best facial exfoliators

The best face exfoliators: from physical scrubs to acids and fruit enzymes, these products will leave you glowing

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It’s no secret that face exfoliators are the key to a glowing complexion – here we round up the very best in class that are suitable for every skin type. 

The power of a good face exfoliator knows no bounds. With the power to slough away dead skin cells, remove product build up and just generally leave your complexion looking shiny and new, it’s no wonder they’ve gained cult status over the last few years.

However – as with anything in the skincare sphere – shopping for the exfoliator that’s best suited to your individual skin type can be overwhelming and confusing. Too harsh and it could cause more harm than good, and using a product that’s not intended for daily use could also result in damaging the delicate skin barrier.

That’s why we’ve created this guide, including everything you need to know about the different forms that acids and exfoliators come in, which ones are best for which skin type and the best product recommendations. 

How do face exfoliators work and why do you need one?

Just like using a body scrub, facial exfoliation works in the same way – by removing a build-up of dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. 

Face exfoliators give skin a helping hand to ensure skin looks as bright as it can be, as well as working to improve the effectiveness of the creams and serums you apply daily by enhancing absorption. Regular use can also help to prevent clogged pores which, over time, can work to reduce breakouts – something which is especially beneficial in oily and acne-prone skin types. 

There are two main types of exfoliation are chemical and physical – but more on that later.

What are physical face exfoliators?

While physical exfoliators aren’t quite as popular as they once were, they are still beneficial for some skin types, although they’re not always recommended for those with sensitive skin. They work by physically (see, the clue’s in the name) buffing away dead skin cells using products formulated with tiny grains, like coffee grounds, or that use biodegradable microbeads, often made from something like cellulose. Other types of physical scrubs include nut shells and sugar, and be aware that fine grains and particles are always best – if they’re too big they can tear or damage skin.

What are chemical face exfoliators?

While physical scrubs used to be the most popular way to renew skin, nowadays chemical exfoliation is more popular as it generally tends to be less abrasive. Chemical exfoliation works by loosening the glue-like bonds between skin cells, which then break down and get rid of the dull, dead bits, leaving a glowing complexion in their wake.

Chemical exfoliators come in a variety of strengths, and it’s always best to start with a low strength and gradually build up if your skin needs and can tolerate something stronger. The most well-known liquid exfoliators contain acids including glycolic, lactic (which are both part of the alpha-hydroxy acid – AHA – family) and salicylic, which is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). Recently, though, there’s been an onslaught of products that harness the power of PHAs – polyhydroxy acids – which are gentle yet effective and are an especially good choice for anybody new to acids or with sensitive skin. 

Fruit enzymes are another popular choice of ingredient often found in chemical exfoliants. They’re typically more gentle than acids, and are generally derived from natural sources – the most common types used are papaya, pineapple and pumpkin. 

Which exfoliators are best for which skin types?

Although it might take some trial and error to find the product that works best for you and your individual needs, generally speaking people with oily or blemish-prone skin are best using a salicylic acid-based exfoliator that’ll not only remove dead skin cells directly at the surface of skin, but that will also work deep inside the pores to help unclog them.

Skin types that sit somewhere between the oily-to-balanced skin will benefit most from physical scrubs, while dry skin should try using something glycolic acid-based. As well as targeting dead skin cells, it’s proven to boost collagen production and hydrate skin.

Sensitive skin types will need to be the most careful – products that are too harsh can aggravate and cause even more sensitivity. PHA-based chemical exfoliants are best – gentle enough to use twice daily and work at surface level.

It’s also worth noting that whichever type of face exfoliator you use, you should always wear a minimum of SPF30 (ideally SPF50) the following day.

The best exfoliators for all skin types

  • Frances Prescott Tri-Balm

    Frances Prescott Tri-balm
    Best face exfoliator: Frances Prescott Tri-balm

    The most unique of the lot, make-up artist Frances Prescott’s Tri-Balm is a cult cleanser, exfoliator and moisturiser in one. It uses pumpkin seed enzyme to gently exfoliate skin, while also melting away stubborn make-up, ensuring skin is left feeling refreshed and radiant.

    Shop Frances Prescott Tri-Balm, £46 at Liberty

  • Medik8 Press & Glow Daily Exfoliating PHA Tonic

    Medik8 Press And Glow Daily Exfoliating PHA Tonic
    Best face exfoliator: Medik8 Press And Glow Daily Exfoliating PHA Tonic

    Ideal for sensitive skin, this daily toner exfoliates at the surface level of skin to gently dissolve dead skin cells, while aloe vera helps reduce the chances of irritation and protects against damaging free radicals.

    Shop Medik8 Press & Glow Daily Exfoliating PHA Tonic, £23 at Cult Beauty

  • La Roche-Posay Ultrafine Scrub

    La Roche-Posay Ultrafine Scrub
    Best face exfoliator: La Roche-Posay Ultrafine Scrub

    Like all La Roche-Posay skincare, this scrub has been developed with sensitive skin in mine. Enriched with thermal spring water and super fine grains, it’s gentle on skin and promises to leave it feeling super soft and nourished.

    Shop La Roche-Posay Ultrafine Scrub, £11 at FeelUnique

  • Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel

    Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
    Best face exfoliator: Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel

    A quick and easy-to-use two-step formula, the first wipe is soaked in a powerful blend of five exfoliating acids that work to improve skin texture, unclog pores and shed dead skin. The second part features a neutralising wipe that effectively stops the acids in their tracks, ensuring they only do the work they need to do without over-exfoliating skin.

    Shop Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel, from £19, at SpaceNK

  • Alpha H Liquid Gold

    Alpha H Liquid Gold
    Best face exfoliator: Alpha H Liquid Gold

    Some may say this is the product that kickstarted the liquid exfoliator obsession – and for good reason. As well as its resurfacing and brightening properties, Liquid Gold is clinically proven to increase skin’s moisture levels while simultaneously improving the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. A real one stop shop; just make sure you don’t go overboard and stick to using it every other night at the most.

    Shop Alpha H Liquid Gold Exfoliating Treatment, £40 at Marks & Spencer

  • UpCircle Beauty Face Scrub

    best face exfoliator upcircle face scrub
    Best face exfoliator: Upcircle Face Scrub

    Made with repurposed coffee beans that would otherwise go to waste, this exfoliator is as effective and gentle as it is sustainable. Formulated with shea butter and rosehip oil for extra added moisture, it’ll buff away dead skin quickly and easily.

    Shop UpCircle Beauty Face Scrub, £12.99 at Beauty Bay

  • Kiehl’s Pineapple & Papaya Facial Scrub

    Kiehl’s Pineapple & Papaya Facial Scrub
    Best face exfoliator: Kiehl’s Pineapple & Papaya Facial Scrub

    For soft, smooth and even-textured skin, this Kiehl’s scrub pairs naturally-derived grains with fruit acids for a gentle yet thorough exfoliation; and despite being specifically formulated for balanced and oily skin types, it’s also suitable for those with sensitive skin.

    Shop Kiehl’s Pineapple & Papaya Facial Scrub, £25.40 at FeelUnique

  • Formula Take Back Your Glow Microdermabrasion Exfoliator

    Formula Take Back Your Glow Microdermabrasion Exfoliator
    Best face exfoliator: Formula Take Back Your Glow Microdermabrasion Exfoliator

    Affordable and effective, Formula’s scrub uses glycolic acid alongside jojoba beads to slough away dead skin cells. Best used once a week on damp skin after cleansing, it’ll make skin look smoother and clearer after the first use.

    Shop Formula Take Back Your Glow Microdermabrasion Exfoliator, £12 at Marks and Spencer

  • Wishful Skin Yo Glow Enzyme Scrub

    Best face exfoliator wishful skin yo glow enzyme scrub
    Best face exfoliator: Wishful Skin Yo Glow Enzyme Scrub

    One of the hero products in Huda Beauty’s skincare line, Yo Glow harnesses the power of physical and chemical exfoliation. Formulated with a gentle blend of papaya and pineapple fruit enzymes along with AHAs and BHAs, it’ll leave skin silky smooth and glowing.

    Shop Wishful Skin Yo Glow Enzyme Scrub, £18 at Cult Beauty

  • Kate Somerville Liquid ExfoliKate Triple Acid Resurfacing Treatment

    best face exfoliator kate somerville liquid exfolikate triple acid resurfacing treatment
    Best face exfoliator: Kate Somerville Liquid ExfoliKate Triple Acid Resurfacing Treatment

    Formulated with an effective blend of AHAs and fruit enzymes, this one is best left overnight for the best results. It’ll gently exfoliate and dissolve dead skin while you sleep, working to improve texture and minimise the appearance of pores.

    Shop Kate Somerville Liquid ExfoliKate Triple Acid Resurfacing Treatment, £52 at Kate Somerville

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Lucy Partington

Freelance beauty editor Lucy Partington is obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she'll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.