skin with soothing aloe vera.

Size: 8.4 fl oz

Best budget: The Ordinary, AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution — $10.00

Key ingredients: glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, sodium hyaluronate

This peeling serum is not for the faint of heart and has a reputation of retexturizing skin and clearing pores with a multi-acid complex. It’s recommended to use this solution only if your skin is experienced with acid exfoliants, but it’s a great budget pick for only $10.

forSize: 1 fl oz

Best peel pads: Dr. Dennis Gross, Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel Pads — $92.00

Key ingredients: glycolic acid, lactic acid, resveratrol


A cult-classic, these peel pads are known to transform dull skin into its luminous alter-ego. They contain glycolic, lactic, and malic acid to gently remove impurities and improve texture and tone. The pads also include resveratrol, an anti-inflammatory ingredient that boosts cellular health.

Size: 30 treatments + 5 bonus

Best overnight serum: Sunday Riley, Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment — $85.00

Key ingredients: lactic acid, licorice, prickly pear extract

You won’t want to sleep on this overnight exfoliation serum, but the good news is you can sleep with it on. This pick contains lactic acid to help slough off dead skin cells and excess sebum overnight and provides clear, hydrated skin by morning.

Size: 1 fl oz

Best scrub: Ole Henriksen, 10% AHA Lemonade Smoothing Scrub — $35.00

Key ingredients: glycolic acid, lactic acid, lemon peel

This AHA smoothing scrub is proof that exfoliation can be a treat. It works to polish skin chemically and physically with glycolic and lactic acid, plus ultra-fine sugar granules and lemon peel. Your skin will feel softer and smoother after cleansing, and it smells heavenly.

Size: 3 fl oz

Best gentle pick: Beekman 1802, Oat and Goat Milk Exfoliating Cleanser — $29.00

Key ingredients: lactic acid, jojoba beads, oat milk

Gentle yet effective, Dr. King loves this pick from Beekman 1802. “Jojoba beads provide gentle physical exfoliation, while lactic acid from goat milk gently chemically exfoliates and hydrates the skin,” she says. Oat milk also contains lipid properties, proteins, and starches that nourish and moisturize.

Size: 3 fl oz

Best splurge: La Mer, the Resurfacing Treatment — $140.00

Key ingredients: AHAs, BHAS, PHAs, marine enzymes

A luxe exfoliation treatment doesn’t get much better than this one, with a proprietary Miracle Broth and AHA, BHA, and PHA blend. It smooths uneven texture and tone and helps keep the skin looking clear and blemish-free.

Size: 3.4 fl oz

Best stick: Peace Out, AHA Pore & Blackhead Exfoliator Multitasking Treatment Stick — $24.00

Key ingredients: kaolin clay, multi-acid blend, mushroom extract

Probably the most *fun* exfoliator to apply on this list, this pore-cleaning stick helps reduce oiliness and shine. It has a five-acid blend plus kaolin clay and mushroom extract to smooth out texture and help reduce pimple size and formation.

Size: 0.53 fl oz

Best powder cleanser: Kiehl’s, Rare Earth Deep Pore-Minimizing & Polishing Powder Cleanser — $38.00

Key ingredients: Amazonian white clay, microcrystalline grains, AHA

Powder cleansers might not be the most user-friendly exfoliants out there, but hear us out: this pore-minimizing pick makes it worth the extra step. It contains Amazonian white clay and microcrystalline grains to exfoliate and suck up congested blackheads and pimples, plus AHA to clarify skin texture and tone.

Size: 3.5 fl oz

Best cream: SkinCeuticals, Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight Cream — $90.00

Key ingredients: glycolic acid, phytic acid,

Dr. Rambhia loves this exfoliating overnight cream with a multi-acid blend. “This fragrance-free, non-comedogenic nighttime cream contains 10% glycolic acid as well as phytic acid to help improve skin tone and texture,” she says.

Size: 1.7 fl oz

Best toner: Farmacy, Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleaning Toner with Moringa + Papaya — $34.00

Key ingredients: salicylic acid, papaya enzymes

Incorporating an exfoliating toner into your routine is a must if you want to address dark spots, fine lines, or acne scars. We love this exfoliating pick that has 2% salicylic acid plus papaya enzymes to gently exfoliate and improve the appearance of dull skin and splotchy areas. It’s also an excellent mattifier, so oily skin will drink this right up.

Size: 4 fl oz

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