I think the skincare end goal for nearly everyone is to have a healthy, glowing, and smooth complexion. I'll also be the first person to admit that I've spent a lot of time and money finding products that will help me achieve said glow. The way I see it, it's an investment in myself and my health. My wallet may not love me for it, but it will pay off in the long run. The only hitch is that there are so many paths to so-called "good" skin, and the one you take depends on your skin type. The products you use for your oily skin might not work the same for your friend with dry skin. However, if there's one skincare product we should all invest in, it's a good exfoliant.
Choosing the right exfoliant can be tricky, but you'll want to focus on your particular skin needs. Exfoliating is a great way to help slough off dead skin cells to reveal smooth skin and encourage skin renewal. If you have oily, acne-prone, or combination skin, it might help to exfoliate more often. However, sensitive and dry skin types might be better off limiting their usage to once a week or less. The bottom line is everyone should keep an exfoliating product on hand, no matter their skin type. Even if you're skeptical, keep reading. We're sharing the best options you can snag at the drugstore, plus some advice from board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD.
Chemical vs. Physical Exfoliants
First, let's talk about the difference between chemical and physical exfoliants. "Chemical exfoliants and physical exfoliants have similar goals: to remove surface skin cells," says Nazarian. "But they use different mechanisms to do that, and that's what sets them apart from each other. Physical exfoliants use mechanical mechanisms to slough dead surface skin cells—'physically' removing the skin. This includes brushes, exfoliating beads, dermaplaning, etc. Chemical exfoliants, on the other hand, use ingredients that cause the loosening of bonds between skin cells, dissolving them to slough the cells off. The reasoning is similar: remove dead skin cells and enhance cell turnover to uncover newer, fresher, healthier skin cells, often leading to smoother, brighter skin. Thick layers of dead skin cells can accumulate on the skin, dulling its appearance and preventing all the good topicals from absorbing."
What to look for in an exfoliant
The exfoliant you use should be tailored to your skin type. Nazarian says oily or combination skin types can better tolerate physical exfoliants. "Delicate skin or people with other underlying skin conditions such as acne or rosacea tend to do better with chemical exfoliants," she says. That being said, you can certainly find versions of either that are good for your skin no matter who you are."
Nazarian also recommends looking for an exfoliant with hydrating ingredients that can help offset any potential irritation from exfoliating. "Another important consideration is the depth of skin you'll be removing when choosing your chemical exfoliants. Different ingredients can remove varying levels of skin. The ones that are most superficial (such as mandelic) are the most gentle. The deeper you exfoliate, such as with glycolic acid, the more aggressive the chemical peel."
Be wary of over-exfoliating, too. According to Nazarian, too much exfoliation will leave your skin red, tender, and hyper-sensitive. However, your skin can become lackluster, rough, and dull if you don't do it enough. "If you remove the skin faster than it has time to accumulate and 'over-exfoliate,' it'll be very raw and sensitive," she explains. "Take it slow and remember to use sunscreen often—the removal of the top layers of cells leaves you more sensitive to sunlight, radiation, and burns."
Best Chemical Exfoliator: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liqiuid Exfoliant
Pros: Gentle chemical exfoliant contains 2% salicylic acid, works great for most skin types, doesn't dry out skin, and clears clogged pores fast.
Cons: Not available at your local drugstore.
Although this chemical exfoliant isn't exactly available at your local CVS, it's still pretty well-priced for a high-quality BHA product. My skin is usually very sensitive to high concentrations of salicylic acid, but this is a really gentle formulation that works incredibly well. The Who What Wear beauty team regularly talks about how good this product is and how fast it works to help smooth out your skin tone and unclogs pores. It can also be used up to twice a day and doesn't dry your skin out.
Customer Review: "I cannot believe how quickly this exfoliator cleared up and soothed my angry, persistent hormonal chin acne. I am absolutely floored!... I saw this exfoliator on the page of another product on Amazon that I was looking at and noticed the crazy amount of reviews and that the overall score was 4.5. Surely there was something about this that could help me, and man…. I wish so badly I would have found it sooner! The horrific breakout on my chin that I had been battling for five months is now COMPLETELY cleared in just six days of using it morning and night! I look in the mirror every morning [and see] more improvement, and I'm floored. The fact that it doesn't sting and feels soothing on the skin is just crazy."
Best Physical Exfoliator: Acure Brightening Facial Scrub
Pros: Contains fine granules with chamomile and olive oils to exfoliate and calm skin, helps the skin maintain healthy barrier function, and can be used on the body.
Cons: The formula is really thick.
"A great physical exfoliant is the Acure Brightening Facial Scrub. The mix of fine physical granules with chamomile oil and olive oil calm and maintain a healthy skin barrier. Although it's a facial exfoliant, it works beautifully on the body as well." — Nazarian
Customer Review: "I enjoy a good face exfoliation when I notice I need one. I don't use it daily, so it does not dry out my already dry skin. I enjoy that it does not burn (during or after) when I use it. I rinse well in the shower [to avoid it leaving] little residue pieces, and then I always use moisturizer well afterward."
Best for Sensitive Skin: Cetaphil Extra Gentle Daily Scrub
Pros: Great for combination, oily, and sensitive skin, contains micro-fine particles that won't irritate skin, and conditioners and vitamins help mitigate irritation.
Cons: Contains fragrance.
With superfine granules, this scrub works well for sensitive skin types. It's formulated with skin conditioners and vitamins to nourish and soften skin.
Customer Review: "This product is great if you like to use an exfoliant on your face or body every day. It doesn't irritate the skin. It smells good [and it's] not too strong either. It's a great daily face scrub; I use it every day [or] sometimes I do every other day."
Best for Dry Skin: Burt's Bees Refining Cleanser
Pros: Contains a gentle retinol alternative known as bakuchiol to help renew the skin, vitamin E hydrates the skin, and nutrient-rich botanicals nourish dryness.
Cons: Strong smell.
If stronger actives like retinol irritate your skin or cause dryness, this cleanser might give you the same benefits without any problems. It's formulated with bakuchiol, a gentler, natural alternative to retinol. The cleanser will smooth wrinkles and hydrate, thanks to vitamin E.
Customer Review: "I have used Burt's Bees products in the past, mostly chapstick. I thought I would try the facial cleanser because I just ran out of the one I had and wanted to try something new. I am so glad I got this one because it actually feels like it is moisturizing my face while cleansing it. Most of the time, my face is dry after using a cleanser, but not with this one. The bottle is also bigger than I thought, which was a plus! Its smell was subtle, and you could tell they used natural ingredients instead of adding a fragrance which isn't the best for the face. I highly recommend this product and tell others about it because people are missing out."
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Micro-Exfoliating Astringent Toner
Pros: Contains a blend of salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and natural antibiotics to help clear skin, while castor oil helps hydrate.
Cons: May be too strong for some.
Formulated for acne-prone skin, this toner can unclog and tighten pores. It contains salicylic acid, natural antibiotics, and glycolic acid to help keep skin clear and looking fresh.
Customer Review: "Keeps my skin clear and fresh. Part of my regimen."
Best for Oily Skin: Bioderma Sebium Exfoliating Gel
Pros: Micro-beads, glycolic acid, and salicylic acid clear out excess oil and speed up the elimination of impurities, while laminaria and vitamin E soothe and repair the skin.
Cons: May be too strong for those with sensitive or oily skin.
When you use Bioderma Sebium Exfoliating Gel, you help keep your complexion free of blemishes while soothing oily and acne-prone skin. Combining potent glycolic and salicylic acid, this exfoliating gel effectively lessens breakouts and controls excess oil on the surface of the skin.
Customer Review: "I love this product. It is gentle, effective, and has a lovely clean scent. It cleanses and exfoliates but isn't harsh. I use this almost every day. It does not cause redness."
Best Body Exfoliator: Glytone Exfoliating Body Wash
Pros: Fragrance-free, contains a high concentration of glycolic acid to exfoliate skin on the body.
Cons: May be too strong for those with extra sensitive skin.
"Glytone's Exfoliating Body Wash is another option for body exfoliation that uses glycolic acid—a good ingredient for the body that can often tolerate stronger ingredients."
Customer Review: "...I love this stuff. It works, doesn't have a smell that offends, and lathers up really well. It also keeps my skin so that I can keep an eye on skin cancer growths or changes. I use it on my face and body and have been using it since it first came out (mid-'90s). It works."
More Drugstore Exfoliators We Love
This exfoliating scrub is gentle enough for everyday use because it has moisturizing soy extract, jojoba, and castor oils. It's also noncomedogenic, so it won't clog pores.
This Versed exfoliant detoxes pores and gently buffs away dead skin cells with superfine microcrystalline, a plant-based, biodegradable alternative to microbeads and a rich blend of black currant and raspberry leaf extract. It's gentle on sensitive, dry, or breakout-prone skin, making it a great option for most skin types.