If You Can’t Be Bothered to Exfoliate, Derms Say Switching up Your Cleanser Can Do the Trick

Photo: Getty Images/Hiraman
As I've revealed in my very own beauty horror story, I've been known to over-exfoliate in the past, which is not so great. The main goal of my skin-care routine is (still) to get dull skin off to reveal new, happy skin underneath, though. That's why my beauty cabinet's stocked with exfoliating face cleansers, peel pads, and a glycolic-spiked face lotion or two to get rid of the gunk in my pores to make sure my complexion still glows. Then, a couple of dermatologists told me that everyone can get their daily exfoliation needs with nothing more than a cleanser... which is TBH, not something I'd expect since you rinse it right off.

"You just need an alpha- and beta-hydroxy acid in a face wash, and it cuts out a step [in your routine]," says Morgan Rabach, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical, who notes this is something all skin types should incorporate into their regimen. She's a fan of chemical exfoliants over face scrubs because they offer a more even exfoliation. "Physical scrubs only take off the outer layers of the skin," she says. "An exfoliator with a chemical will take off outer layers to a certain extent, but also actively brighten and go deeper into the skin." She says that this helps to brighten the complexion, while also targeting pigmentation within the skin (a double bonus).

Unlike scrubs, chemical exfoliants have the added perk of stimulating your collagen production, which results in a more radiant, clear complexion. "Chemical exfoliants trick the skin into thinking it is wounded and shrinks pores and boosts collagen production," says Purvisha Patel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare.

You may be wondering (as I did), though, about how a face wash can work all the skin debris-sloughing magic if it's only on skin for a matter of seconds. "Cleansers are formulated to work in the brief time they are in contact with your skin," says Dr. Patel. And, usually, the acid ratio is higher in a cleanser than in a cream, according to Dr. Rabach, which means your skin gets a higher dose of the sloughing ingredient. Her pro tip? "Put the cleanser on in the beginning of the shower, and wash off at the end so you have about 10 minutes with it on." Yes, you just got permission to wash your face in the shower.

That's all you need, too. "Adding more exfoliants by way of additional products in your routine produces more exfoliation and could create sensitivity depending on your skin type," says Dr. Patel. This is especially the case if your skin is really reactive. "Using too many products with exfoliating agents, like AHAs, retinol, and vitamin C can make the skin extra peely and lead to sensitivity. Limiting your regimen to one product with AHA can prevent this," she says. So, leave it to your all-star exfoliating face wash—we've rounded up our faves below.

Photo: Skinceuticals

SkinCeuticals Glycolic Renewal Gel Cleanser, $38

This glycolic cleanser from derm-favorite brand SkinCeuticals is brand-spanking new. It's gentle enough for dehydrated skin so it won't dry you out, but it takes care of skin resurfacing in a big way to reveal an even-keeled skin underneath.


Photo: Holifrog

Holifrog Shasta AHA Refining Acid Wash, $38

This cleanser is like a radiance-boosting serum in face wash form. It's got a brightening, exfoliating blend of AHAs like glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acids, along with antioxidant and fatty-acid spiked oils that reveal softer, less dull skin without being drying.

Photo: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Pore Perfecting Cleansing Gel, $38

Get the skin-beautifying benefits of dermatologist Dr. Gross's cult-fave peel pads—a beauty essential amongst the Well+Good beauty editor team—in cleanser form. It's got a mix of AHA and BHA acids to fully wash away debris on your face to reveal a brighter complexion.

Photo: Mario Badescu

Mario Badescu Enzyme Cleansing Gel, $14

The glow-inducing mix of AHAs—from papaya and grapefruit extracts—work to peel off dead skin cells and pore gunk without leaving your skin stripped of its natural moisture, thanks to hydrating glycerin.


Photo: SkinMedica

SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser, $47

Dr. Rabach swears by this combo AHA and BHA cleanser that uses a slew of chemical exfoliants along with bilberry and licorice extract to really target hyperpigmentation as it clears your pores.

Photo: Protocol

Protocol Double Alpha Hydroxy Cleanser, $48

This new brand, developed by pharmaceutical doctors and dermatologists, uses nourishing AHA (via lactic acid) and soothing aloe vera and green tea extract for a gel-texture exfoliant that gets the job done.

After you exfoliate, be sure to slather on these dry skin ingredients to keep your complexion moisturized. And this is how to recover if you're experiencing any facial skin irritation

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