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Our top pick is the TULA Skincare So Polished Exfoliating Sugar Scrub
Cleansing and moisturizing are two of the most important aspects of a skincare routine. But, over time, the complexion starts to build a barrier of dry skin cells that can get in the way of a deep cleanse and block ultra-nourishing formulas from their fullest potential. This can result in dull skin, clogged pores, and less product absorption — and it's why dermatologists recommend practicing exfoliation regularly in your skincare regimen.
“It’s important to exfoliate to remove build-up that can lead to blackheads, whiteheads, and breakouts,” Dr. Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at Shafer Clinic in Manhattan, NY tells PEOPLE. “It can also improve brightness and radiance, creating a more youthful-looking appearance.” In addition to its brightening and clarifying effects, Dr. Engelman says regular exfoliation can also help the skin absorb other skincare products such as moisturizers and serums better, allowing you to see improved benefits. “When you have a layer of dead skin cells sitting on the surface, your products won’t be able to penetrate the skin to actually work.”
When it comes to exfoliating, though, you don’t want to use just any formula. Since scrubs involve removing dead skin cell buildup, reaching for a gentle formula is crucial. “A good quality scrub that isn’t abrasive can help the skin break down dead skin flakes — over time, this can help with the natural skin aging process,” says Dr. Jeannette Graf, a board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mt Sinai School of Medicine.
If you’re looking for a gentle yet effective face scrub that can slough away dead skin cell buildup and reveal brighter and clearer skin, we’ve got you covered. Our PEOPLE Tested team conducted real-world testing on 15 top formulas to find the best non-abrasive scrubs. After 30 days of testing, we narrowed down our top picks to these 6 formulas.
Best Overall: Tula Skincare So Polished Exfoliating Sugar Scrub
The formula features both chemical and physical exfoliants that effectively slough away dead skin without causing irritation.
After 30 days of testing, this face scrub helped minimize our pores.
It’s safe for sensitive skin types.
While the brand says you can use the scrub without water, we found this to have a bit of a dragging effect on the skin.
The Tula Skincare So Polished Exfoliating Sugar Scrub is our top pick for the best non-abrasive scrub. Formulated with a blend of probiotic extracts for smoothing the skin and improving texture, pineapple and papaya extracts for breaking down dead skin and brightening the complexion, and sugar for softly polishing, this skin exfoliant boasts both a chemical and physical formula that is designed for all skin types, including sensitive.
After testing several formulas, we found that this sugar scrub works best at lifting away dead skin cell buildup without scratching the skin or causing redness. We love that it combines the manual exfoliation of sugar with the gentle and effective exfoliation of chemical ingredients (pineapple and papaya). It doesn’t just brighten the complexion through exfoliation, it also softens and smooths the skin’s overall texture.
Following the 30-day testing period, we noticed that our skin looked brighter and smoother, and our pores appeared much smaller. A few testers made a point to note that their new naturally glowing skin was so profound that they opted to forego foundation, which isn't their norm.
Price at time of publish: $27.20 (orig. $34)
Size: 2.9 oz. | Key Ingredients: Probiotic extracts, papaya enzymes, pineapple enzymes, sugar | Type: Physical and chemical
Best Budget: Neutrogena Deep Clean Gentle Daily Facial Scrub
It’s formulated without oil and is non-comedogenic, so it’s a great option for those with oily or acne-prone complexions.
It’s effective at removing makeup.
This drugstore formula also features beta hydroxy acids to chemically exfoliate the skin.
We didn’t notice a major change in skin brightness after 30 days of testing.
For a more budget-friendly face scrub, we recommend the Neutrogena Deep Clean Gentle Daily Facial Scrub, which you can find on Amazon for under $10. This face scrub combines physical and chemical exfoliants that gently remove dead skin for a polishing effect that smooths and softens the complexion. Additionally, the non-abrasive face scrub is also formulated without oil, and it is non-comedogenic, so it won’t clog pores therefore making it an excellent option for oily or acne-prone skin types.
Since this is a daily face scrub, we tested this formula every day for a month to see how well it performs. Regular exfoliation made our skin look and feel softer and smoother without feeling stripped. In addition to using it as a skin exfoliator, we also incorporated it into our makeup removal process and found that it’s effective at lifting away foundation.
While we noticed that skin was much softer and less dry after continued use, one tester noted that they didn't see a visible difference in terms of brightness — though for the affordable price, they would still highly recommend this effective yet gentle scrub.
Price at time of publish: $5.74 (orig. $8.09)
Size: 4.2 oz. | Key Ingredients: Beta hydroxy | Type: Physical and chemical
Best Softening: PCA Skin Pore Refining Treatment
It’s formulated with ultra-gentle physical and chemical exfoliants that soften and smooth the skin.
With regular use, we saw a decrease in excess oil production without a stripped feeling.
The formula helped clear our pores and made them look smaller, too.
You can only use it 1 to 3 times per week, so it’s not a daily exfoliant.
If softer skin is your goal, we recommend the PCA Skin Pore Refining Treatment, which is formulated with mandelic acid, rice powder, pumice, papain, kaolin, and bentonite. The exfoliating formula is both physical and chemical and designed to brighten, smooth out uneven texture, absorb excess oil and impurities, and gently exfoliate without irritating. Our tester liked that it has a nice viscous consistency that makes it easy to spread evenly over the skin and that her complexion did not feel tight or raw after using.
Throughout the testing period, we saw a difference in the amount of excess oil on our T-zone. Our skin also appeared brighter and our pores were clearer and more refined after the 30-day testing period — one tester said that her skin appeared more "radiant: with continued use.
Price at time of publish: $68
Size: 2.1 oz. | Key Ingredients: Mandelic acid, rice powder, pumice, papain, kaolin, bentonite | Type: Physical and chemical
Best for Dry Skin: Dermalogica Daily Milkfoliant
It features both exfoliating and hydrating ingredients to soften and nourish the complexion.
Since it’s formulated with oat-based ingredients, it helps reduce skin irritation.
The powder consistency forms a nice, soft lather when mixed with water.
It’s a dry formula, so there is a bit of a learning curve.
If you have dry skin, you need an exfoliating formula that is gentle on the complexion so as not to cause irritation while also replenishing the complexion with moisture. The Dermalogica Daily Milkfoliant is our top pick for this category because the formula features ultra-gentle physical and chemical exfoliants with deeply nourishing ingredients such as coconut milk to remove dry skin, improve texture, and support better absorption of hydrating ingredients. This is a bit of a unique formula in that it's a dry powder that you lather into wet hands, so it may take some getting used to in order to create the right ratio for your preference.
During testing, we found that this formula helped to lift away dry skin buildup and softened our complexion while improving the overall absorption of nourishing serums and moisturizers. One tester even used this formula after an eczema flare-up and said that it was effective at soothing skin irritation thanks to the oat-based ingredients.
Price at time of publish: $18-$65
Size: 0.45 oz., 2.6 oz. | Key Ingredients: Oat and coconut powder, grape extract, arginine, coconut milk, papain extract | Type: Physical and chemical
Best for Blackheads: Peach & Lily Glass Skin Face Polisher
The formula features both physical and chemical exfoliants that gently target excess oil.
Despite its grainy, powdery formula, it doesn’t scratch or irritate the skin.
After just one use, we saw a difference in pore visibility.
It’s a powder, so there is a bit of a learning curve.
One of the best ways to relieve skin of blackheads is to introduce regular exfoliation into your skincare routine. We loved the Peach & Lily Glass Skin Face Polisher because it features a potent blend of chemical and physical exfoliants that work together to gently lift away dry skin and keep excess oil at bay.
Enhanced with salicylic acid, fruit extracts, angelica root, allantoin, and ginseng, this exfoliating scrub soothes the skin, targets premature signs of aging, and brightens, too. After just one use, we saw a major difference in our pores’ clarity (read: they were less congested and were less noticeable). One of our testers even called it a "skin vacuum" because of its effectiveness. All in all, we were very impressed with how well this scrub improved the overall clarity of our skin while still being gentle and leaving it feeling soft and nourished after use rather than tight and raw.
Price at time of publish: $48
Size: 2.6 oz. | Key Ingredients: Allantoin, ginseng, CrystalRice, salicylic acid, fruit extracts, Angelica root | Type: Physical and chemical
Best Value: Cetaphil Extra Gentle Daily Scrub
It’s formulated with micro-fine granules that lift away dead skin and help balance excess oil production.
With regular use, we saw improvement of our skin’s texture.
It boasts a hypoallergenic formula that is safe for sensitive skin types.
It’s not very effective at brightening the complexion.
If you don’t love a face scrub but still want to reap the benefits, an exfoliating cleanser is a fantastic alternative. The formula is enriched with micro-fine granules that lift away dirt and debris as well as dead skin buildup to provide a deep cleanse without stripping. Formulated to target dirt, debris, and excess oil buildup, it’s one of the best cleansers for oily skin, though its hypoallergenic formula is gentle enough to use on more sensitive skin types, too.
Throughout the testing period, we didn’t notice a difference in our skin’s brightness, but we did find that our skin looked and felt cleaner, our overall skin texture improved, and our complexion even felt as though it was more moisturized and had increased suppleness.
Price at time of publish: $17.94
Size: 6 oz. | Key Ingredients: Micro-fine granules | Type: Physical
Things to Consider Before Buying Face Scrubs
One of the first things to consider when shopping for non-abrasive scrubs is the exfoliant type. You can find face scrubs in two types: either solely physical or a combination of physical and chemical. Physical refers to ingredients that physically slough off dead skin buildup, while chemical refers to ingredients that gently dissolve dead skin cells on the skin’s surface. Examples of physical exfoliants include sugar, rice powder, milk powder, and oat powder. You might also see these exfoliants referred to as “micro-fine granules,” too. Chemical exfoliants refer to more acid-based or enzyme ingredients such as salicylic acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid, pineapple enzymes, papaya enzymes, and pomegranate enzymes. While many formulas feature just physical exfoliants, you can also find several skincare products with a mix of both, including our top pick for the best non-abrasive scrub, the Tula Skincare So Polished Exfoliating Sugar Scrub, and our top pick for the best softening scrub, the PCA Skin Pore Refining Treatment.
In addition to exfoliants, it’s also worth considering other ingredients that can support additional skincare benefits, such as hydration, pore cleansing, and brightening. “If you have dry skin, look for a scrub formulated with hydrating ingredients like glycerin, aloe, [and] hyaluronic acid, [as well as] salicylic acid or niacinamide,” says Dr. Engelman. Salicylic acid is great for acne prone skin (which can be found in the Peach & Lily Glass Skin Face Polisher). Niacinamide is also a great ingredient for acne as well as a skin strengthener to prevent moisture loss.
You'll also want to take note of fragrance, as Dr. Graf says some face scrubs are highly fragranced with artificial aromas. “I recommend looking for a scrub that is either fragrance-free or lightly fragranced using natural ingredients,” she explains. For a fragrance-free formula, we recommend the Cetaphil Exfoliating Face Wash, which is a hypoallergenic exfoliating cleanser and great for sensitive skin types.
How We Tested
To find the best non-abrasive scrubs, we researched dozens of options, carefully considering the different types of formulas, ingredients, and exfoliant types before narrowing down our top picks. From there, we put 15 formulas through real-world, at-home testing over the course of four weeks. Throughout this time, we considered the frequency of use and application method while also taking extensive notes on how well the formulas performed throughout the trial period. Additionally, we noted whether the scrubs caused any irritation to ensure they were truly non-abrasive and non-irritating.
After the month-long testing period, our PEOPLE Tested team compiled their notes together and thoroughly reviewed each experience to see which face scrubs held up to our expectations. To narrow down our top pick picks, we looked at the ingredients, exfoliant types, and application process while also taking into account the overall results before determining the best face scrubs.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do you exfoliate with a scrub without irritating?
Dr. Graf warns against applying too much pressure and says to apply the product in small, circular motions instead. “Scrubs don’t need to be vigorously rubbed on the skin to work — in fact, this can cause irritation and damage to the skin,” she explains.
It’s also worth considering your skin type, as some skin types can benefit from more exfoliation while others can get easily irritated. If you have dry or sensitive skin, Dr. Graf says to limit the frequency of exfoliation to once per week.
What is the best scrub for sensitive skin?
Our top pick for the best scrub overall, the Tula Skincare So Polished Exfoliating Sugar Scrub, can be used on sensitive skin types. This formula is both a chemical and physical exfoliant but features more gentle ingredients that slough off dead skin cells without making skin irritated.
Why Trust PEOPLE?
Jessie Quinn is a contributing commerce writer for PEOPLE and has written for publications such as Byrdie, InStyle, The Spruce, NYLON, and more. When covering the best non-abrasive scrubs, Jessie thoroughly reviewed the PEOPLE Tested team’s insights to learn more about their experiences with each formula. She then compared the details, considering the different types of formulas, ingredients, benefits, and the results. Additionally, Jessie reached out to top dermatologists Dr. Dendy Engelman and Dr. Jeannette Graf to learn more about what to look for in the best non-abrasive scrubs and answer some important questions about exfoliation. As a result, she curated this list of the best non-abrasive scrubs for sloughing off dry skin and revealing a brighter-looking complexion.
Meet Our Experts
Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD is a board certified dermatologic surgeon at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Jeannette Graf, MD is a board certified clinical and research dermatologist with a private practice in Great Neck, NY. She is also an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan.
What Is PEOPLE Tested?
We created the PEOPLE Tested seal of approval to help you find the very best products for your life. We use our unique methodology to test products in three labs across the country and with our network of home testers to determine their effectiveness, durability, ease of use, and so much more. Based on the results, we rate and recommend products so you can find the right one for your needs.
But we don’t stop there: We also regularly re-review the categories in which we’ve awarded the PEOPLE Tested seal of approval — because the best product of today might not be the best of tomorrow. And by the way, companies can never buy our recommendation: Their products must earn it, fair and square.
In short, PEOPLE Tested provides recommendations you can trust — every day, every purchase.
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Read the original article on People.