Powder Cleanser is the Best Way To Exfoliate Without Wrecking Your Skin Barrier, According to a Derm

Photo: Getty Images/PeopleImages
There are few things more satisfying than a smooth, freshly exfoliated face—whether you’re partial to peels and acids, or still using the same walnut scrub you first snagged in sixth grade (though we should warn you: it may be time to swap it in for a newer model). But as temperatures dip, it’s smart to consider a powdered cleanser, which offers a gentler, more controlled approach to exfoliation that’s less likely to disrupt your sensitive skin barrier.

Maintaining a healthy skin barrier should be top of mind all year long, of course—it's your first layer of defense against damage from pollution, UV rays, and environmental stressors—but this outermost layer is especially prone to problems in colder months. It’s no secret, after all, that winter weather isn’t easy on the epidermis: When icy outdoor temperatures collide with dry air, high thermostat settings, standard seasonal stress, and indoor environmental irritants, it’s a perfect storm of conditions that can lead to a damaged, sensitized skin barrier.  With that in mind, it makes sense that using harsh treatments in your routine this time of year is obviously a hard no. But exfoliation enthusiasts can still (safely!) get their fix c/o powdered cleansers, a derm-approved product that will help keep skin smooth and strong.

Experts In This Article

“A powdered cleanser effectively allows you to custom blend how thick or thin the consistency is, so you can match the level of exfoliation to what your skin needs in real time,” says Ranella Hirsch, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Boston.  Unlike traditional cleansers, which usually come in liquid form, these next-gen formulations deliver their actives by way of refined powders. To use them, you simply need to place a small amount of powder in the palm of your hand (check the label to see how much the brand recommends), then add just enough water to create your desired consistency. Less water makes for a grittier scrub, while more water dilutes the powder into a smoother formula. When you massage the powder into your skin using light, circular motions, it will gently slough away dead skin cells while leaving your barrier in tact. After rinsing with warm water, your skin will be smooth—and better primed to receive any skin-care ingredients that follow.

As with anything you put on your face, ingredients are important when it comes to picking the right powdered product. If your skin is dry or sensitive, look for formulas that feature antioxidants, adzuki, honey or chamomile—all of which are soothing, says Dr. Hirsch. If you’re on the oily side, try a powdered cleanser that utilizes enzymes, such as papaya, which offer a form of chemical exfoliation that's gentler than the physical exfoliation that gritty ingredients like rice bran will give off. And no matter what type of skin you've got, Dr. Hirsch suggests following up your powdered cleansing routine with a barrier-friendly moisturizer with glycerin, a humectant that will pull water into the outer layer of your skin.

Though powdered cleansers are gentle exfoliants, they're still exfoliants, which means that you should proceed with care and pay attention to what your skin is saying when first introducing them into your routine. “The most important thing to remember is that just because powdered cleansers are gentle and easier to control does not mean that you can’t overdo it,” warns Dr. Hirsch. If your skin is feeling tight, dry, inflamed, or sensitive—or if it stings when you apply products—it’s safe to say your barrier needs some TLC. Stop use if you show any signs of irritation—and be sure to baby that barrier all winter long.

Shop powdered cleansers

1. AmorePacific Treatment Enzyme Peel Cleansing Powder, $60

Photo: AmorePacific

You can’t go wrong with the holy grail powdered cleanser from Korean skin-care brand AmorePacific, which Dr. Hirsch recommends for sensitive skin in particular. The foaming formula uses a green tea-derived probiotic enzyme to remove dead skin cells. “It also features papaya, which is a lovely, light exfoliant that supports turnover,” says Dr. Hirsch. It’s gentle enough to use daily but powerful enough to remove makeup and impurities in one single cleansing session.

Shop now: AmorePacific Treatment Enzyme Peel Cleansing Powder, $60 

2. Tatcha The Rice Polish Classic, $65

Photo: Tatcha

A true cult classic, Tatcha’s Rice Polish is available in four different formulas to cater to all skin types: normal to dry, normal to oily, dry, and sensitive. Each powder in the collection uses finely ground rice bran and papaya enzymes to cleanse and smooth without breaking the skin barrier, plus a trio of anti-aging Japanese superfoods (green tea, rice and algae) to boost radiance.

Shop now: Tatcha The Rice Polish: Classic, $65

3. Josie Maran Argan Exfoliating Cleansing Powder, $40

Photo: Josie Maran

If you’re looking for bonus blemish reduction with your exfoliation, Dr. Hirsch recommends this rice-based powder by Josie Maran for those with oily or acne-prone skin. “It uses argan shells, papain, and salicylic acid to fight breakouts,” she explains. And if the idea of shells sounds severe, know that they’re crushed into a super fine powder that gently buffs away dullness.

Shop now: Josie Maran Argan Exfoliating Cleansing Powder, $40

4. Mary Kay Naturally Exfoliating Powder, $34

Photo: Mary Kay

From the iconic brand’s clean and naturally-sourced label, Mary Kay Naturally, comes a rice starch-based powder. It’s fueled by hydrogenated castor oil, which is processed into fine wax beads for exfoliation and cell turnover, plus citric acid, an antioxidant that offers—you guessed it: more exfoliation. It’s a gentle formula perfect for normal, dry and even sensitive skin.

Shop now: Mary Kay Naturally Exfoliating Powder, $34

5. Dermalogica Daily Superfoliant, $59

Photo: Dermalogica

Pollution poses a major problem to skin health—but this ultra-fine exfoliant offers a solution. The powder features enzymes and alpha hydroxy acids to smooth skin, while the “anti-pollution technology” utilizes activated binchotan charcoal, which absorbs environmental toxins from deep within pores. It's also got niacinamide, red algae, and tara fruit extract, which help guard against environmental damage. The cleanser is safe for all skin types, but take note that it contains salicylic acid—so plan other skin-care steps accordingly.

Shop now: Dermalogica Daily Superfoliant, $59

6. Good Molecules Pineapple Exfoliating Powder, $16

Photo: Good Molecules

This fruit-fueled cleanser employs pineapple, papaya, and kiwi to buff and brighten. Each of these ingredients is rich in bromelain, a mix of  enzymes that remove keratin proteins from the skin’s surface and break down dead skin cells. Other star ingredients include rice starch and silk powder, which give you an ultra-gentle cleanse, and 1 percent calamine powder to soothe and protect.

Shop now: Good Molecules Pineapple Exfoliating Powder, $16

For more answers to your most pressing cleanser questions, check out the video below for more suggestions from Dr. Mona Gohara.

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