Last Updated on 3rd December 2023 by Sarah Sarsby
Exfoliators are amazing at resurfacing your skin for a smoother texture, getting rid of stubborn blackheads, reducing the appearance of wrinkles, and overall promoting healthy, youthful skin. But there are loads of exfoliators out there, all claiming to improve the appearance and texture of your skin. It can be hard to know which one will be the best for your skin type and your skin’s needs.
This comprehensive blog post discusses what exfoliators are, the different types of exfoliators, and the best options for all skin types. So whether you’ve got oily skin like me, sensitive skin, dry/dehydrated skin, or mature skin, this blog post covers all bases to make your life easier.
* This post contains some affiliate links. This means at no extra cost to you, I earn some commission if you purchase a product through my link. All thoughts are my own, though, as always. If you want to find out more, visit my affiliate disclosure page **
What are exfoliators?
Exfoliators remove dead skin cells from the surface of your skin. This helps unclog pores, which in turn prevents breakouts; reveals a smoother complexion; stimulates collagen production for healthy, glowing skin; and promotes skin elasticity.
Exfoliators most commonly feature acids, but some exfoliators use fruit enzymes, such as pineapple enzymes or blueberry enzymes, which are typically gentler than acids.
There are 3 categories of acids: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs). AHAs, like glycolic acid and lactic acid, are widely used for improving signs of ageing, dry skin, and uneven skin tone. There is only 1 BHA, salicylic acid, which exfoliates deep inside the pores, which is perfect for oilier skins dealing with blackheads and breakouts. PHAs, such as gluconolactone and lactobionic acid, are ideal for sensitive skin, as they’re supposed to be less sensitising than AHAs but just as effective.
There are 2 types of exfoliators: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliators are a manual type of face scrub, where you rub tiny particles across your skin to exfoliate dead skin cells. However, physical exfoliators are a lot more sensitising than chemical exfoliators, as you can destroy the skin’s barrier, and they often aren’t anywhere near as effective. Chemical exfoliators, on the other hand, require no physical movement to work. Your skin simply absorbs the ingredients, and the exfoliating process works by itself.
All of the products in this post are chemical exfoliators. In my experience, they’re far better, do no damage to your skin, and yield long-term results.
Exfoliators come in different skincare formulas, whether it’s a cleanser, toner, face mask, or serum. Toners are my personal fave, but all are viable options. Toners and serums tend to offer the most concentration of exfoliants, as they’re more targeted treatments and stay on your skin.
The best exfoliators for all skin types
Now that we’ve gone through what exfoliators are, how they work, and the different types of exfoliators, it’s time to dive into some of the best products for all skin types. This list is designed to make it easy for you to pick the best exfoliator for your skin type and take the stress away from deciding. Most of these products have been tried, tested, and loved by me.
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA – £7.90 for 30ml
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA is a fantastic serum for dry or dehydrated skin. Lactic acid is an AHA that’s great for drier or dehydrated skin because it’s part of the skin’s natural moisturising factor. It works by gently breaking the bonds that hold dead, dry skin cells, keeping the skin soft. Its unique structure allows it to bind water, making it hydrating. The Ordinary’s formula is formulated with 2% hyaluronic acid for an additional hydration boost.
Maysama ABP11+ Green Rooibos Gentle Resurfacing Toner – £48 for 125ml
Use the code SARAH10 for 10% off Maysama.
Maysama’s ABP11+ Green Rooibos Gentle Resurfacing Toner is another great option for dry or dehydrated skin, as it’s formulated with lactic acid. This toner features 5% lactic acid, 1% salicylic acid, and 5% gluconolactone for a multi-acid yet gentle exfoliation. It also incorporates green rooibos for additional soothing and refreshing properties.
Full review here.
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant – £34 for 118ml
Use the code SARAHSSPH for 15% off Paula’s Choice at Sephora.
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant is a holy grail for many oily-skinned people. This BHA toner is excellent at unclogging and shrinking pores, getting rid of stubborn blackheads with consistent use, and overall smoothing and evening the complexion. I love this toner, and it’s one of the best exfoliators I’ve ever tried. As salicylic acid has the ability to penetrate deep inside the pore, which other acids can’t do, BHA is the perfect solution for oily skin, as it prevents breakouts.
Facetheory BHA Exfoliating Serum – £18 for 30ml
Use the code AWOMANSCONFIDENCE for 20% off facetheory (minimum spend £20).
Facetheory BHA Exfoliating Serum is another salicylic acid solution that’s ideal for oily skin and won’t break the bank. This serum is formulated with hydrating ingredients like propanediol, glycerin, and hyaluronic to help offset any potential drying properties from the BHA.
SeoulCeuticals Super Fruit Enzyme Mask – £17 for 60ml
The SeoulCeuticals Super Fruit Enzyme Mask is an excellent, gentle option for sensitive skin, as it incorporates exfoliating fruit enzymes, like papaya, pineapple, and pomegranate, rather than acids, which are less sensitising. While fruit enzymes may not pack quite the same punch as acids when it comes to exfoliating, they still do a great job of making skin smoother and glowier.
SKIN1004 Centella Toning Toner – £16 for 210ml
SKIN1004 Centella Toning Toner is a brilliant option for sensitive skin. This toner incorporates PHAs, which are less irritating than other acids but are still effective at exfoliating skin. It’s also enriched with the powerhouse centella asiatica, which is a fantastic soothing and hydrating ingredient. You could get away with using this exfoliator more frequently because it’s gentle.
Full review here.
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum – £76 for 30ml
Use the code LFTFBLOGSARAH for 20% off Drunk Elephant at LookFantastic.
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum is fab for mature skin, as it features glycolic acid, which works by deeply penetrating and stimulating fibroblast cells that aid in collagen production. Overall, glycolic acid increases cell turnover and can reduce the appearance of wrinkles. This exfoliator is one of my all-time faves, as, beyond anti-ageing benefits, it reveals smoother, radiant skin almost overnight.
Dr Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel – £93 for 30 treatments
Use the code LFTFBLOGSARAH for 20% off Dr Dennis Gross at LookFantastic.
Dr Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel is expensive but boy does it work. It features the AHA glycolic acid, which you already know by now is a great exfoliant for mature skin, alongside other AHAs, like citric acid and malic acid, and salicylic acid for a totally targeted solution. Expect a more even skin tone and texture, reduced appearance of wrinkles, and minimised enlarged pores with this powerful exfoliator.
Pixi Glow Tonic – £18 for 250ml
Pixi Glow Tonic is a cult classic. This iconic glycolic acid toner is perfect for smoother, radiant skin and reduced wrinkles. It was my first introduction to exfoliators, and it’s still one of my fave formulas. Hydrating and soothing ingredients like aloe vera, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin make this feel lightly moisturising on application too.