Clear, ultra-glowing skin requires two things: daily sunscreen and a really good face exfoliator. The sunscreen part is fairly straight forward (just find an SPF 30 or more that you love and slather it on every single day), but exfoliating your face is a bit more ~involved~. Here’s the gist: Face exfoliators help remove the dulling and pore-clogging dead cells that build up on the surface of your skin. By removing those dead cells, your skin looks and feels smoother, brighter, and softer. The only catch? Overusing your face exfoliator, or choosing the wrong formula for your skin type, will end up having the opposite affect (aka making your skin blotchy, bumpy, and inflamed).
So to save you from a risky game of trial-and-error, I did a bunch of research and rounded up the best face exfoliators for every skin type and concern. But first, a preview of my favorites:
Our top picks for best face exfoliators of 2022:
Now keep reading for in-depth reviews of the best face exfoliators of 2022, along with the best tips for choosing a face exfoliator and how to properly use one at home.
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Best Overall Face Exfoliator
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
- Clinically proven to improve skin’s tone and texture
- Single-use packaging isn’t sustainable
These peel pads from Dr. Dennis Gross are my holy grail face exfoliator. The two-step system is super effective and easy to use (swipe step one all over your face, wait two minutes, and then repeat with step two). They’re made with a blend of AHAs and BHAs to minimize breakouts, fade dark spots, smooth uneven texture, and make your skin look supremely glowy. I personally use the Universal Daily peel shown here, but they come in a gentle version for sensitive skin and an extra-strength version for seasoned exfoliator veterans too.
THE REVIEW: “I just finished my first box of 35 and my skin is smoother and clearer than ever,” writes one tester. “I use them twice a week and the stubborn bumps and blackheads on my forehead are gone.“
Best Drugstore Exfoliating Face Cleanser
CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser
Now 21% off
- Top-rated on Amazon
- Some reviewers say the pump can be tempermantal
This exfoliating face cleanser from CeraVe has more than 30,000 five-star reviews on Amazon which is WILDLY impressive. It uses salicylic acid to smooth rough, uneven skin texture and gently dissolve any gunk in your pores—plus it’s got ceramides to help strengthen your skin’s protective barrier and prevent dryness too.
THE REVIEW: “I keep this one in the shower and use it not only on my chin—aka the site of all my hormonal acne—but also all over my chest and arms to keep zits and bumps in check. I legit love that it’s free of fragrance and sulfates,” says Cosmo‘s deputy beauty director Chloe Metzger.
Best Face Exfoliator for Dark Spots
Hyper! Hyper Even Fade and Glow AHA Mask
- Helps fade dark spots and melasma
- Some reviewers say it makes their skin feel dry
If you’re dealing with hyperpigmentation (like dark spots, sun spots, or melasma) this is the face exfoliator mask for you. It uses a combo glycolic acid, mandelic acid, and bearberry extract to nix dulling dead skin cells and fade discoloration for an overall brighter, more even looking skin tone.
THE REVIEW: ” I am a skeptic when it comes to face masks—I have spent so much money on products that do literally nothing—but the combo of acids like make this feel more like a weekly chemical exfoliant treatment. I actually started seeing some of my dark spots fade after using it for a month,” says Cosmo‘s beauty editor Beth Gillette.
Best Anti-Aging Face Exfoliator
Skinbetter Science Intensive AlphaRet Overnight Cream
- Contains potent anti-aging ingredients
- Pricey as far as exfoliators go
This face exfoliator serum combines retinol with lactic acid and glycolic acid to create the ultimate anti-aging cocktail for your skin. Together, the ingredients jumpstart cell turnover, stimulate collagen and elastin production, and smooth the look of fine lines and rough texture too.
THE REVIEW: “The best retinol product I have ever tried—it has truly done wonders for my skin,” writes a tester. “This product leaves my skin feeling hydrated and not irritated like other retinol products I have tried in the past. I will definitely continue to purchase and this has become a staple in my skincare routine.”
Best Multitasking Exfoliating Face Cleanser
SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
- Combines chemical and physical exfoliating ingredients
- May be too harsh for dry, sensitive skin types
This face wash is the ultimate exfoliating multitasker. It contains little jojoba beads to mechanically buff away dead skin cells without tearing your skin, AHAs like lactic acid, glycolic acid, and malic acid to improve skin texture, and salicylic acid to decongest pores and provide additional exfoliating benefits. A win-win-win folks.
THE REVIEW: “I love that this cleanser has AHAs and BHAs. They’re a badass combo when it comes to pursuing a smooth and blemish-free skin,” says Cosmo‘s beauty editor-at-large Julee Wilson.
Best Face Exfoliator for Acne-Prone Skin
Paula’s Choice Clear Extra Strength Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution
- Ideal for skin that’s prone to acne and redness
- Needs to be used sparingly on sensitive skin types
Salicylic acid is one of the best ingredients for treating breakouts and inflammation, and this face exfoliator from Paula’s Choice happens to be packed with 2 percent of it (the highest concentration of salicylic acid you can get over-the-counter). Apply it to clean skin nightly to minimize blackheads, whiteheads, and angry red pimples.
THE REVIEW: “I have both acne-prone skin and dry, sensitive skin, and this salicylic acid toner is one of the few formulas that doesn’t dry the hell out of my face. I dab it on every 2-3 nights, and it seriously helps cut down on clogged pores and blackheads,” says Metzger.
Best Face Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin
Cetaphil Healthy Radiance PHA Cleanser
- Gentle, fragrance-free formula is ideal for sensitive skin types
- Not designed to unclog pores or fade discoloration like other exfoliators
Exfoliating can be tricky if you have sensitive skin—if you use one that’s too strong you can literally burn your face off and if you don’t exfoliate at all, well, hello clogged pores and dullness. Enter Cetaphil’s Healthy Radiance Cleanser—it uses PHAs (think of them as AHAs less-intense cousin) to gently dissolve dead skin cells for a mild exfoliation that’s perfectly safe for easily irritated skin types.
THE REVIEW: “I have tried every exfoliator for my dry and acne-prone sensitive skin and nothing has worked besides this,” reads a review. “It has helped my skin so much—I will definitely repurchase again and again.”
Best Drugstore Face Exfoliator Scrub
La Roche-Posay Ultra-Fine Scrub for Sensitive Skin
- Way more gentle and non-abrasive than other face scrubs on the market
- Reviewers complain that the size of the bottle is small
Normally I’m reluctant to recommend a face scrub (they tend to be overly harsh and can create tiny micro tears in the skin), but this one from drugstore skincare brand La Roche-Posay is an exception. It’s made with super-fine pumice particles to gently remove dead skin cells and buildup along with glycerin to keep skin plump and hydrated.
THE REVIEW: “I normally avoid exfoliating scrubs because I have sensitive skin with rosacea, but this one gave my skin a nice glow and very soft feel. I use it just one a week with very light pressure and have no irritation. Love this stuff!”
Best Liquid Face Exfoliator
Rose Ingleton MD SuperFruit Exfoliating Tonic
- Helps brighten your skin tone and smooth rough texture
- May not be suitable for super-sensitive skin types
Liquid face exfoliators and exfoliating toners are having a moment, and I’m especially loving this one from Rose Ingleton MD. Inside the bottle is a blend of 8 percent glycolic acid to help resurface and smooth skin, brightening licorice root extract, and antioxidant-rich Jamaican super fruits. Use a cotton round to swipe it on clean skin after cleansing and then follow up with your favorite serum and moisturizer.
THE REVIEW: “I started using this product five days ago and let me tell you it is the truth and the light,” reads a review. “My skin was having some issues and this really calmed it down. The texture of my skin looks and feels different now and my dark spots have lightened too.”
Best Powder Face Exfoliator
Tatcha The Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder
- Powder formula is travel-friendly
- Some reviewers say the packaging dispenses too much product
As soon as you mix this powder with water, it turns into a rich, creamy foam that exfoliates skin without causing irritation. The powder is made with Japanese rice bran (a non-abrasive physical exfoliant), lactic acid (a gentle type of AHA), and skin-conditioning silk proteins. Use it three times a week in place of your regular face wash for skin that freaking glows.
THE REVIEW: ” I keep this in my shower for the days I feel like I need to buff away some dead skin and oil. It doesn’t make my combo skin feel dry or irritated like other exfoliators, and when I wash it away, my skin feels so smooth,” says Gillette.
Best Face Exfoliator for Dry Skin
Neutrogena Skin Perfecting Daily Liquid Exfoliant, Dry Skin
- Contains hydrating ingredients that are great for drier skin types
- Some reviewers say it can make skin tingle and burn
Ideal for drier skin types, this liquid exfoliator helps boost your glow without making your skin feel like a shriveled up raisin. The magic? A blend of AHAs and PHAs to nix dulling dead cells and brighten up your skin, plus a dose of hydrating hyaluronic acid (a humectant that helps draw moisture to your skin throughout the day).
THE REVIEW: “I applied this before bed and the next day I’ve never been complimented on my “glowing” skin more,” writes a tester. “Even my mom was like “what are you doing?” I was shocked. That was one day after using the product!”
Best Exfoliating Face Mask
Renee Rouleau Triple Berry Smoothing Peel
Very few skincare products can truly give instant results, which is why I always find this exfoliating face mask from facialist Renee Rouleau so damn impressive. Smear the berry-colored gel onto clean skin, let it sit for up to 10 minutes, rinse throughly, and then check yourself out in the mirror. I promise you’ll be genuinely shocked at how clear, glowy and smooth your skin looks.
THE REVIEW: “This berry-colored chemical exfoliant is magic for clearing out pores, resurfacing skin, and eliminating discoloration. I’m obsessed with it makes my skin look and feel,” says Cosmo‘s freelance beauty assistant Valeriya Chupinina.
Best Organic Face Exfoliator
Juice Beauty Green Apple Peel Full Strength Exfoliating Mask
- Made with clean, certified-organic ingredients
- Formula may be too intense for sensitive, redness-prone skin
Clean beauty lovers, this one’s for you. Made with a blend of all-natural and certified-organic exfoliating ingredients (like malic acid, an AHA derived from green apples) this mask helps majorly boost your glow without the use of any potentially questionable ingredients like synthetic fragrances/dyes or parabens.
THE REVIEW: “I’ve been using this mask about once a week for over a year and the results are incredible,” says a tester, adding “I use it at night and the next morning my skin is glowing and my acne scars looks less noticeable. This is holy grail status—you need!”
Best Face Exfoliating Serum
Shani Darden Skin Care Lactic Acid AHA Exfoliating Serum
- Helps resurface and refine skin without flaking or irritation
- Takes weeks of consistent use to see a visible difference in skin
The beauty brainchild of celebrity facialist Shani Darden, this serum is an excellent alternative for anyone who can’t handle using a traditional retinol in their nightly skincare routine. It uses lactic acid and PHAs to gently resurface your skin and refine it’s texture (just like a retinol), plus it contains soothing ingredients like aloe vera and green tea extract to minimize irritation.
THE REVIEW: “My sensitive skin can’t handle a physical exfoliant, so I need to go something a little more low-key like this to get rid of dead skin cells and debris. It’s just enough to refine, tone, and visibly improve my skin’s texture,” says Chupinina.
Best Face Exfoliating Scrub
Ranavat Smoothing Facial Polish
- Formula is gentler and less abrasive than most scrubs
- Some reviewer say it’s not exfoliating enough
This isn’t your average face scrub people. It uses ultra-fine rice particles to gently buff away dead skin cells and exfoliate your face, anti-inflammatory ashwagandha extract to reduce redness, and nourishing lotus seed to boost skin’s moisture levels. After you use it, your skin will feel baby soft and smooth.
THE REVIEW: “This is one of the best exfoliating products I’ve ever used and trust me I’ve used a lot of them,” says a tester, adding that “the formula is rich, soft and feels royal on your skin! It definitely brings out your glow.”
Best Face Exfoliator Pads
First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads
- Made without skin irritants like alcohol or fragrance
- Some reviewers say it made their skin purge initially
I’m a big fan of at-home peel pads, especially these ones from First Aid Beauty. Each pad is soaked with a blend of glycolic and lactic acids to smooth and soften skin, plus Indian Gooseberry extract to even our your skin tone. They’re gentle enough to be used everyday, but if you have sensitive skin swipe one on your skin every second or third day for best results.
THE REVIEW: “This is truly a holy grail product,” writes a tester. “It makes the whole skincare process so much easier. It does WONDERS for my skin—I find it really balances out my skin and gives me that extra oomph.”
Best Overnight Face Exfoliator
Glow Recipe Watermelon + AHA Glow Sleeping Mask
- Works while you sleep to smooth and brighten skin come morning
- Contains synthetic fragrance
Streamline your nighttime skincare routine with this 4-in-1 overnight sleeping mask from Glow Recipe. Think of it as your face exfoliator, antioxidant treatment, moisturizer, and skin-brightener in one. Just gently pat it into clean skin before bed and let the blend of lactic acid, watermelon extract, hyaluronic acid, and peony root do its thing.
THE REVIEW: “If I had to recommend only one Glow Recipe product this would be it,” says a tester. “Every single time I use it I wake up with noticeable results—my pores are smaller and my skin is tighter and brighter too.”
Best Cult-Favorite Face Exfoliator
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50
- Cult-favorite formula is loved by beauty community
- Has a strong, not-so-great odor
The OG liquid face exfoliator, P50 Lotion is loved by editors, facialists, and dermatologists alike and has inspired a whole wave of copycat products. The iconic French formula is full of exfoliating acids and has a cult-like following thanks to its ability to dramatically improve skin tone, texture, and clarity.
THE REVIEW: “They weren’t lying when they called it a cult favorite,” says a reviewer. “I can’t live without this product—it has completely transformed my skin. I had horrible acne, huge pores, and uneven texture and now my skin is so glowy, plump, and almost clear. I noticed a difference after about a month. It’ll change your life!!”
Best Exfoliating Face Wash for Dull Skin
Epil.Logic by Dr. Jeanniton Clean Reveal Brightening Glycolic Cleanser
- Contains a high dose of glycolic acid to help resurface skin
- Contains essential oils that may irritate certain skin types
The secret to this cleanser’s skin-brightening magic? 10 percent glycolic acid and antioxidant-rich rosehip seed oil. Wash with it in the morning or at night as your daily exfoliator. P.S. if you’re using it at night, I recommend starting with a cleansing oil or balm first to breakdown any makeup first.
THE REVIEW: “If you’re dealing with hyperpigmentation (raises hand) this gel cleaner is a must-try. The glycolic acid in the formula is super effective and the rosehip oil makes sure my skin is never dried out after using it,” says Wilson.
Best Face Exfoliating Essence
Dr. Rossi Derm MD The Solution
- Provides mild exfoliation so you can combine it with other actives
- May not be exfoliating enough for skin that’s prone to congestion/clogged pores
I’ve been using this facial essence as a mild exfoliator—it’s hero ingredient is lactic acid—for a few weeks now and I’m loving the brightening and smoothing results. In the morning, I dispense a few pumps onto a cotton round and swipe it across clean, dry skin, wait a minute or two, and then follow up with my serum and sunscreen. And because it’s gentle, I can continue to use my Rx retinoid at night without over-drying my skin.
THE REVIEW: “This is perfect for gentle exfoliation and glow!,” says a tester. “I find that my skin is less sensitive to other skincare products and I have less overall redness and irritation when I incorporate this as part of my daily routine.”
How to choose the best face exfoliator:
Know the difference between chemical and physical exfoliators.
There are two main types of face exfoliators to choose from: chemical exfoliators and physical exfoliators. Chemical exfoliators use acids to break down the “glue” that holds together dead cells on the surface of your skin to reveal clearer, brighter skin. Physical exfoliators typically use little beads or particles to manually buff away dead skin cells, build-up, and debris.
Both have their pros and cons, but dermatologists tend to favor chemical exfoliators over physical ones since they’re less likely to tear skin or cause inflammation when used properly.
Choose your acids wisely.
Exfoliating acids for your face can be broken down into three groups—AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs—and each one is best suited for certain skin types and concerns. AHAs (like glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid) are great for smoothing fine lines and wrinkles and fading discoloration. BHAs (aka salicylic acid) are great for oily and/or acne-prone skin types since they can help breakdown excess oil and debris that gets stuck in pores. PHAs (like gluconolactone) are best suited for sensitive skin types since they’re the most gentle of the three.
Pay attention to the directions.
Overdoing it with your face exfoliator is a recipe for inflammation (inflammation = the root of all skin evil). So if you want to avoid a skin freakout, follow the directions on your specific exfoliator to a T and remember that less is more.
You don’t need to use multiple exfoliators at once or even exfoliate more than a few times a week—and you definitely don’t need to be using the strongest exfoliator you can find. The bottom line: when it comes to exfoliating, being kind to your skin in the process is key for the best results.
Why trust Cosmopolitan?
Lauren Balsamo is deputy beauty director at Cosmopolitan with nine years of experience researching, writing, and editing skincare stories that range from the best retinol eye creams to the best pore minimizing treatments. She’s an authority in all skincare categories but an expert when it comes to face exfoliators for all skin types. She regularly tests and analyzes face exfoliators for efficacy, while working with the industry’s top dermatologists and estheticians to assess new formulas and brands.
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