In the old days, facial exfoliation was as delicate a process as skin resurfacing. But the latest generation of products allows you to get clean, smooth skin without harsh scrubbing.
There are two types of exfoliants. The physical type removes dead skin cells by using some kind of small particles or beads, while the chemical type does it using facial acids. Both will give you softer skin, fade acne scars, and improve skin texture without leaving you red or wrinkled in the process. There are so many on the market right now and we’ve probably tried most of them. Below, we’ve rounded up the best ways to have velvety, blemish-free skin.
You can combine salicylic acid with milia. And it’s true – it’s the most recommended facial acid for acne-prone skin, because of its ability to remove dirt from clogged pores. But it can also wash away dead skin cells. This cleanser contains salicylic acid as well as ceramides, so it will keep your skin moist and smooth in the process. It’s fragrance-free and has almost 3,000 five-star Amazon reviews. It can be used on the body or face (reviewers say it also works great for keratosis pilaris aka bumps).
Trust the Ordinary – minimalist, consumer-oriented Everlane skincare – for effortless exfoliation. This product is made from straight glycolic acid, one of the smallest of the acid molecules, which makes it incredibly effective as it can penetrate the skin so well. It is also very affordable.
If you’ve been wanting to try a chemical exfoliant but are too scared, start here. Created by former Australian beauty editor Zoë Foster Blake, each pad is pre-soaked in an amazing blend of AHAs and oils, to exfoliate your skin without giving you any What an uncomfortable itch. That doesn’t mean it’s any less effective, though – you’ll still get dewy-looking skin, even if the results arrive at a slightly slower rate.
If you’re more than satisfied with a physical exfoliation, you’ll love this scrub. This is a slightly coarser exfoliator than the others, giving it a “deep clean” feeling. The exfoliating power comes from the walnut powder, which, with its different sized particles, creates a thorough and thorough polishing experience. It has a dense base that foams easily so it still feels like a gentle cushion. Over 1,000 Sephora fans have rated this cleanser five stars.
This is an incredibly powerful chemical exfoliant — so much so that beauty editors call it “Jesus in a Bottle.” There are seven different P50 products, all with slightly different names. The original is the strongest but may not be the best for sensitive skin. Skincare devotees on Reddit consider the P50 PIGM 400 a holy grail product because it’s gentle yet firm – ideal for those with hyperpigmentation issues and those who struggle with skin tone.
Considered a softer dupe with the P50, this has gained popularity in the UK, where it is often sold out. With 5% glycolic acid, it’s potent enough to be effective but non-irritating. Former Cut beauty editor Ashley Weatherford swore by it. (It also comes in a stronger pad form.)
This is a great introductory exfoliating toner – perfect if you’re worried about using anything too strong. The gentle formula contains willow bark juice and glycolic acid. It also comes in an easy-to-use spray bottle, so you can spray it directly on your face.
Created by Paula’s Choice cosmetics cop Paula Begoun, it’s probably the product most used by Cut editors. With a combination of beta-hydroxy acids (an acid known to “de-gun” or unclog pores), it keeps skin clear and bright.
This very gentle physical exfoliator from Tatcha comes in an easy-to-carry powder form. Add a little water and the recipe turns into a milky froth with soft Japanese rice bran grains. The particles are so delicate that you might wonder, Does this even work?, But the proof is in the latter part, then your skin will feel soft and not tight at all. It’s also Meghan Markle’s favorite (she gave it to guests at her baby shower).
This exfoliator has a similar texture to Tatcha and very similar ingredients – and it’s also endorsed by Cate Blanchett, the patron saint of flawless skin. Like Tatcha, it uses rice bran to exfoliate but has an added blend of salicylic acid (commonly found in acne products) and soothing, anti-inflammatory ingredients like green tea and colloidal oatmeal. Because it comes in powder form, it’s perfect for travel.
This hit serum is another great chemical exfoliator, with almost 1,000 five-star reviews at Sephora. If you were wondering what gives the product the yeasty smell, it would be lactic acid, a well-known ingredient. A strong acid that is less irritating is glycolic acid, which is derived from milk and comes with excellent moisturizing properties.
If you’re a fan of “natural” skin care, you’ve probably used this or any of the other favorites in the Drunk Elephant range. This is a liquid exfoliating serum designed for the night and packed with a desirable group of starter acids like glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric and salicylic. Don’t worry: Despite all that, your skin won’t flake. Instead, you’ll see smoother skin and less acne scars over time.
If you like clean skin care and have skin that is too sensitive to use acids, give this a try. You can add it to existing cleaners as a booster. Mix a little into the palm of your hand as if you were pouring salt from a shaker, and it will turn into a light lather. Use it enough, and you’ll have a face that resembles a baby’s bottom and smells like freshly baked strawberry rhubarb (and not in an artificial way, either).
If you want something lighter and less expensive (half!) than the P50 and Drunk Elephant, this is a good choice. It contains a blend of exfoliating acids like lactic and azaleic, which will work steadily (albeit a bit slower) to shine and gently remove dead skin.
Created by Kate Somerville – one of LA’s busiest facialists in awards season – this is a blend of chemical and physical exfoliants. The recipe is made up of whole grains plus nearly every botanical ingredient you’ve ever heard of (honey, papaya, fermented pumpkin), like some special seasonal Sweetgreens. On Sephora, where it has more than 2,000 five-star reviews, fans rave about how it transforms skin into a canvas for seamless makeup applications.
Although the name sounds scary, this is really just an effective exfoliator that works to gently dissolve (not peel) dead skin cells. The results are immediate, which is why this shell has developed a huge following – cult indeed – since it first launched years ago. This is the original version, but now there are additional versions, including a version for sensitive skin. No matter which one you try, the reviews praise it for soft, smooth skin.
This article was originally published on January 18, 2018. It has been updated throughout. If you buy something through our links, New York can earn an affiliate commission.