When to Use an Exfoliating Face Wash—and Our Top Picks for Dull Skin

Get glowing.

By Caitlin Clark
Woman washing neck.

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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 can 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 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 from our interview with Kate Waitzkin.

Lauren Ireland and daughter.
Image by Emma Bassill

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.

Ingredients to Look For

Plenty of brands make a great exfoliating face wash (it wasn’t hard to gather the products below), but knowing what you’re looking for can help you find the best fit for you.

“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
Sanetra Longno

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.”

Woman applying face wash.
Image by Suruchi Avasthi

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.

Best Overall: 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

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.

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.

Best Affordable: Versed The Purist Antioxidant Face Cleanser

This is a favorite of Camille Styles Managing Editor, Isabelle. She uses it twice weekly for an all-over glow and loves that it clears out impurities without stripping the skin. The cleanser yields a soft and hydrated result—while maintaining its seal of sensitive skin approval.

Megan Roup applying skincare in mirror.

Best Exfoliating Face Washes: Honorable Mentions

Ogee Botanical Brilliance Exfoliating Cleanser

Especially good for breakouts and acne-prone skin, Ogee’s formula gently exfoliates while absorbing excess oil for a balanced, beautiful complexion.

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—because it’s waterless—an excellent travel companion.

Philosophy Microdelivery Exfoliating Facial Wash

If you absolutely must scrub, Philosophy’s practically microscopic beads are satisfying and gentle.

COSMEDIX Clarify Salicylic Acid Foaming Cleanser

Don’t let the words foaming and salicylic acid turn you off. This alcohol- and sulfate-free formula is not the stripping, drying foaming cleansers of your past. It also has soothing aloe and probiotics to encourage healthy bacteria on the skin.

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.

This post was last updated on December 24, 2022.