I’ll be honest. It wasn’t until I started double cleansing that I even thought about what kind of face wash I was using, let alone its ingredients. But the first—and one of the most important—steps of your skincare routine has the ability to transform your complexion. If it’s clear, glowy skin you’re after, the best exfoliating face washes can get the job done.
That being said, digging into exfoliating cleansers can be a little more complicated than other product categories. There are two types: chemical and physical, the latter of which can cause a bit of debate (more on that in a minute). It’s also important to find a rhythm with exfoliating face washes—they’re not typically an every night kind of thing.
But once you find the right brand fit and frequency, a great exfoliating face wash will become a glow-inducing, acne-fighting staple of your skincare routine. Trust us.
For a little guidance, we tapped three skincare experts: board-certified dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Geddes-Bruce; Olivia Quido, founder of O Skincare; and Laura Acre, director of R&D at Thrive Natural Care.
Featured image by Riley Reed.
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How often should we use an exfoliating face wash?
Even the most gentle exfoliating face wash is still hard working. “For most people, two to three times a week is enough, but you can exfoliate more often if your skin tolerates it well,” says Acre.
What ingredients should we look for in a good exfoliating face wash?
Plenty of brands make a great exfoliating face wash (it wasn’t hard to gather the 20 products below), but knowing what you’re looking for can help you find the best fit for you.
Ingredients That Should Be in a Good Chemical Exfoliating Face Wash
“A good exfoliating wash usually has a single or combination of alpha or beta hydroxy acids and enzymes,” shares Geddes.
- Salicylic Acid (in stronger exfoliators)
- Glycolic Acid (in stronger exfoliators)
- Lactic Acids (in more gentle exfoliators)
- Mandelic Acid (in more gentle exfoliators)
- Milk (a mild exfoliator)
- Soothing/Hydrating ingredients like aloe vera, cucumber, lilac stem cell, and green tea
Is it okay to use physical exfoliators?
It’s a heated debate. While chemical exfoliators are known for gently dissolving dead skin cells, physical exfoliants mechanically get the job done with ingredients like microbeads, salts, or rice grains. But is the latter category too abrasive? It depends on who you ask.
“Avoid ingredients like fruit pits or seeds and shells as they can damage the skin with microtears,” shares Acre, who positions herself firmly with the no-physical-exfoliators team.
Dr. Geddes is far more pro, sharing that, “I think physical exfoliators get unfairly knocked. In truth, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that apricot scrub we all tried in our teen years. The problems occurred when people were using it too frequently in an effort to wash away acne. That just doesn’t work.”
Quido sees benefits on both sides but does point out an edge for chemical products. “Chemical exfoliation is most useful for improving skin tone and reducing dullness, and has long-term effects and benefits,” Quido explains. “Unlike physical exfoliation, which only stays on the epidermis layer of the skin, chemical exfoliation gently resurfaces the skin for a smoother, brighter, and more even appearance.”
The Best Exfoliating Face Washes
Armed with recommendations from our experts, tried-and-true test runs, and thorough sleuthing in the “Skincare Addiction” Reddit (a fount of wisdom if there ever was one), we feel confident recommending the following face washes (both physical and chemical) to keep dull skin at bay and provide an even, radiant glow.
The Best Physical Exfoliating Face Wash: Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant Exfoliator
Skincare Reddit is obsessed, as are several of our experts. With a little water, the slightly gritty, rice-based powder transforms into a foamy, enzyme-packed paste to become a two-in-one hero: a physical scrub and a gentle chemical exfoliator.
Key Ingredients: Papain Enzymes, Salicylic Acid, Rice Bran-Derived Phytic Acid, Colloidal Oatmeal
The Best Chemical Exfoliating Face Wash: Revision Skincare Papaya Enzyme Cleanser
This creamy cleanser is a Dr. Geddes-Bruce favorite that’s “gentle enough for all skin types and easy to add to any skin care regimen, including those with potentially irritating ingredients like retinoids and vitamin C.”
Key Ingredients: Papain (a papaya extract enzyme), Salicylic Acid, and Bixa Orellana Seed Extract.
The Best of Both Worlds: Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser
All the nostalgia of the apricot scrub from your teenage years without the crushed shell shards, this all-natural formula uses a mix of chemical (BHAs) and physical (apricot microspheres) to clean and buff out clogged pores.
Key Ingredients: Pomegranate Enzymes, Sunflower Seed Oil, Phytic Acid Salt, Coral Clay, Bergamot, Aloe Vera
Honorable Mentions (That Still Amaze Us With Their Effectiveness)
AmorePacific Treatment Enzyme Exfoliating Powder Cleanser
This potent, powdery blend is strong enough to be a treatment on its own (a super gentle one!). But when it’s mixed with water, it becomes an exfoliating cream that dissolves as you cleanse your face. It’s perfect for sensitive skin and (since it’s waterless) an excellent travel companion.
Eminence Strawberry Rhubarb Dermafoliant
Speaking of emphatically reviewed products, Eminence’s water-activated, vegan formula features a blend of gentle acids, nutrient-rich Heilmoor clay, and pore-tightening chickpea flour. You can also control the strength by mixing it into an existing cleanser for an added boost.
Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Pore Exfoliating Treatment
Ah, ExfoliKate. Who hasn’t received a Sephora sample of this cinnamon-smelling miracle worker only to look up the price and kiss it goodbye?
Fortunately, Reddit user junkfunk39 has an answer: “I wish it didn’t work so well as it’s so expensive… thankfully a travel-sized one lasts a good amount of time!”
Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 NO Phenol Normal to Oily Skin
Listen, you don’t earn the nickname “Jesus in a Bottle” for nothing.
Summer Fridays Soft Reset AHA Exfoliating Solution
The potent blend of niacinamide and 16% AHAs gently sloughs off dead skin cells for a brighter, clearer complexion. Some reviewers noted how strong the product is (tingling is apparently normal), so absolutely do a patch test first if your skin is sensitive.
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