If you were to name an essential product you need for glowing skin, an exfoliator would probably be at the top of the list. And we’re not talking about physical scrubs we recklessly used as teenagers, but chemical products that do the work for you.
“Chemical exfoliators are ingredients that help loosen the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to shed and reveal newer and healthier cells beneath,” explains Tiffany J. Libby, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Brown Dermatology. “They also help unclog pores and exfoliate away surface skin cells; they also brighten skin, improve skin cell turnover and renewal, and some may even help stimulate collagen production within the skin.” Resurfaced skin can also allow your subsequent skin-care products to sink in more effectively (and work better as a result).
However, despite the benefits of using an exfoliator, overuse can lead to redness, irritation, breakouts, and damage to your moisture barrier. Additionally, using an exfoliator that’s either too harsh or too gentle for your skin type can rob you of that luminous finish you’re going for. To strike an optimal balance, first, make sure you’re not exfoliating too often — no more than three times a week, or look into TikTok’s dermatologist-approval skin cycling trend.
For dry or sensitive skin, one to two times a week should be enough. Michelle Henry, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Medical College in New York City, recommends exfoliating with a physical exfoliator for about 30 seconds (or less) using small, gentle, circular motions. For chemical exfoliators, she recommends following the instructions printed on the packaging, as they can vary by product.
Second — and perhaps more important — make sure you’re using a formula that contains the best exfoliants for your skin type. Dr. Henry suggests initially avoiding mechanical exfoliation if you have sensitive skin and instead choosing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid. “They exfoliate the upper layers of the skin while also hydrating and helping your skin retain moisture,” she says. Dr. Libby echoes similar advice: “If you have sensitive skin, start with polyhydroxy acids, or lactic acid and mandelic acid, which are larger alpha hydroxy acid molecules [that] do not penetrate as deeply into the skin and are least likely to cause irritation.”
On the other hand, Dr. Henry says physical exfoliation is key for oily skin since it helps remove any layers of oil buildup. “When you have oily skin, your dead skin cells are more adherent and don’t flake off as quickly, and this can contribute to breakouts,” Dr, Henry explains. She recommends using an exfoliating scrub with salicylic acid (a type of beta hydroxy acid, or BHA), which “gently speeds up skin turnover and better penetrates oil and oily follicles” to keep skin clean and clear of blemishes. Dr. Libby suggests salicylic acid, too, which she says “is excellent at targeting oil and unclogging pores.”
Below, we rounded up dermatologist-approved facial exfoliants to get you glowing right at home — whether you’re sensitive, oily, or somewhere else on the skin-type spectrum. Shop these top picks at your favorite retailers like Sephora, Ulta Beauty, and Dermstore — stat.