Skip to main content

How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

How it works:

  • Share your skin goals and snap selfies

  • Your dermatology provider prescribes your formula

  • Apply nightly for happy, healthy skin

  1. blog
  2. > Skin Treatments

The ultimate guide to face exfoliators: Our 5 picks for glowing skin

The right exfoliator for you depends on your skin type—here’s how to choose your best option.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jan 10, 2024 • 11 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
Best Exfoliator For Face Glow
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jan 10, 2024 • 11 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

In this article

Types of exfoliation: Pros and cons
More

There’s no one-size-fits-all in skincare. What works for one person may not necessarily have the same results for someone else. But it’s only natural to want the best! Luckily our team of licensed dermatology providers are regularly reviewing and assessing products on the market and are happy to offer a few recommendations! So here, you’ll find the products that hold up to our standards

With the right exfoliation routine, you’ll likely experience smoother, brighter skin. But, get it wrong, and you risk soreness and irritation. So where do you start?

First, you need to understand each exfoliation technique and how it works with your skin type. That way, you can personalize your routine to meet your skincare needs. And don’t worry—we have plenty of recommendations on which products to consider.

Read on to learn how to put together the perfect exfoliation routine. You’ll learn which type of exfoliation is right for your skin, how to pick exfoliating products, and how to avoid common mistakes. We’ll also share a handy guide to the best facial exfoliators for each skin type.

Types of exfoliation: Pros and cons

There are three main types of exfoliation: chemical, physical/mechanical, and enzymatic.

Here’s how they work.

Chemical exfoliation

Chemical exfoliators use chemical ingredients to gently dissolve dead skin cells from the outer layer of the skin to help improve its appearance.¹

The most common kinds of chemical exfoliators are:

  • Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)

  • Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs)

AHAs, like glycolic acid, lactic acid, and malic acid, help remove dead skin cells from the surface of your face. AHAs can be used to exfoliate all skin types and are typically used for superficial to medium-depth peels, including for acne.²

BHAs, like salicylic acid, also help clear dead skin cells. But with their lipophilic (fat-friendly) properties, they are able to penetrate the pores to clear out deep debris.³ This makes BHAs a great choice for oily and acne-prone skin types.

By removing dead skin cells, chemical exfoliation encourages the skin’s natural ability to refresh itself.

Pros of chemical exfoliation 

  • An option for both oily and dry skin types

  • Can enhance skin tone and help with signs of photoaging⁴

  • Can help combat acne and hyperpigmentation⁵ 

Cons of chemical exfoliation

  • Too-frequent exfoliation may cause skin irritation or dryness

  • AHAs can cause heightened sun sensitivity, requiring extra vigilance with sunscreen

Physical/mechanical exfoliation

Mechanical or physical exfoliators utilize tiny, rough particles to gently scrub your face.⁷

The physical exfoliation may come from microbeads or small particles in your cleansing product. Or, you may opt for a particle-free cleanser, and use a mildly abrasive cloth. By gently rubbing an abrasive surface against your face, you physically dislodge dead skin and the outermost cells of the stratum corneum.

Pros of physical exfoliation

  • Easy to do yourself 

  • Ideal for thicker skin thanks to the robust exfoliating action

  • Can help in maintaining radiant skin⁸

Cons of physical exfoliation

  • Can cause microscopic tears in the skin⁹

  • Challenging to achieve even exfoliation

  • Not recommended for sensitive skin types, as the abrasiveness may be too harsh

  • Over-exfoliation can temporarily disrupt the skin barrier, which can dehydrate the skin¹⁰

Enzyme exfoliation

Enzyme exfoliators harness plant enzymes, such as papain from papaya and bromelain from pineapple.¹¹ 

The gentle formula selectively breaks down and removes dead skin cell buildup without physical abrasion.

Pros of enzyme exfoliation

  • Gentle exfoliation for sensitive skin, reducing the likelihood of irritation¹²

  • Commonly derived from natural ingredients like fruits¹³

Cons of enzyme exfoliation

  • The extent of exfoliation may be limited given it is mixed with water to activate¹⁴

  • May have a shorter shelf life, requiring frequent replenishment

  • While gentle, overuse can still lead to skin irritation¹⁵ 

Choosing the right exfoliator for you

The best skincare products for exfoliation suit your skin type and your skincare regimen. Here are our top tips to help you find a facial exfoliation routine that suits you.

Consider your skin type: Different exfoliators work best on certain skin types. You’ll want to consider AHAs for dry skin and BHAs for oily. If you have acne-prone skin, pick a gentle chemical exfoliant.¹⁶ For thicker skin, you’ll find mechanical methods and strong chemical exfoliants may be helpful.

Check ingredients: Review products to avoid pore-clogging ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate and coconut oil. This helps you maintain clear skin. Check out the full list of comedogenic ingredients here

Assess skin sensitivity: If you have sensitive skin, steer clear of harsh, abrasive mechanical exfoliants.¹⁷ Opt instead for gentler enzyme exfoliants or mild chemical exfoliators. 

Read reviews: Check feedback from users with similar skin types to work out which products are suitable and effective.

Budget wisely: Invest in exfoliation products that align with your budget and skincare goals. Look for value, rather than simply choosing the cheapest option. Some products may have lower price points as they have a short shelf life or use poor-quality ingredients.

Dos and don’ts of exfoliation

Exfoliating properly may help you attain clearer pores and a more even skin tone. You’ll need to know how to use your products properly to achieve glowing skin without causing any skin damage.

For the best results, follow these guidelines. 

Exfoliation do’s:

  • Patch-test a new product to avoid allergic reactions 

  • Moisturize after exfoliating hydrate the skin 

  • Choose the right exfoliant for your skin type so you don’t exacerbate irritation 

  • Exfoliate only a few times per week (based on skin’s needs and product directions) 

  • Apply sunscreen after exfoliating to prevent UV damage 

Exfoliation don'ts

  • Over-exfoliate as this can result in irritation, redness, telangiectasias (dilated blood vessels), excessive stratum corneum thinning, sensitivity, and/or shiny skin¹⁸

  • Exfoliate broken or inflamed skin as you can exacerbate irritation

  • Skip the product instructions as they’ll direct you on how to get the most from your exfoliator

  • Combine multiple exfoliation methods at the same time

The 5 best skin exfoliators for glowing skin

Here are our top picks of facial exfoliators for different skin types.

1. Best for sensitive skin: Mario Badescu Botanical Exfoliating Scrub

While it’s a mechanical scrub, it’s very gentle on sensitive skin. It uses finely ground ivory palm seeds to polish the skin, aloe vera to soothe, and ginger to brighten your complexion.

2. Best for oily skin: Peter Thomas Roth Pumpkin Enzyme Mask

This enzyme mask combines chemical, enzyme, and mechanical exfoliation to combat excess oil production. It exfoliates with pumpkin enzymes and uses AHAs to reveal younger, brighter skin. The aluminum oxide crystals polish the skin for an even finish.

3. Best for all skin types: Curology Liquid Pore Exfoliant

This product is dermatologist-designed to exfoliate without stripping skin. It features a gentle blend of 2% BHA + 8% AHA/PHA to help smooth and clear out dirt, oil, and dead skin, and 1% Zinc PCA to help minimize the look of pores. It also contains skin-moisturizing glycerin and soothing allantoin.

4. Best for dry skin: Pixi Glow Tonic

Great for all skin types, this product promotes cell renewal by exfoliating with glycolic acid, invigorating circulation with ginseng, and hydrating the skin with aloe vera. Paraben-free and alcohol-free, apply it anytime during the day or at night for a soothing and more radiant complexion.

5. Best for uneven texture and tone: The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

This intense treatment combines AHAs and BHAs to target textural irregularities for even-looking, healthy skin. This is an advanced-level peel, so it’s likely not suitable for sensitive skin.

Our expert guide to exfoliation

If you’re new to exfoliating, follow this guide for a consistent routine that helps you get the most out of your exfoliator.

  1. Patch-test first: Test the exfoliator on a small patch of skin to check for any allergic reactions or irritation before full application.

  2. Gently cleanse: You’ll need clean skin to exfoliate properly. Gently wash your face to remove dirt, sweat, and outer debris.

  3. Apply exfoliant: Use circular motions to apply your chosen exfoliant to damp skin. Try to cover your face as evenly as possible.

  4. Use a light touch: If you’re using a physical exfoliant, don’t scrub too hard as you’ll cause skin damage.

  5. If applicable, rinse thoroughly: Wash off the exfoliant with cool or lukewarm water if this is required (this will depend on the type of product you are using). Take care to make sure there’s no residue left behind.

  6. Moisturize: After exfoliating, apply a moisturizer to hydrate and soothe the skin.

  7. Don’t forget sunscreen: Always finish with a layer of sunscreen to protect the newly exposed skin layers from sun damage.

  8. Follow instructions: This routine may vary depending on the type of exfoliant and product you’re using. Be sure to follow your specific product’s instructions.

The key takeaways

  • The best exfoliation technique and product for you will depend on your unique skin type.

  • Exfoliation can help you slough off dead skin cells, revealing brighter, smoother skin.

  • There are three types of exfoliation: Chemical, physical, and enzymatic. They each have their pros and cons, and the right option for your skin may not be the right option for someone else!

  • When in doubt, turn to a licensed dermatology provider to figure out the right exfoliator for your face and if exfoliation might help you achieve your skincare goals.

Receive personalized treatment with Curology

While there are plenty of exfoliating products on the market, they’re pretty generic. 

With Curology, you’re paired with a licensed dermatology provider to create personalized skin care products, tailored to exfoliate, cleanse, and refresh your unique skin.

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

curology bottle
curology bottle

Ingredients are customized to target the root causes of any skin issues and deal with the specific symptoms you experience. This way, your exfoliator reinvigorates your skin in the right way for you.

Access your 30-day trial today* to personalize your facial skincare routine.

FAQs

How often should I exfoliate my face?

Base your exfoliation routine on your skin type and choice of exfoliator. Always read the exfoliator’s instructions first, otherwise, you risk overdoing it. If you have sensitive skin, exfoliate a little less often than recommended—if it says every 2-3 days, try every 3-4. 

What should you avoid when picking a face exfoliator?

Here are the big no-gos when choosing between exfoliators:

  • Pore-clogging ingredients: You want to clear pores, not clog them

  • Harsh chemicals: Strong chemicals, like alcohol, dry out the skin¹⁹

  • Overly-rough exfoliators: Highly-abrasive materials aren't good for sensitive skin.

What skin conditions does face exfoliation help with?

Exfoliation may help with:

Is exfoliation good for wrinkles?

If you’re worried about wrinkles, try chemical exfoliation, which can help.²⁴ 

Chemical exfoliators typically have a percentage value of their active ingredient. This indicates how strong they are. Consult with a licensed dermatology provider to see what type of chemical exfoliation is good for your skin concerns.

Is exfoliating good for your face?

Exfoliating is good for your face, but only if you use the right method for your skin type and condition. For example, if you have dry skin, chemical exfoliation is a great option. But, a BHA-based product might not give you the results you’re looking for, whereas an AHA may be a better choice.

Use this article to help you make an informed decision, but remember—the best skincare products are ones made especially for you.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Safely Exfoliate at Home. (n.d.).

  2. Tang, S.C. and Yang, J.H. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. (2018, April 10).

  3. Samargandy, S. and Raggio, B.S. Chemical Peels for Skin Resurfacing. StatPearls. (2023, October 29).

  4. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. (Winter 2012).

  5. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. Ibid.

  6. Tang, S.C. and Yang, J.H. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. Ibid.

  7. Behalpade, S. and Gajbhiye, S. Review Article: Skin Care with Exfoliation Process. International Journal of Current Science Publishing. (May 2022).

  8. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. (December 2016).

  9. Behalpade, S. and Gajbhiye, S. Review Article: Skin Care with Exfoliation Process. International Journal of Current Science Publishing. Ibid.

  10. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid. 

  11. Dev, K., et al. A Comprehensive Review on Skincare Cosmeceuticals. Acta Scientific Pharmaceutical Sciences. (January 2022).

  12. Behalpade, S. and Gajbhiye, S. Review Article: Skin Care with Exfoliation Process. International Journal of Current Science Publishing. Ibid.

  13. Dev, K., et al. A Comprehensive Review on Skincare Cosmeceuticals. Acta Scientific Pharmaceutical Sciences. Ibid.

  14. Dev, K., et al. A Comprehensive Review on Skincare Cosmeceuticals. Acta Scientific Pharmaceutical Sciences. Ibid.

  15. Khunger, N. and Chanana, C. A perspective on what's new in chemical peels. Cosmoderma. (2022, February 15).

  16. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Safely Exfoliate at Home. Ibid.

  17. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Safely Exfoliate at Home. Ibid.

  18. Behalpade, S. and Gajbhiye, S. Review Article: Skin Care with Exfoliation Process. International Journal of Current Science Publishing. Ibid.

  19. Fallica, F., et al. Assessment of Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizers for Long-Term Use, Formulated with Addition of Natural Ingredients in Comparison to WHO Formulation 1. Pharmaceutics. (2021, April 17).

  20. Chilicka, K., et al. Acne vulgaris and the most popular and new cosmetological treatments. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Ibid.

  21. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. Ibid.

  22. Reddy, S. and Brahmbhatt, H. A Narrative Review on the Role of Acids, Steroids, and Kinase Inhibitors in the Treatment of Keratosis Pilaris. Cureus. (2021, October 20).

  23. Houshmand, E.B. Effect of glycolic acid, phytic acid, soothing complex containing Emulsion on Hyperpigmentation and skin luminosity. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology (2021, January 18).

  24. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. Ibid.

Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Subscription required. Results may vary.

Restrictions apply. See website for full details and important safety information.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

Related Articles

The complete guide to face cleansers for every skin typeSkincare tips for dry skin, according to dermatology providersDoes dermaplaning cause acne? Experts explain5 ways to calm sensitive skin, according to dermatology expertsThe 6 best chemical exfoliators for glowing skin

Popular Articles

Ask Curology: Is my cold breaking me out?Slugging: The dermatologist-approved skincare hack going viral on TikTokTretinoin vs retinol: What’s the difference?How to create a self-care routine that actually sticksYour 2023 skincare horoscope
Try prescription skincare
30-day trial. Subject to consultation. Cancel anytime.
Get routine essentials
A display of Curology Custom Formula bottles on a white shelf.

Good skin days ahead

Join the 1M+ patients who’ve tackled everything from acne, to fine lines, to hair thinning with prescription-powered treatments, personalized by a Licensed Dermatology Provider.
Ingredients proven to tackle
  • Breakouts
  • Redness
  • Fine lines
  • Dark spots
  • Hair thinning
$29.95/month
*Subject to consultation. Cancel anytime.
Get StartedShop ProductsWhy CurologyGuidesOur StoryCommunity
All Rights Reserved 2014-2024 Curology Inc.
Terms of ServicePrivacy Notice
Do Not Sell My Personal Information