Looking through the skin care aisle of your local retailer, you might see cleansers, body washes and face masks labeled as “exfoliating.” But what exactly does the term mean, and what does a proper exfoliating routine do for your skin?
Exfoliating is the process of removing the dead skin cells from the outermost surface layer of your skin, according to Dr. Shereen Idriss, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. It can have a number of benefits, like leaving your skin looking even, smooth and soft, our experts say. A consistent exfoliating routine also cleans out oil and debris from your pores to prevent acne breakouts and stimulates cell turnover, which helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, says Idriss.
We spoke to board-certified dermatologists about how to shop for exfoliating products based on your skin type and how to craft a proper routine for both your face and body. We also compiled expert-recommended and Select staff-favorite exfoliants to consider.
Our top picks
- Best peel: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel Pads
- Best toner: Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
- Best cleanser: Neutrogena Hydro Boost Exfoliating Cleanser
- Best serum: Sunday Riley Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment
- Best body wash: Naturium The Smoother Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Body Wash
- Best scrub: Nécessaire The Body Exfoliator
How we picked the best exfoliating products
There are two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants use abrasive particles or textured materials to scrub the surface of your skin, while chemical exfoliants rely on acids to dissolve dead skin, debris and more. Dermatologists prefer chemical exfoliants because they tend to be less harsh on the skin (more on that below). Our experts recommend using chemical exfoliants with the following ingredients:
- Alpha-hydroxy acids: Commonly known as AHAs, these acids are water-soluble chemical compounds that help remove dead skin cells, says Idriss. These acids help exfoliate the top layer of the skin. Some common AHAs are glycolic, lactic and mandelic acid.
- Beta-hydroxy acids: These acids, known as BHAs, are organic oil-soluble compounds that exfoliate the skin, replace old skin cells, remove excess oil and have anti-inflammatory properties, according to experts. The most common BHA found in skin care products is salicylic acid.
- Poly-hydroxy acids: Similar to AHAs, PHAs are chemical exfoliants that help remove dead skin cells by unclogging pores. They are hydrating and larger in molecular size compared to AHAs or BHAs, so they work on the surface of the skin and don’t penetrate pores as deeply as other acids do. This makes them more gentle and suitable for sensitive skin since they cause less irritation, according to our experts. Common PHAs in skin care products include gluconolactone, lactobionic and maltobionic acid.
The best exfoliating products in 2023
Below are dermatologist-recommended and Select staff-favorite products that contain exfoliating ingredients like AHAs and BHAs and are in line with our experts’ guidance. Although some of these products may be safe for daily use, our experts recommend exfoliating one to three times a week.
This peel has ingredients like lactic and malic acid to even out skin tone, glycolic acid to reduce the appearance of fine lines and salicylic acid to exfoliate, reduce buildup of excess oil and combat acne, according to the brand. “Unlike other exfoliating peels, which you should limit using to two to three times per week depending on your skin, you can use this two-step chemical peel daily because this peel does not have mandelic (AHA) or Salix Alba (BHA) acids,” says Dr. Stephen Suah, a board-certified dermatologist at Foxhall Dermatology in Washington, D.C. “It is much gentler for people with mild acne/combination skin.”
This liquid exfoliant has 2% salicylic acid, the standard percentage of the BHA in most skin care products, according to our experts. The exfoliant, which comes recommended by Suah, is suitable for all skin types and helps unclog pores and smooth fine lines, according to the brand. Using either your fingertips or a lightly soaked cotton pad, apply the liquid to your face and neck and leave it on without rinsing, according to Paula’s Choice.
Formulated with a combination of PHAs and BHAs, this toner is a great option for beginners who are just starting out with chemical exfoliants because it’s gentle on the skin, says Dr. Liza Moore, a board-certified dermatologist in Tysons, Virginia. With PHAs like gluconolactone it helps give the skin more time to react to its exfoliating benefits because of how big they are on a molecular level, making it sensitive skin friendly, according to the brand. Aside from the chemical exfoliants in the formula, it also has ingredients like hyaluronic acid to hydrate and retain moisture and tea tree extract to help reduce any irritation, according to Glow Recipe.
This cleanser helps gently exfoliate the skin while also combating dryness, a common side effect of using AHAs, according to Suah. The gel-cream cleanser uses glycolic and lactic acid as its exfoliating agents, as well as hyaluronic acid and glycerin to lock and seal in hydration, according to Neutrogena.
If you prefer a physical scrub, Suah recommends this micro-exfoliating option from Skinceuticals. This product uses silica (a naturally occurring mineral) to remove dead skin cells, debris and excess oil and help smooth and soften the skin, according to the brand. Apply a small amount of the scrub on wet skin and gently massage for a minute before rinsing, according to Skinceuticals.
This overnight serum from Sunday Riley is a favorite of Suah’s because it uses lactic acid to hydrate, exfoliate and help with discoloration, while ingredients like licorice and lemongrass even out your skin tone. To use it as a leave-on treatment, apply one to two pumps on clean, dry skin before going to bed. If you have sensitive skin, you should leave it on for 15 minutes before rinsing it off and patting your skin dry, according to the brand.
Although this serum is suitable for all skin types, it’s a great option for oily skin since the combination of acids helps control both oil and acne, says Moore. It has AHAs like sugarcane and bilberry to exfoliate, as well as white willow bark, a BHA that goes deep into the pores to remove any oil, debris and dead skin cells found inside, according to the brand. For the best results, apply three to four drops on your hand and dab the serum on your face using your fingertips, according to iS Clinical.
This overnight cream is another favorite of Moore’s because it combines the brand’s lactic acid and retinol blend with glycolic acid to reduce the appearance of texture, fine lines and wrinkles. To combat any dryness from the retinol and AHAs, it also has hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides and squalane, according to the brand. This formula is also available in different sizes, concentrations and consistencies, including a serum and a chemical peel version.
This fragrance-free body wash combines five AHAs, including glycolic, malic and lactic acid, to exfoliate and remove dead skin cells. I use this creamy wash three times a week and find that it’s gentle on my sensitive and eczema-prone skin. Apply as many pumps as you need to coat your entire body and gently massage it into your skin, according to the brand. On the days I have extra time, I always leave the wash on my skin for a few minutes before rinsing it off.
Billie’s Body Buffer bar, which is recommended by Select associate updates editor Zoe Malin, uses plastic-free jojoba beads to physically exfoliate the skin. These beads are safe to use on all skin types because they have a rounded shape and won’t damage the skin, according to Moore. Aside from exfoliating, this Body Buffer also helps prevent ingrown hairs and hydrates the skin with ingredients like shea butter and aloe vera, according to the brand.
This physical exfoliant combines salicylic acid with AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid. “It doesn’t feel like it’s tearing out your skin like most coarse exfoliating products do,” says Select associate commerce editor Nishka Dhawan. The brand recommends using this product once a week and also offers it in a variety of essential oil blends to provide a subtle scent, including eucalyptus, bergamot and sandalwood.
This body scrub, which has a 4.4-star average rating from over 31,000 reviews on Amazon, is a great option for most skin types and concerns, including rough, bumpy skin caused by keratosis pilaris. The scrub combines both physical and chemical exfoliants into one product: The pumice buffing beads physically scrub away dead skin cells, while glycolic and lactic acids unclog pores. Apply the scrub on wet skin and massage gently once to twice a week, depending on your skin’s tolerance level, according to the brand.
Select updates editor Mili Godio uses this exfoliating body scrub three times a week in the shower and loves how smooth her skin feels afterward. “I’ve had trouble finding a body scrub that doesn’t irritate my sensitive skin in the past, but this Dove one fits the bill,” she says. “I love how gentle it feels on my skin and the scent is pleasing yet subtle.” Not only does this polish remove dead skin with the help of crushed macadamia, but it’s also hydrating since it’s formulated with the brand’s moisturizing cream, according to the brand. Massage the scrub in circular motions for a creamy lather and rinse, according to Dove.
This fragrance-free body lotion comes recommended by Select associate reporter Ashley Morris because the leave-on treatment uses salicylic acid to unclog pores and helps even out any texture. It also has vitamin E to hydrate the skin and protect it from free radicals, as well as chamomile and green tea to help calm irritation, according to the brand.
How to best exfoliate the face and body
Below, we list our experts’ tips to help you properly exfoliate both your face and body. Before incorporating an exfoliant in your skin care routine, consult your dermatologist to determine if it’s a good fit and how often to exfoliate for your specific skin type.
- Face: Begin your skin care routine using a gentle cleanser that doesn’t have any active ingredients to avoid possible irritation, says Suah. Immediately after exfoliating with either a chemical or physical exfoliant, you want to repair the skin barrier with moisturizing ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid because it prevents the skin from drying. You can find these hydrating ingredients in skin care products like serums and moisturizers, according to Suah.
- Body: Similar to the face, you want to begin by cleansing the skin first with gentle body wash. Next, apply your exfoliating product in the shower. Within three minutes of exiting the shower, you should apply a body lotion or barrier repair cream since exfoliating can draw out moisture leaving your skin dry, according to Suah. You want to make sure your skin is slightly damp when applying your cream or lotion to help add and lock in moisture, says Suah.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and without undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Dr. Shereene Idriss is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Idriss Dermatology in NYC and is also the creator of the #PillowtalkDerm series on Instagram. Her areas of expertise include volume displacement, skin discoloration and textural changes of the skin.
- Dr. Stephen Suah is a board-certified dermatologist at Foxhall Dermatology in Washington, DC. His areas of expertise include medical dermatology, surgical dermatology, cosmetic dermatology and skin of color.
- Dr. Liza Moore is a board-certified dermatologist and clinical director of Luxe Dermatology and Aesthetic Centers in Tysons, Virginia. Her areas of expertise include medical, cosmetic and laser dermatology among others.
Why trust Select?
Bianca Alvarez is an associate reporter and has been covering beauty, including blackhead treatments, epilators and sunscreens. For this piece, she interviewed three dermatologists and researched many exfoliants on the market. Bianca recommended products the dermatologists shared with us, met their shopping guidance and ones we have tried ourselves.