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The best exfoliator for face in 2024 will make your skin feel as smooth as a silk slip

Dr. Dennis Gross, Drunk Elephant, SkinMedica and Cerave will exfoliate your face and give you angel-soft skin.

The best exfoliators include these star products from brands like CeraVe, Drunk Elephant, Dr Dennis Gross (Sephora, Amazon)
The best exfoliators include these star products from brands like CeraVe, Drunk Elephant, Dr Dennis Gross (Sephora, Amazon)

In between cleansing and moisturizing is one often overlooked, yet necessary step in our skincare routines: exfoliation. Our skin sheds roughly 30,000 skin cells per minute, which equals out to over 40 million skin cells over a 24-hour period. Thankfully, the process is invisible to the naked eye and we’re not shedding like snakes over here, but even though we can’t see it happening, what's left behind can have an impact on our skin. Dead skin cells can cause everything from clogged pores to a dull complexion, so it’s crucial that we get those little suckers off! The best exfoliators can help.

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Forgetting to exfoliate happens to the best of us, even beauty editors like me. But since I started cleansing with my face wash every night and exfoliating with a high-quality exfoliator a few times a week it's made a huge difference in the tone and texture of my skin. In fact, to find the best facial exfoliators, I put myself through an exfoliation boot camp, testing dozens of facial exfoliators in both chemical and physical formulas (see the difference in our FAQ section below). I rated them based on their formula, feel, ingredients, benefits and value. Say goodbye to dead skin cells and say hello to your new favorite face exfoliator in the list below.

Formulation: Wipes | Size: 30 treatments + 5 bonus | Skin Type: Normal, combination | Key ingredients: Glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, chamomile, retinol, resveratrol, green tea extract.

While interviewing celebrities about their beauty routines over the years, I’ve always taken note when a certain product keeps popping up, so much so that I start to worry there’s a skinspiracy going on. But sometimes it’s just a legitimately good product that people, famous or not, really love. One of those products is Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel pads. This popular chemical exfoliator does its magic via a two-step process. You use the first pad, which is soaked with five different AHA and BHA acids to lift away dead skin cells, then follow up with the second pad, which has retinol to fight wrinkles and lines.

While it's a celebrity favorite, you don’t have to take Sydney Sweeney’s word for it. When I use these regularly, my skin looks phenomenal, as if I’ve gotten a facial every single day. One time, my husband even asked me what I was doing with my face. I asked him why, and he said that I looked younger (kind of rude, TBH). The improvement in my complexion is noticeable enough that when I stopped using the pads, I also stopped getting compliments (also rude). If you feel like you can’t be bothered to do a two-step product, which I understand, I’m here to tell you that it’s completely worth the extra couple of minutes to get that glow. There are also three types of peel pads, including “Ultra Gentle” for dry and sensitive skin and “Extra Strength” for oily skin, which is good for dark spots.

Pros
  • Vegan and cruelty-free
  • Helps reduce the look of pores
  • Smooths texture
  • Contains 12 antioxidants
  • Reduces fine lines and hydrates skin
Cons
  • Requires two steps so it takes a little more time
  • Individually wrapped which is not eco-conscious
  • Pricey
$92 at Sephora

Formulation: Serum | Size: 1.7 oz | Skin Type: Normal, dry, oily, combination | Key ingredients: Ceramides, hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, licorice root extract

This AHA chemical exfoliator from Cerave is proof that you don’t have to spend big bucks to get smooth skin. It’s formulated with a 5% blend of glycolic and lactic acids that gently exfoliate the skin, sloughing off dead skin cells and revealing a smoother texture. These ingredients can also help minimize fine lines, dark spots, and pores, making it a great anti-aging budget pick as well. I can be wary of glycolic and lactic acid (only because I’ve overused them in the past), but I didn’t have any issues, and it smoothed out some bumpiness I had on my cheek after a week of continuous use. 

Ceramides and hyaluronic acid rounds it all out by keeping skin hydrated and its barrier protected. The treatment is meant for nighttime use, so all you have to do is apply a thin layer after cleansing, allowing it to dry before putting on your night cream.

Pros
  • Fragrance-free
  • Paraben-free
  • Non-comedogenic
  • Smooths fine lines
  • Easy to use
Cons
  • Increases sun sensitivity due to the AHAs
  • Has a slight tingling sensation that might bother ultra-sensitive skin types
$17 at Amazon
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$32 at Ulta Beauty$25 at CVS Pharmacy

Formulation: Lightweight mask | Size: 1.69 oz/ 50 mL | Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, and oily | Key ingredients: Glycolic, tartaric, lactic, citric, and salicylic acids; chickpea flour, pumpkin ferment, matcha tea, milk thistle, apple

Babyfacial is one of my all-time favorite Drunk Elephant products. It’s different than your typical exfoliator in that you use it as a once-a-week mask. You can leave it on for up to 20 minutes (make sure to start with 5-10 minutes at first), then rinse it off and your skin feels … baby soft! 

Its exfoliating power is in its multi-blend of AHAs and BHAs, including glycolic, tartaric, lactic, citric and salicylic acids, which help with texture, wrinkles and pores. Then there’s chickpea flour, which brightens the skin, and more antioxidants that all help with skin laxity and an improved complexion. Use this regularly and you’ll be able to go a little longer between professional facials.

Pros
  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles
  • 100% free of essential oils, silicones, fragrance, and dyes
  • Comes with Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil
  • Unclogs pores
  • Leaves complexion instantly radiant
Cons
  • Have to remember to wash off
  • Might be too strong for sensitive skin
$80 at Sephora

Formulation: Cream | Size: 6 oz | Skin Type: Skin Type: Oily, combination, dry, normal, mature, | Key ingredients: Lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, and malic acid, jojoba oil, salicylic acid

If you want something that cleanses and exfoliates at the same time, I can’t recommend SkinMedica’s AHA/BHA cleanser enough. The combination of AHAs (glycolic, lactic, citric and malic acid) are all from natural sugar sources that help fight wrinkles while improving skin texture. It also has salicylic acid which is another exfoliator (and can fight acne). The physical exfoliation comes from gentle jojoba spheres and feels nice on the skin. This is one that I like to keep in the shower (leaving it on for a few minutes to let those AHAs do their work) and use a few times a week.

Pros
  • Makes skin soft and smooth
  • Improves skin tone
  • Cleanses while exfoliating
  • Good for most skin types
  • Reduces the appearance of wrinkles and pores
Cons
  • Might be too harsh for super sensitive skin
  • Pricey for some
  • Increases sensitivity to sun
$38 at Walmart
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$43 at Amazon$48 at BeautifiedYou.com

Formulation: Cream | Size: 4 oz | Skin Type: Oily, combination, dry, normal | Key ingredients: ultra-fine silica crystals, vitamin C, vitamin E, jojoba oil, murumuru, hyaluronic acid

I love using a physical scrub in the shower, and this one has managed to take the place of at least three of my previous go-to scrubs. It’s made with natural plant-based ingredients, like jojoba oil, and murumuru and cupuacu butters. After testing this about two to three times a week for two weeks, my face was smoother and my pores looked less prominent, which means it was getting in there and doing its thing. 

While some users have complained that the scrub is not gritty enough, I find it to be the perfect texture for gentle exfoliation. Hot tip: A little goes a long way, the less you use, the more exfoliation you experience.

Pros
  • Is gentle yet effectively exfoliates
  • Can be used as a standalone cleanser or post-cleanse polish
  • Made with antioxidants and plant butters
  • Does not contain parabens, phthalates, dyes, harsh preservatives, or gluten
  • Formulated and manufactured in the USA
Cons
  • Has a fresh lemon scent so it’s not best for those who dislike fragrance
  • Some people wish it were grittier
$36 at Amazon
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$34 at Dermstore

Most of the exfoliants on this list come in liquid or scrub form, but this beloved Urban Skin product proves that you shouldn’t underestimate the power of a good ol’ exfoliating bar. It’s actually a multi-purpose, 3-in-1 product, as it’s a cleanser, exfoliator, and brightening mask (you can leave it on for a few minutes before rinsing off). The ingredient list is solid: kojic acid and azelaic acid to help fade dark spots, niacinamide to improve fine lines and boost hydration and licorice root, which helps even out tone and smooth skin. It's a quality pick if a bit less potent and effective than others on our list. 

$25 at Amazon

In the entire universe of skincare, Tatcha's Rice Polish remains a desert island pick for me. It feels like an experience every single time I've used it. You just add a little bit of water to the powder and it turns into a creamy foam that gloriously cleanses and exfoliates. (I'm a big fan of Tatcha's Deep Rice Polish for oily and combination skin.) Still it doesn't make the main list for one main reason: The formula has changed a bit over the years to make it just a tad less good.

$68 at Amazon
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$68 at Kohl's$68 at Sephora

As I’ve mentioned above, exfoliation can work wonders for the skin, but what are the benefits, exactly? According to Dr. Howard Sobel, a Clinical Attending Cosmetic Dermatologic Surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, a facial exfoliator will remove dead skin cells and boost collagen production to improve the skin's texture and ultimately reveal a brighter complexion. "Additionally, they help to prevent breakouts and rejuvenate the skin by allowing other products to absorb more easily into the skin to keep it nourished and glowing," he says. That means once your skin is exfoliated, all the serums, lotions and potions will penetrate deeper so you can experience their benefits at an optimal level. (We want to get our money's worth, after all!)

Our best exfoliators for face winners include both chemical and physical exfoliators. While they both do the same job as far as getting rid of skin cells, there are some differences. "Chemical exfoliators tend to be softer and more gentle on the skin, so they are generally less abrasive," explains Dr. Ellen Marmur, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of MMSkincare based in New York City. "They can help improve the appearance of clogged pores and uneven skin tone." She also says that chemical exfoliators are usually best for people with sensitive skin, and they use different acids and chemical ingredients to help dissolve any built-up impurities or dirt on the skin.

According to Dr. Marmur, physical exfoliators work to remove the topmost layer of dead skin cells and can help improve the appearance of skin in its firmness and elasticity, even helping fine lines and wrinkles. "There’s no right or wrong choice, it solely depends on your skin type and preference," she says.

In many of the chemical exfoliators we listed, alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) are what do the work. Dr. Marmur recommends these products to her patients, many of which come from fruit enzymes. "Some of the most common acids for exfoliation are lactic, salicylic, citric and glycolic acid. These ingredients provide hydration benefits, helping renew cell turnover for the skin and work best for those with sensitive skin," she adds.

No matter what, trying a new product can be tricky, especially since you don’t know how your skin, sensitive or not, will react. It’s always helpful to do a patch test and go low and slow when incorporating something new. However, there are also certain ingredients that derms will tell patients to avoid overall. "I recommend avoiding any exfoliators with sodium sulfate or synthetic fragrances as they can be irritating to the skin," says Dr. Sobel.

As far as the biggest mistake he’s seen with patients using exfoliators, Dr, Sobel says it’s when they exfoliate right before spending time in the sun. "When you exfoliate, you remove the skin cells on the outermost part of the skin, which leaves your new skin cells exposed and vulnerable," he says. "I recommend exfoliating two to three days before any significant sun exposure and always wear sunscreen."

Dr. Ellen Marmur, MD, Board-Certified Dermatologist and founder of MMSkincare

Dr. Howard Sobel, MD, Clinical Attending Cosmetic Dermatologic Surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital