Dermatologists Share the Best Exfoliators for Glowing Skin From Head to Toe

Updated 01/31/18
Best exfoliators
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I've always loved exfoliating, perhaps too much. Even when I was a tween—before I learned the basics, like consistently cleansing and moisturizing—I regularly exfoliated. Maybe it was the instant results that made the habit stick as a kid, but it's still my favorite step in my skincare routine. Considering that I'm such an exfoliation enthusiast, you'd think I would actually know what it did. Well, it turns out that I've been pretty clueless about this essential skincare step. So to clean up my act and learn how to exfoliate effectively once and for all, I reached out to Meredith Brown, a clinical esthetician at the acclaimed practice of Julie Russak, MD, and dermatologist Charlene DeHaven, MD.

Much to my relief, I've been using high-quality products designed to treat my skin type, so I haven't been committing too many erroneous crimes against my face and body, but their expert insight definitely improved my methodology and knowledge. Starting with the fundamentals, DeHaven explains that "exfoliation is a normal process of skin renewal" that begins to slow as we age. She then clarifies that "during exfoliation, worn-out cells of the outermost skin are shed and new ones replace them." And as Brown echoes, you can stimulate this natural process by exfoliating, "for a softer, smoother, and brighter complexion."

So now that we've all caught up on the basics, read on below to reap the benefits of their expert advice. Then shop the best exfoliators that really do give you that glow.

Why It's Important

As if we need another excuse to luxuriate in this skincare step, Brown explains that exfoliating also "allows for better product penetration, as those dead cells act as a barrier on the surface." In other words, your toners, serums, moisturizers, and even makeup foundations will all be more effective if you exfoliate correctly. Even better, "a smoother canvas allows more light to be reflected off the surface, which gives the skin a healthy glow."

It's also worth noting the difference between chemical, mechanical, and manual exfoliators. According to Brown, "chemical exfoliation involves applying a topical product to dissolve the bonds that hold together the dead surface layer (i.e., enzymes, AHA, BHA, retinol)" and more. "This process also stimulates new, healthy skin cells. Depending on the type of chemical, it can aid in eradicating acne, boosting hydration and reducing hyperpigmentation." So it's more like a treatment, while a using an exfoliating scrub or cleanser is just removing dead skin cells manually.

And then mechanical exfoliation refers to "using a device or tool to physically rub or buff off the dead skin such as microdermabrasion and dermaplaning."

The Common Mistakes

So we know that proper exfoliation "can improve skin health and shorten the turnover time for cells of the epidermis." However, DeHaven warns that "exfoliation that is too aggressive, too deep, or too frequent can stress the metabolism of skin cells by requiring them to generate new cells faster than nutrient status allows." This has damaging results, both immediate and long-term. Brown delves into the details, clarifying that "overuse of exfoliation can result in irritation and or skin abrasion." So make sure that you "never exfoliate on broken, compromised skin or after sun exposure."

Frequency and Method

So how do we gauge when to exfoliate and when to hold off? "Considering that exfoliation requires about three weeks in 20-year-olds and six weeks in 50- to 60-year-olds, gentle exfoliation should be done no more frequently than this" if you want to air on the safe side, says DeHaven. On the other hand, Brown says, "manual [exfoliation] can be done 1 to 2 times weekly after washing the face and before shaving." When it comes to chemical exfoliation, "frequency largely depends on what product you are using and how your skin responds," Brown explains.

"Something gentle like lactic acid can usually be done on a daily basis whereas most at-home peel pads should be used one to three times weekly depending on tolerability." For something with anti-aging properties like retinol, you can use them nightly, "however, they have to be ramped up over a few weeks so the skin can adjust to their strength," says Brown.

Also, when using a manual exfoliator for your face, "it is advised to do this out of the shower as hot water can cause capillaries to become more prone to breakage," says Brown. If you do choose to exfoliate in the shower, which you'd usually do if it were a body exfoliator so you can fully rinse it off after, DeHaven says that "applying bodywash or other cleansers before exfoliation somewhat increases the number of cells removed."

Finding the Right Exfoliator

While DeHaven thinks it "would be unfair to label any of these 'good' or 'bad,'" she also thinks "it's important to buy good, quality products containing high-quality ingredients" to make sure you really get the most out of exfoliating. Indeed, knowing what certain ingredients to look out for, both good and bad, can also help you land on the best exfoliator when narrowing down your options.

As Brown warns, "crushed fruit pits and substances that have sharp edges, even when ground, will do more damage than good." Also, "plastic 'microbeads' were banned in 2015 in the U.S., as they do not biodegrade and wreak havoc on the environment." So when shopping for an exfoliator, "look for ingredients such as minerals, jojoba beads, or water-soluble ingredients such as sugar," advises Brown. DeHaven recommends looking out for products that also "contain ingredients that support skin nutrition and antioxidant status to fortify the skin during controlled exfoliation."

And on that note, start shopping the best exfoliators below to enhance your skincare routine.

Exfoliating Treatment Mask
Tula Exfoliating Treatment Mask $54
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face

WHY WE LOVE IT: This clay treatment mask gently exfoliates the skin without stripping it of essential oils. The biodegradable beads allow for gentle, physical exfoliation.

Intensive Body Exfoliant with Activated Charcoal
Grown Alchemist Intensive Body Exfoliant With Activated Charcoal $59
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Body

WHY WE LIKE IT: This body exfoliant contains active ingredients to purify, hydrate, and noticeably break down cellulitic deposits while also initiating skin cell rotation to improve texture for an evener tone and a softer feel.

Regenerating Cleanser 1.7 oz/ 50 mL
Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser $42
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face

WHY WE LIKE IT: If you're looking for a cleansing exfoliant to use more regularly, this is a great all-natural option. It buffs and polishes and refines pore appearance.

Henné Rose Diamonds Lip Exfoliator $24
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Lips

WHY WE LIKE IT: One of the most overlooked steps in the skincare care routine? Our lips. This exfoliator is specially designed for lipcare. Just remember to moisturize them after.

Good Genes Treatment 1.7 oz.
Sunday Riley Good Genes Treatment $155
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face

WHY WE LIKE IT: This luxurious lactic acid–based treatment is an instant complexion booster, plumping fine lines and exfoliating to reveal brighter, newer-looking skin. It reduces hyper-pigmentation and circulation for immediate radiance.

Anese Booty Scrub $28
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Body

WHY WE LIKE IT: Specifically designed to target stretch marks, cellulite, acne, and discoloration, this antioxidant-rich scrub is one of the only exfoliators it's kind. And the sassy packaging doesn't hurt.

Revision Skincare Exfoliating Facial Rinse $23
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face

WHY WE LIKE IT: "For a deeper exfoliation," Brown recommends this product. It's a scrub that "uses Polynesian volcanic black sand and ultra-fine pumice to remove dead, dehydrated surface cells from the skin for an immediate soft, smooth appearance."

SheaMoisture Coconut & Hibiscus Hand and Body Scrub $10
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Body and hands

WHY WE LIKE IT: With shea butter and coconut oil, it moisturizes while also removing dead cells on the surface of your skin. This is a good option for anyone looking for a product that's affordable and easy to find.

Ultimate Brightening Rose Powder Cleanser
Uma Oils Ultimate Brightening Rose Powder Cleanser $65
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face

WHY WE LIKE IT: Here's another powder cleanser if you like the idea of a water-activated exfoliant. This one is inspired by an Ayurvedic recipe, and the Indian spices purify pores to clear out sebaceous glands. You can also mix it with honey to create a richer, more nourishing paste for a face mask.

Balmy Nights 0.14 oz/ 4 g
Ilia Balmy Nights $26
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Lips

WHY WE LIKE IT: Since this exfoliator is in lipstick form, it's a lot less messy to apply. And after regular use, your lips will be a lot softer and smoother, making your moisturizer far more effective than when used on its own. The sleek aesthetic also makes it a pretty addition to your vanity.

Gentle Purifying Scrub
Avene Gentle Purifying Scrub $18
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face

WHY WE LIKE IT: This scrub is a lightweight gel that deeply cleanses and exfoliates for a clear, radiant complexion. Plus, it has a friendlier price tag than many other popular exfoliating options.

Botanic Sugar Polish
Bamford Botanic Sugar Polish $58
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Body

WHY WE LIKE IT: Developed at a wellness retreat, this sugar scrub is made with rich shea butter, sesame and olive oil, and brown sugar to exfoliate, soften, and nourish the skin while also offering a new relaxing step to your skincare routine.

Rice Enzyme Powder Classic: Normal/Combination Dry Skin 0.35 oz/ 10 g
Tatcha Rice Enzyme Powder $65
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face

WHY WE LIKE IT: There are several different iterations from this line, each specifically designed to target different skin concerns to make it easier for you to exfoliate correctly for your skin type. This one is specifically for dry and sensitive skin so it doesn't tighten and it keeps you moisturized while smoothening skin.

Tracie Martin Enzyme Exfoliant $90
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face, hands, and décolletage

WHY WE LIKE IT: This is a great product for pretty much everything. It's designed to prevent breakouts, reduce pore size, cleanse, soothe, and brighten the skin. It's a cream-based exfoliant so it'll bring instant relief to dry, rough skin.

Tri-Active Exfoliant, 1.7 Oz
iS CLINICAL Tri-Active Exfoliant $60
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face

WHY WE LIKE IT: "iS Clinical tri-active exfoliant contains both mechanical and chemical exfoliators," DeHaven says. It "provides excellent results through exfoliation and improving skin nutrition and health."

Coco Rose Coconut Oil Body Polish 8 oz/ 226 g
Herbivore Coco Rose Coconut Oil Body Polish $36
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Body

WHY WE LIKE IT: This cult favorite is popular for a good reason. With nourishing coconut oil, this body polish is simultaneously moisturizing and exfoliating. And the hint of delicately floral Moroccan rose is a unique touch, too.

Binchotan Facial Puff
Morihata Binchotan Facial Puff $17
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face

WHY WE LIKE IT: This little puff is made from vegetable fibers and Binchotan charcoal powder for cleansing, exfoliating, and brightening your skin tone. You just wet your face as well as the puff with warm water and then gently massage your skin in a circular motion.

Kocostar Foot Therapy Foot Exfoliation Wrap
Kocostar Foot Therapy Foot Exfoliation Wrap $10
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Feet

WHY WE LIKE IT: Show your feet some love while also treating yourself to a spa-like treatment at home. This wrap exfoliator is incredibly soothing and gentle. Just keep in mind that you need to keep it on for about 90 minutes to really see results.

Pha Bio-peel Resurfacing Facial Pads
Zelens PHA Bio-Peel Resurfacing Facial Pads $95
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WHAT IT'S FOR: Face

WHY WE LIKE IT: These chemical facial pads are infused with salicylic acid to promote exfoliation and sodium lactate to moisturize, delivering immediate results without drying out your skin at all. They give your skin an instant fresh start.

Once you've chosen the best exfoliator for your skincare needs, discover these dermatologist-recommended anti-aging serums and how to use them.

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