The 21 Best Face Exfoliators for Soft, Smooth Skin (2024)

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By Lauren Adhav, a freelance editor and Cut Shop contributor

Additional reporting by Hanna Flanagan

The 21 Best Face Exfoliators for Soft, Smooth Skin (1)

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Retailers

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In the old days, exfoliating your face was about as delicate a process as resurfacing your floors. But the newest generation of products lets you achieve clear, smooth skin without rubbing it raw. Below, we rounded up the best exfoliators for a velvety, bump-free complexion, including some of our personal favorites and expert recs from Dr. Idriss and Dr. Hartman.

So, you’re looking for the best face exfoliators?

Our top picks
More tried-and-true options
Our experts

Our Top Picks

The Best Overall Exfoliator

Type: Chemical and physical | Key ingredients: Lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, and malic acid | Best for: All skin types

Say hello to one of Hanna Flanagan’s favorite product empties of the summer. This exfoliating cleanser uses ultrafine beads of jojoba oil to buff away dead skin and improve overall texture, plus lavender extract to help tone and soothe inflammation, and citrus oil to reduce the appearance of pores. The shopping editor especially loves the fact that it’s gentle enough to use three to five times per week and works well with all her other products.

The Best Drugstore Exfoliator

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: Salicylic acid, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, vitamin D | Best for: Normal skin

You might associate salicylic acid with zits. And that’s true — it’s the face acid recommended most for acneic skin, because of its abilities to scoop out dirt and grime from clogged pores. But it can sweep away dead skin cells, too. This cleanser contains salicylic acid as well as ceramides, so it’ll keep your skin moist and make it smoother in the process. It’s fragrance-free and has close to 3,000 five-star Amazon reviews. It can be used on the body or the face (reviewers say it also does great things for keratosis pilaris, a.k.a. chicken skin).

The Best Brightening Exfoliator

Type: Chemical and physical | Key ingredients: Alpha hydroxy acids,antioxidants,salicylic acid,titanium dioxide | Best for: All skin types

This exfoliator has a similar texture to Tatcha’s and very similar ingredients — and it also has the endorsem*nt of Cate Blanchett, patron saint of perfect skin. Like Tatcha’s, it uses rice bran to exfoliate but adds a blend of salicylic acid (most commonly seen in acne products) and soothing, anti-inflammation ingredients like green tea and colloidal oatmeal. Because it comes in a powder, it’s great for travel.

The Best Exfoliating Toner

Type: Liquid toner | Key ingredients: Alpha hydroxy acids, polyhydroxy acids, rice water, and colloidal oatmeal | Best for: All skin types

This milky toner helps unclog pores, clear blackheads, reduce dullness, and fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation without the use of microbeads, salt, sugar, or other abrasive ingredients often found in physical exfoliators. It absorbs quickly and leaves the skin feeling soft and supple.

The Best Viral Exfoliator

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: Lactic acid, glycolic acids, salicylic acid, pineapple and papaya enzymes | Best for: Aging skin

This mask has gone viral on TikTok, racking up thousands of views and likes with reviewers for its glossy, glass skin finish-like results. The weekly mask is a powerhouse blend of chemical exfoliants (lactic, glycolic and salicylic acid) and enzymes. As the name implies, the mask promises the kind of results you’d expect from a pro in two to three minutes, with instantly smoother, brighter skin. While it’s not ideal for sensitive skin, reviewers say that it didn’t irritate their skin and sloughed away their dull skin leaving their faces brighter and softer.

The Best Exfoliator for Makeup

Type: Chemical and physical | Key ingredients: Lactic acid, fruit enzymes, aloe vera | Best for: Dry skin

Created by Kate Somerville — one of the busiest facialists in L.A. come awards season — this is a blend of chemical and physical exfoliators. The formula is made up of grains plus nearly every botanical ingredient you’ve ever heard of (honey, papaya, pumpkin ferment), like some kind of Sweetgreen seasonal special. On Sephora, where it has over 2,000 five-star reviews, fans rave about how it turns skin into a smooth canvas for seamless makeup application.

The Exfoliator for Acne-Prone Skin

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: Salicylic acid, green tea | Best for: All skin types

A favorite of Dr. Idriss’s for oily and acne-prone skin, she says that it’s lightweight and absorbs fairly quickly. Created by cosmetic cop Paula Begoun of Paula’s Choice, this is perhaps the product used most by Cut editors. With a mix of beta-hydroxy acids (a category of acids known for “de-gunking” or cleaning out pores), it keeps skin clear and bright. Salicylic acid, a.k.a. BHA, is an optimal ingredient for this skin type as it has great anti-inflammatory properties, says Dr. Idriss.

More Tried-and-True Options

The Best Exfoliator for Damaged Skin Barriers

Type: Chemical and physical | Key ingredients: | Best for: Sensitive skin

Infused with soothing ingredients like goat and oat milk, this gentle formula uses jojoba beads to buff away dead skin cells and build-up —without damaging the skin barrier or causing micro-tears like other exfoliators on the market. It also helps increase radiance and minimize pores.

The Best Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin


Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: Polyhydroxy acids, nordic birch sap, pink bentonite clay | Best for: Sensitive and aging skin

“For sensitive skin, I like Ole Henriksen’s PHAT Glow Facial because it’s formulated with PHAs and complimentary ingredients,” says Dr. Idriss. PHAs like gluconolactone, lactobionic, and maltobionic acid are best for this skin type since they are the most gentle of the bunch. Reviewers love the brightening effect and how it clears up acne scarring and fine lines.

The Best Pumpkin-Enzyme Exfoliator

Type: Physical | Key ingredients: Pumpkin enzyme exfoliant, pumpkin and cocoa micro-exfoliating powders, gold Brazilian clay detoxifies | Best for: Clogged pores

Dr. Hartman uses this mask personally, so he really attests to its power. “It uses pumpkin enzymes and cocoa micro-exfoliating powders to exfoliate the skin, plus gold Brazilian clay to help detoxify skin and draw out impurities,” he says. It is fall after all, so if you have the urge to buy something pumpkin related, you might want to make it this. Reviewers rave about the smell and how it doesn’t break them out like typical fragrance-filled products might.

The Best Exfoliating Mask

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: AHA, BHA, chickpea flour | Best for: All skin types (especially large pores)

Another of Flanagan’s holy-grail beauty products? This Drunk Elephant resurfacing mask. It’s perfect for those special occasions that require an abundance of skin-care prep and a full face of glam. It’s powerful and can feel a bit uncomfortable — especially if you have sensitive skin — but the 25 percent AHA/2 percent BHA blend will leave your skin looking and feeling brand-new. Flanagan uses it before birthday dinners, weddings, co*cktail parties, and any other event where she wants her base to be so smooth and texture-free that the makeup effortlessly glides on top.

The Best Exfoliating Peel

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: Glycolic acid, salicylic acid, vitamin K, chamomile, lavender | Best for: Dull and acne-prone skin

Flanagan swears her pores have become less visible since she started using these peel pads a few months ago. They’re infused with potent glycolic and salicylic acid to exfoliate and clarify, reduce the appearance of pores, improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and improve overall skin tone and texture. Even folks with sensitive skin will appreciate these exfoliating peel pads because the formula also has chamomile and lavender to calm and soothe irritation. She has never felt that uncomfortable burning sensation after using them.

The Best Enzyme Exfoliator

Type: Physical | Key ingredients: Papain, vitamin B3, essential oils | Best for: All skin types

This fast-acting exfoliator is a powder formula that turns into a creamy paste when activated by water, so Flanagan keeps it in her shower and applies for one to two minutes while letting her conditioner soak. The star ingredient is papain, a 100 percent natural-origin enzyme derived from papaya that gently buffs away dead cells for an instantly smoother and more radiant complexion. Sure, it’s pricey, but this product is one of the most worthwhile investments in her routine. Flanagan has been using it one to two times per week for an entire year, and it’s only half-empty.

The Best K-Beauty Exfoliator

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: AHA, BHA, white willow bark | Best for: All skin types

This is a great introductory exfoliating toner — perfect if you’re nervous about using anything too strong. The gentle formula contains willow bark water and glycolic acid. It also comes in an easy-to-use spray bottle, so you can spray it directly onto your face.

The Most Potent Exfoliator

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: AHA, BHA, gluconolactone | Best for: Oily skin

This is an extremely potent chemical exfoliator — so much so that beauty editors refer to it as “Jesus in a bottle.” There are seven different P50 products, all with slightly different names. The original is the strongest but may not be best for sensitive skin. The skin-care obsessives on Reddit consider P50 PIGM 400 a holy-grail product because it’s gentle yet sturdy — ideal for people with hyperpigmentation issues and those who struggle with skin tone. “There’s no denying it smells awful, but it’s worth the odor and the price tag,” says Dr. Hartman. “It keeps your skin hydrated and moisturized while making it really bright.”

The Best P50 Exfoliator Dupe

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: Glycolic acid, ginseng, aloe vera | Best for: Sensitive skin

Considered a gentler dupe to P50, this has cult status in the U.K., where it’s often sold out. With 5 percent glycolic acid, it’s strong enough to be effective but not irritating. Former Cut beauty editor Ashley Weatherford swears by it. (It comes in a more potent pad form as well.)

The Most Gentle Exfoliator

Type: Physical | Key ingredients: Japanese rice bran, complex of rice, green tea, algae, amino acids, AHAs | Best for: Large pores

This very gentle physical exfoliator from Tatcha comes in an easily transportable powder. Add a little water and the formula transforms into a milky lather with grains of soft Japanese rice bran. The grains are so delicate that you might wonder, Is this even working?, but the proof is in the aftermath, when your skin will feel soft and not at all tight. It’s also a favorite of Meghan Markle (she gave it to guests at her baby shower).

The Best Affordable Exfoliator

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: Glycolic acid tasmanian pepperberry | Best for: Oily and acne-prone skin

Trust the Ordinary — the minimalist, direct-to-consumer Everlane of skin care — to make exfoliation easy. This is made of straight-up glycolic acid, one of the smallest types of acid molecules, making it incredibly effective because it can penetrate the skin so well. It’s also wildly affordable.

The Best Exfoliating Serum

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: Lemongrass, lactic acid, arnica | Best for: All skin types

This cult serum is another great chemical exfoliator, with almost 1,000 five-star reviews at Sephora. If you’re wondering what gives the product its yeasty smell, that would be lactic acid, the star ingredient. A potent acid that’s less irritating than glycolic acid, it’s derived from milk and comes with great humectant moisturizing properties.

The Best Fast-Acting Exfoliating Cleanser

Type: Chemical | Key ingredients: Grapes, amino acid surfactants, AHA blend | Best for: Oily skin

Fans of the Milky Jelly Cleanser will enjoy this deeper cleansing exfoliator. The key to making this blend of gentle exfoliators (lactic and malic acids) work is the 60-second rule. Not familiar? The concept popularized by aesthetician Nayamka Roberts-Smith is simple, cleanse your face for a full 60 seconds instead of your usual rush and rinse. In that time, the foamy cleanser works into a rich lather, buffing away dull skin and moisturizing.

Best Refillable Exfoliator

Type: Chemical and physical | Key ingredients: Glycolic acid, fruit AHAs, rice particles, pumpkin enzymes | Best for: All skin types

With the launch of his brand Humanrace, Pharrell Williams finally gave the people what they wanted: the secret to his ageless skin-care routine. As it turned out, one of his secrets was “exfoliating like a madman” and rinsing with cold water. The buzzed about Lotus Enzyme Exfoliator packs the power of 8 percent glycolic acid, AHAs derived from fruit, micro exfoliating rice particles and exfoliating enzyme. So you too can exfoliate like a star.


What are the different types of exfoliators?

There are two different types of exfoliators: physical and chemical. “Physical exfoliators are formulated with a scrub or bead that works to physically remove dead skin cells by washing or scrubbing them off manually,” says board-certified dermatologist and founder of Idriss Dermatology Dr. Shereene Idriss. “Chemical exfoliators are formulated with acids, such as alpha-hydroxy acids, beta-hydroxy acids, and polyhydroxy acids, that work to dissolve dead skin cells.”

Which exfoliator is the best?

The #PillowtalkDerm creator recommends chemical exfoliants over physical ones not only because they’ll remove that top layer of dead skin cells but also because certain products can help your skin with improved regeneration, offer antiaging benefits, and have antioxidant properties. (She also recently launched her own exfoliating peel that was so popular it completely sold out.) Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Corey L. Hartman agrees with avoiding physical exfoliators because they can create microtears in the surface of your skin, which can let in bacteria that results in acne or other skin irritations.

How frequently should I exfoliate?

Dr. Idriss suggests exfoliating two to three nights a week, but if your skin type runs on the dryer side, Dr. Hartman says to start with just once a week. “Exfoliating too frequently can result in excess oil, excess acne, or dry, red, irritated skin,” he says. “Overexfoliation is worse than not exfoliating at all.”

When should I exfoliate?

Another important tip is that when you do exfoliate, you should incorporate it into your nighttime routine because the acids make your skin more sensitive to the sun, according to Dr. Idriss. She says the best time to apply is after removing your makeup and cleaning your face at the end of the day. When you’ve sloughed off your dead skin cells (sounds lovely, right?), follow it up with your usual serums and moisturizers. “And always, always, always follow up with sunscreen the next day,” says Dr. Idriss.

What are the benefits of exfoliating?

Your face will feel the benefits from smoother skin to a more glowing complexion. Think of it like a clean slate, and when you’re left with a new layer of fresh skin cells, the rest of your skin-care products will be better absorbed into your pores.

When should I not exfoliate?

If a dry patch is irritated, red, or itchy, do not exfoliate it. And if you get a facial or other professional treatment, make sure to wait a few days (or more, depending on what you got done) before going in with an exfoliant.

What happens if I overexfoliate?

Overexfoliating can seriously damage your skin barrier, which is why it’s important to be gentle and limit exfoliation to two or three nights a week. You may be exfoliating too much if you are experiencing dryness, redness, flaky patches, or inflammation. Other signs include a burning or stinging sensation as well as an increased sensitivity to other products in your skin-care routine. If you do accidentally overexfoliate, make sure to take a break from retinols and physical and chemical exfoliators. Avoid harsh acne-fighting products and use a moisturizer that contains barrier-healing ceramides (I like this one from Dr. Jart+).

Our Experts

  • Dr. Shereene Idriss, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Idriss Dermatology
  • Dr. Corey L. Hartman, a board-certified dermatologist
  • Kathleen Hou, former beauty director at the Cut
  • Lauren Adhav, Cut Shop contributor and former associate fashion editor at Cosmopolitan
  • Hanna Flanagan, shopping writer and editor at the Cut


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The 21 Best Face Exfoliators for Soft, Smooth Skin
The 21 Best Face Exfoliators for Soft, Smooth Skin (2024)


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