The 8 Best Exfoliators of 2021

Get healthy, smooth skin with these picks

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Our Top Picks
Transforms your skin similar to an expensive treatment at the dermatologist.
Uses 10% glycolic acid to gently rid your skin off all the dry cells in order to make way for new growth.
The lathering solution is infused with arabica coffee and coconut oil.
Best for Sensitive Skin:
Maelove The Night Renewer at Maelove.com
Formulated to help those with sensitive skin reap the benefits of an exfoliating treatment without irritation.
Uses papaya, pineapple, and pumpkin enzymes to naturally smooth skin without overdrying.
Perfect for anyone with oily or acne prone skin as it targets pores and blackheads.
Gritty enough to help you achieve immediate results, but simultaneously gentle to keep your skin calm.
Infused with raspberry and papaya extract, that provides immediately gratifying results.

Exfoliating is an important step in your skincare regimen, regardless of skin type. Why? It helps get rid of the old skin cells to make way for the new. “We need to exfoliate to get rid of the dead cells on our skin,” Nazanin Saedi, M.D., director of Jefferson Laser Surgery and Cosmetic Center explains to Verywell Health

Dr. Saedi explains that cellular growth slows down over time, making exfoliating more important as you age. “The cell life cycle when we are young is 28 days and as we get older, the dead skin cells are around for longer,” she points out. What does that mean for our skin? It will look “duller, more discolored and can have clogged pores,” she says. There’s another benefit of exfoliating, per Dr. Saedi. “The products that you use don't penetrate as well when you don't exfoliate,” she says. 

There are two forms of exfoliation. Physical uses force the removal of dead skin, usually via beads, grains, or other ground up material. Chemical, on the other hand, uses gentle acids to get the job done. “There are alpha hydroxy acidslike glycolic acid and lactic acidand beta hydroxy acids, like salicylic acid which are good for acne prone skin,” Dr. Saedi explains. 

Here are the best exfoliating treatments for your face and body. 

Best Overall: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial Mask

Drunk Elephant T.L.C Sukari Babyfacial

Drunk Elephant is a newish beauty brand created as a one-size-fits-all solution that could tackle every skin issue imaginable. Like the name implies, it's a “baby facial” offering your skin the tender loving care it deserves, and will transform your skin similar to an expensive treatment at your dermatologist's office. Apply this 20-minute mask to clean skin, where it will first start to tingle. You might not feel anything, but don’t worry—it's working its magic.

This product is powerful enough for dry skin but sensitive enough for those who are prone to irritation, packed with 25% AHAsglycolic, tartaric, lactic, and citric acids. While it is one of the more expensive treatments on our list, consider it a bargain compared to a chemical peel at the dermatologist. 

Best for Face: SKINCEUTICALS Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight

Unlike a scrub, SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew uses 10% glycolic acid to gently rid your skin off all the dry cells in order to make way for new growth and improve skin tone and texture. In addition to the sugar cane derived fruit acid, it also is packed with active ingredients such as skin brightening 2% phytic acid derived from legumes and seeds, and a combination of natural oils and botanicals to help soothe and hydrate the skin.

Best Body Wash: OGX Smoothing + Coconut Coffee Body Cream

If you want a daily body exfoliating treatment, you are better off with a body wash that will gradually and gently smooth and soften your skin. OGX Smoothing + Coconut Coffee Scrub & Wash is an affordable, effective, and aromatic option. Formulated to treat the body only, the lathering solution is infused with arabica coffee and coconut oil, giving it the power to simultaneously remove dead skin cells while moisturizing the remaining ones.

Best for Sensitive Skin: Maelove The Night Renewer Glycolic Acid Cream

Maelove The Night Renewer

This exfoliator was formulated to help those with sensitive skin reap the benefits of an exfoliating treatment without irritation. It uses medical grade glycolic acid in addition to other soothing ingredients (vitamin E, squalane, shea butter, arnica flower and aloe) and hydrating hyaluronic acid to keep skin looking and feeling great. And, in case you aren’t familiar with Maelove, the brand is devoted to using medical and scientific research to create superior products at a super fair price point.

Best for Dry Skin: Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment

In less than two minutes after lightly rubbing this exfoliator into your skin, your face will feel as though you just walked out of a facial. The exfoliator uses papaya, pineapple, and pumpkin enzymes to naturally smooth skin without overdrying, while the chemical component, lactic acid works as a natural alpha hydroxy acid that exfoliates. Other ingredients include rosewood and cinnamon, which work to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, as well as skin soothing and softening aloe vera, honey, and vitamin E. It is also free of all parabens, sulfates, and phthalates.

Best for Oily Skin: TULA So Poreless Exfoliating Blackhead Scrub

This award-winning scrub, which literally smells like the beach, is perfect for anyone with oily or acne prone skin as it targets pores and blackheads. While it is somewhat of a physical exfoliator, using pink sugar granules and volcanic sand to help relieve dead skin, they actually dissolve during the scrubbing process, resulting in instant gratification without irritation. The cruelty-free product is also formulated with probiotics, lactic acid, and superfoodslike papaya and pineapple. It is also free of a lot of ingredients most people like to shy away from, including parabens, sulfates, phthalates, formaldehydeand even dairy and gluten.

Best Scrub: Acure Brightening Facial Scrub

If you are on a tight budget and on the market for an effective facial scrub, order Acure Brightening Facial Scrub ASAP. Another big Best of Beauty winner, this delightfully affordable physical sloughing product should be your top contender. One of the cleanest products on the marketfree of parabens, sulfates, mineral oil, petrolatum, and formaldehyde in addition to being vegan and certified cruelty-freeit uses sea kelp super-nutrients to help soften and detoxify the skin, lemon peel and French green clay to cleanse, and Madonna lily to brighten. It is just gritty enough to help you achieve immediate results, but simultaneously gentle to keep your skin calm.

Best for Legs: Mario Badescu Raspberry Body Scrub

Yes, your legs need exfoliating love too. Using a gentle scrub on your legs will help buff away dead skin, not only making room for regrowth, but also help prep your skin for ample absorption of body treatments (such as cellulite cream) or a smooth surface for a self-tanning session. Mario Badescu Raspberry Body Scrub is a sensational smelling treatment infused with raspberry and papaya extract, that provides immediately gratifying results. Simply massage it on wet skin with hands or a loofah, and moments later smoother softer skin will be a reality.

Final Verdict

It was hard to pick a winner from this bunch of next-level exfoliation treatments. Why? They are all extremely effective. Before Drunk Elephant launched T.L.C Sukari Babyfacial (view at Sephora), Kate Somerville ExfoliKate (view at Amazon) or Skinceuticals Glycolic 10 Renew (view at Amazon) probably would have topped our list. Both offer a high-quality concoction of effective ingredients and are great replacements for in-office facials.

If you have specific skin concerns, prefer a chemical over a physical product, gravitate toward specific ingredients, have a limited budget, or are simply a fan of another product line, you can’t go wrong with our other picks.

What to Look for in an Exfoliator

Ingredients

Like other skincare products, ingredients matter for exfoliants. Chemical exfoliants typically use either hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, or retinoids to exfoliate the surface of the skin. “Alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid and lactic acid are gentle but effective exfoliating ingredients,” says Rebecca Tung, M.D., a board certified dermatologist in Florida and member of the Women’s Dermatologic Society. “Beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid can be a great exfoliating ingredient for oily or acne prone skin. Retinol (vitamin A derivative) is another great exfoliating ingredient that can help minimize acne flares, lift unwanted pigmentation, soften acne scars and help with fine lines.” 

As for ingredients to avoid, some physical exfoliants can incorporate large granules to act as a scrub on the skin. But these can cause more harm than good, depending on the product, because they act as sandpaper against the skin. “You want it to be really fine granules,” says Emily Newsom, M.D., a board certified dermatologist with Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. “The really chunky granules are probably going to be too harsh.”

Sometimes people can become addicted to the feeling of scrubbing the skin with those larger granules because it gives the allusion that you’re doing something beneficial for the barrier. “It feels like you’re getting really clean, but it can actually make acne worse if you’re irritating or causing a lot of little microabrasions,” Dr. Newsom warns. 

Chemical vs. Physical:

Physical exfoliants can come in many forms—such as scrub brushes, grain-based scrubs, and microdermabrasion. But being too aggressive when scrubbing or doing it too often can cause more damage than good. If you’re using a grain-based scrub, pay attention to the size of the granules. These should be very fine and gentle on the skin, not harsh.

A chemical exfoliant incorporates either alpha hydroxy acids, such as glycolic or lactic acid, or beta hydroxy acids, such as salicylic acids. Retinoids can also act like a chemical exfoliant because they increase cell turnover of the skin. When using a chemical exfoliant, it’s important to pay attention to your skin type as well as the other active ingredients you use in your beauty routine. Mixing too many active acids can cause irritation and skin sensitivity.

Dr. Tung says she prefers altering between the two “to get the best that each treatment has to offer”. “Physical exfoliation can be great for skin that has been affected by scarring or more intense sun damage,” she says, adding the physical exfoliant can even enhance the “uniform absorption” of a chemical exfoliant.

Skin Type:

Your skin type is another important factor when determining what exfoliator might work best for you and how often to use the product. Dr. Newsom recommends using a chemical exfoliator with alpha hydroxy acid, such as glycolic or lactic acid, if you have sensitive skin or suffer from rosacea. Retinoids can also have a lot of benefits as exfoliators, but those with sensitive skin have to be more wary about the ingredient. “You don’t want to overdo it,” Dr. Newsom says. “If you have really sensitive skin, like more prone to eczema, you want to use a tiny, tiny amount and use a ton of moisturizer.” 

For those who are acne prone, she recommends to try a beta hydroxy acid, such as salicylic acid. “That can be good, but it can be a little bit drying if you’re more sensitive,” she says. Gentle physical exfoliation can also work well for people who are acne prone because it will “reduce blackheads and minimize scars,” Dr. Tung says. 

Skin type will also determine how often you should exfoliate the barrier. For example, Dr. Tung recommends only exfoliating the skin once a week if you’re sensitive. Those who are oily or acne prone can get away with exfoliating two to three times per week, depending on how the surface reacts. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can exfoliants be harmful to my skin?

    Exfoliants may cause irritation to sensitive skin. “Irritation can present as excessive dryness, stinging, skin tenderness or feeling uncomfortably tight, redness or warmth,” Dr. Tung says. “If you experience symptoms like these after using a chosen exfoliator, you may opt for something else.” While that might mean the exfoliator won’t work for areas of your face where the skin is thinner, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the product at all. Dr. Tung says instead it could be used to address sun damage or uneven skin texture on the hands, chest, or other parts of the body. 

    One key sign an exfoliant is too strong is if you feel a consistent burning sensation on the face throughout use. “If something is really burning you probably want to back off. Not many products have burning that’s normal,” Dr. Newsom says. 

  • How often should I use an exfoliant?

    Exfoliators are not meant for everyday use. While it can be tempting to use them because they make the skin feel smooth, it ultimately causes irritation and microabrasions on the surface. So pay attention to when you’re using an exfoliant throughout the week. Those with sensitive skin will be unable to use the product as much as someone who has oily or combination skin. Listen to how your skin is reacting to the product and give it breaks from use to avoid causing any side effects. 

"You want to make sure you’re not having too many...ingredients all layered into your routine. So, for example, if you’re adding a physical scrub, then you might not want to do an acne wash with salicylic acid and an anti-aging cream with retinol. It’s just going to be way too much.” —Emily Newsom, M.D., a board certified dermatologist with Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center

Why Trust Verywell Health?

As an internationally recognized health writer and product guru, Leah Groth understands that nobody wants to waste their time or money on products that fail to rear results. Over the years, she has interviewed the world's top health experts and reviewed hundreds of items, to help readers like you discover the most effective health gadgets, goops, and aids that will help you look and feel your very best.

Additional reporting to this story by Danielle Zoellner

As a seasoned health writer, Danielle Zoellner knows the importance of finding just the right product to fit your medical needs. Throughout her career, Danielle has interviewed a variety of experts in the medical and health fields while reviewing dozens of products. Her experience and knowledge in the field work together to help readers like yourself find the best products for your daily life.

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2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to safely exfoliate at home.

  2. Tang S-C, Yang J-H. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skinMolecules. 2018;23(4):863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863