If you struggle with acne-prone skin, you may feel a bit uneasy at the thought of about adding an exfoliant into your skin-care routine. Though many exfoliators have a reputation of leaving your skin baby soft, others have harsh formulas that can actually cause more harm than good (like causing micro-tears, inflammation, or just dry, agitated skin). But in order to prevent future breakouts and achieve a smoother, more even complexion, regular exfoliation is key. Which is why finding the right exfoliator for acne-prone skin is important.
“Acne results from a buildup of oil (sebum) and dead skin cells (keratin) inside the hair follicle or pores,” says board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Skintap.com, Dr. Mamina Turegano, MD, FAAD. "Exfoliation can help to decrease the amount of pore contents, which can then decrease acne formation.”
In other words, dead skin cells on the surface of your skin trap dirt, oil, and bacteria inside your pores, which is what leads to breakouts. Because the main goal of exfoliation is to remove dead skin, it's an important part of an acne-fighting regimen. That said, it's important to choose the right exfoliant.
What type of exfoliant is best for acne-prone skin?
There are two types: Physical exfoliants, which use tiny particles such as rice, grain or jojoba breads to literally scrub off the dead skin cells from the surface. And chemical exfoliants, which use alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) to break down dead skin cells. Both can work on acne-prone skin, but due to the gentle and non-abrasive nature of chemical exfoliants, these are a better option to use on blemishes (mechanical exfoliants like scrubs with micro-beads can result in tiny fissures on the skin and irritation).
"I generally recommend chemical exfoliants over physical exfoliants," says board-certified aesthetic plastic surgeon and founder of the skin-care line Dr. Koo Private Practice, Dr. Michele Koo, MD. "Chemical exfoliants, like salicylic acid or alpha-hydroxy acids, are more targeted for the issues that cause acne. " This is because their solutions are able to penetrate the skin deep below surface to unclog your pores. She then added, "Physical exfoliants can be helpful, but depending on the exfoliant, physical damage (micro tears) in the skin can be made without being readily noticed initially. This can cause issues long term." In some cases, the micro tears can become a home for bacteria and cause inflammation.
How often should you exfoliate if you have acne-prone skin?
It varies based on everyone's skin tolerance. To be on the safe side, try exfoliating one to two times a week. Keep an eye on how your skin reacts, and then you can increase to exfoliating every other day—if your skin can tolerate it, according to aesthetician Ian Michael Crumm.
For those unsure about what exfoliator to use for their sensitive skin type, take a look at these expert picks below.
Best exfoliators for acne
No surprise here. This liquid exfoliant is a constant best-seller and number one pick among derms and beauty experts alike. The secret is the gentle formulation and strong dose of salicylic acid that helps remove dead skin cells and give you smoother and brighter skin within minutes. But the best part? “This can be left on after cleansing and toning, which is a great way to ensure the exfoliating ingredients have ample time to do their magic, versus washing [it] off after a minute or two,” says Crumm.
While many exfoliators rely solely on some type of hydroxy acid to remove all the dirt and build-up on your skin, this solution has another secret weapon. “In addition to salicylic and glycolic acids, this formula contains azelaic acid, too. Azelaic acid helps kill acne-causing bacteria and diminish the appearance of post-acne marks, which makes this a great cleanser for anyone who has been dealing with acne regularly and wants to reduce post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation marks,” says Crumm.
If your skin is on the drier side, this is a great solution to keep in your bathroom to give your skin the VIP treatment. Not only is it super gentle, but it’s also packed with ceramides to restore your skin’s moisture barrier. This includes ingredients like hyaluronic acid (a powerful moisturizing agent) and niacinamide (a nutrient that helps to reduce inflammation and prevent moisture loss).
Although mechanical exfoliants may often be too harsh to use on acne-prone skin, this one is in the clear, according to Dr. Koo. It’s designed with sensitive skin in mind, so rest assured, there should’t be any irritating ingredients to cause your skin to flare up. The scrub uses micro-fine granules which gently buff the skin to support “natural surface cell turnover.” Plus, the formula contains vitamin C to brighten and keep you protected from sun damage all day long.
Struggle with hyperpigmentation? This powerful mask is here to give your skin the ultimate glow-up. The glycolic and lactic acids help to clear away the dead skin cells and fade dark spots, while the salicylic acid helps to reduce the appearance of pores and redness. Just be sure to do a patch test first and keep the mask on for three minutes, tops.
For softer skin texture, this solution from Neutrogena is a must-have, according to Crumm. “The formula contains polyhydroxy, glycolic, and salicylic acids in a percentage that is often tolerated daily,” says Crumm. “To start, this can be used as a nighttime cleanser and alternated with a non-exfoliating cleanser in the morning to ensure skin doesn’t have sensitivities before using it every morning and night.”
This powder-to-foam exfoliator gets its strength from using finely ground rice bran and papaya enzymes. These work to buff the skin without causing irritation or stripping the skin of its moisture. “This is super gentle on the skin,” says Crumm. “You get that scrubbing satisfaction only achieved with physical exfoliants without over-rubbing the skin barrier. The formula includes licorice root extract to help calm skin, which is vital when dealing with acne inflammation.”
Board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of Skintap.com, Dr. Mamina Turegano, MD is a huge fan of the SkinMedica AHA/BHA Cleanser. For one, it has a pretty powerful combo of alpha-hydroxy and beta-hydroxy acids including lactic acid, glycolic ccid, citric acid, and malic acid to help unclog your pores. And two, the formula contains jojoba oil to give your skin a major hydration boost and reduce irritation.
One of the newest offerings from La Roche-Posay is the Effaclar Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment Serum. It’s super lightweight and helps to clear blemishes and prevent new breakouts using ingredients like 1.5 percent salicylic acid, niacinamide, and La Roche-Posay Thermal Spring Water. Be sure to apply during the daytime and follow it up with some SPF to keep your skin protected.
Another personal favorite of Dr. Turegano is the Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel. Each pack (the standard size contains 30 packets, but you can always try the mini size if you’re not ready to commit) contains one exfoliating treatment to help smooth your texture and one retinol treatment to use immediately after to target fine lines and balance the effects of the first peel. It’s truly like a facial in a package. FYI, the exfoliating formula uses a whopping five AHA/BHAs together with chamomile to calm the skin.
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly buy, The Ordinary’s Lactic Acid 10% + HA exfoliating solution doesn’t disappoint, according to board-certified dermatologist and founder of Unity Skincare, Dr. Allison Leer, MD. It’s one of her personal favorites to use on acne-prone skin, thanks to its high dosage of lactic acid that gently removes any build-up of dead skin cells.
Yup, another Ordinary go-to we’ve gotta drop. This product may have started out as a TikTok fave a few years ago, but beauty experts and derms are still singing its praises to this day. That’s because of its rich acidic formulation, which includes a mixture of 30 percent alpha hydroxy acids, and two percent beta hydroxy acid. Together, these chemical compounds help dissolve dead skin cells and remove any dirt backing up your pores.
For those suffering from both acne and super dry skin, say hello to the Murad Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel. It’s a two-pronged exfoliating solution that works to smooth and brighten your skin’s texture over time. Additionally, it’s packed with antioxidants and omega-rich oils to build up your skin’s barrier in the process.
Give your pores the VIP treatment with this leave-on exfoliating serum from Philosophy. The salicylic acid together with lentil seed, lilac cell and lemon myrtle extract work together to help stop excessive oil production in your pores. Just apply one to two pumps on your face during your regular routine and follow up with a moisturizer.
As far as powerful solutions go, it doesn’t get any better than the Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial™ AHA + BHA Mask. The formula contains 25 percent AHAs, including glycolic, tartaric, lactic, and citric acids to give your skin some serious glow and smoothness. Plus, there’s a bit of salicylic acid mixed in to unclog your pores. But the extra kick comes from the chickpea flour, which helps to visibly brighten your skin over time.
This solution combines the power of both a physical and chemical exfoliant into one. “The upcycled charcoal and rice create a very gentle powder to softly buff away dead skin cells, which is paired with salicylic acid for added exfoliation and sebum control,” says Crumm. “I also really like how this is marketed for the scalp as well, so definitely get in that hairline and make sure product buildup, aka styling creams, etc., don’t contribute to acne at the scalp on the hairline.”
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