The Best Face Exfoliators of 2021 - The Dermatology Review

The Best Face Exfoliators of 2021

SKIN CARE REVIEWS

03.02.21DISCLAIMER

Even if you faithfully wear sunscreen, commit to investing in high-quality serums and mask regularly, you’re not going to see optimal results if you’re not exfoliating. This crucial skincare step involves removing dead cells from the skin’s top layer (aka stratum corneum) to escalate cell turnover. Not only does the skin become smoother, clearer, and brighter forthwith and over time, but all of the other products in your regime will work more effectively because they’ll be able to penetrate the skin — not harbor on the surface with dead cells. 

There are two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. While the former is the gritty, scrub-like formula you may be more familiar with, chemical exfoliators dissolve dead skin cells versus sweeping them away. In terms of choosing the best exfoliator for your skin, it really depends on your type, and whether or not you have any concerns such as acne, eczema, or rosacea as a mechanical exfoliant could exacerbate the problem. But today, we’re here to talk about scrubs. It’s interesting to note that scrub reviews have increased an impressive 121% since 2018, and the market itself has grown significantly between 2016 and 2020. This growth is due to a rise in demand for lightening, anti-aging, male, and chemical-free exfoliators and scrubs. With that said, scrubs are clearly getting the attention of influencers, consumers, and pros alike. 

The List

Best Exfoliator Overall: Formulyst Microdermabrasion Exfoliator, $75

Best Exfoliator for Dry Skin: Paula’s Choice the Unscrub, $29

Best Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Polish, $18.75

Best Exfoliator for Acne: Proactiv Skin Smoothing Exfoliator, $48

Best Face Scrub for Glowing Skin: Acure Brightening Facial Scrub, $9.99

Best Exfoliator for Oily Skin: Fresh Umbrian Clay Mattifying Face Exfoliant, $33

Best Face Scrub for Men: Tom Ford Exfoliating Energy Scrub, $57

Best Face Scrub for Blackheads: Amarte Skincare Daily Exfoli Powder, $48

Best Face Exfoliator for Mature Skin: Lancer The Method Polish, $75

Best Drugstore Face Exfoliator: Neutrogena Deep Clean Purifying Gel Scrub, $8.99

Best Natural Exfoliator for the Face: Tula So Polished Exfoliating Sugar Scrub, $32

Best Face Scrub for Dark Spots: Medik8 Pore Refining Scrub Dual-Action Exfoliator, $72.99

Are Face Scrubs Dangerous? 

Whether or not a face scrub is considered dangerous depends on what ingredients it’s formulated with. Do you remember the St. Ives lawsuit of 2017? While the case was thrown out of court in 2018, the company was under fire for its cult Apricot Scrub, which was believed to create micro-tears in the skin. Though the product still has a loyal following today, many other companies have opted to develop face scrubs with less abrasive ingredients such as jojoba beads, poppy seeds, oatmeal, bamboo powder, silica, fruit powders, and rice bran. Elements to avoid would be fruit pits, ground-up shells, volcanic rock, chunky salt, etc. Also, avoid plastic microbeads. They can’t be dissolved in water, so they’re not doing mother earth any favors.  

 

Over-Exfoliating
While scrubs themselves may not all be dangerous, over-exfoliating of any kind (physical or chemical) is. Signs you’re overdoing it include redness, itchiness, irritation, micro-tears or abrasions, flakiness, and dryness. You may even experience breakouts even if you’re not regularly acneic. 

 

Skin Type
Though we provided an example of a suitable face scrub for each skin type, the reality is, scrubs aren’t as good of an option as chemical exfoliants (which can be used by every skin type) for those with acneic, ultra-dry/mature, or sensitive skin. This is not to say you can’t give a scrub a go. Just be sure to choose a formula that hydrates, nourishes, and protects as well as exfoliates. 

 

Skin Tone
Avoid an intense mechanical (or chemical) exfoliator if you have a darker skin tone because it can result in hyperpigmentation — especially after acne breakouts, burns, surgeries, injuries, or bug bites. 

How to Use Face Scrubs Properly

When it comes to how often to use a face scrub, one to two times a week if you have dry or sensitive skin is typically sufficient, while those with oily skin can increase the frequency to around three times. While some scrubs are marketed for daily use, keep an eye on how your skin is reacting as not all skin types can handle that much exfoliation — nor is it necessary. 

  • Cleanse: Start with a clean canvas by washing your face and removing all traces of makeup. While some scrubs advertise that they’ll take care of these steps for you, it’s never a bad idea to use a traditional cleanser to get the job done and then consider your scrub a second cleanse. 
  • Use the Right Amount: You only need about a nickel-sized amount of product (give or take depending on the size of your face), so don’t overdo it, or you’ll just be wasting product. Spread the product evenly on both of your hands to ensure an even exfoliation. 
  • Be Gentle: There’s no need to use a heavy hand when exfoliating; this can lead to irritation. Use light, circular motions (avoiding the eye area) for 15-30 seconds. Don’t forget the corners of your nose, neck, and décolleté. Gentleman, don’t be afraid to work that scrub into your beard and mustache, too.
  • Rinse Thoroughly: Use tepid water to remove all of the product from your skin. Gently pat your face dry to avoid any irritation — especially if you have acne or sensitive skin. 
  • Restore: Apply a serum and moisturizer appropriate for your skin type. 
  • Protect: Exfoliating makes your skin more sun-sensitive, so it’s vital that you’re wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 during the daytime — even if it’s cloudy outside. 

The Best Face Scrubs

Best Exfoliator Overall: Formulyst Microdermabrasion Exfoliator, $75
A skin-refining superstar, Formulyst’s Retexturizing Microdermabrasion Exfoliator is formulated to gently exfoliate built-up layers of dead skin to expose the younger, more vibrant-looking skin beneath. Fine aluminum oxide crystals effectively remove dirt, excess oil, and dead cells. At the same time, nutrient-rich jojoba oil, red tea extract, apricot kernel oil, squalane, and hyaluronic acid deeply nourish and soothe newly exposed skin. The result is smoother, perfect-looking skin with less visible lines and wrinkles. Also, by removing the dead surface skin cells, products can penetrate more in-depth, and make-up goes on smoother, enhancing your overall beauty regime’s efficacy.

Best Exfoliator for Dry Skin: Paula’s Choice the Unscrub, $29
While those with a dry skin type may do better with a chemical exfoliator versus a scrub, this ultra-gentle milky gel formula contains pressure-sensitive jojoba beads that naturally melt away as you work the product into your skin. Additionally, it’s an excellent cleanser and makeup remover that leaves the skin clear, smooth, and hydrated. 

Best Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Polish, $18.75
FAB is notorious for formulating products that cater to sensitive skin, and this mild scrub is no exception. Shea butter, oatmeal, and glycerin work together synergistically to gently exfoliate, hydrate, soothe, and brighten. Unlike many other scrubs, this one is gentle enough to use every day. 

Best Exfoliator for Acne: Proactiv Skin Smoothing Exfoliator, $48
To be clear, it’s never a good idea to aggressively exfoliate acneic skin because you run the risk of spreading breakouts and causing further inflammation. However, mild acne can benefit from a scrub such as this formula from Proactiv, one of the leaders in acne skincare. It’s formulated with micro-crystal benzoyl peroxide to treat blemishes and keep new ones from forming. 

Best Face Scrub for Glowing Skin: Acure Brightening Facial Scrub, $9.99
Walnut shell powder (not chunky pieces) sweeps away dead cells and refines pores while lemon peel noticeably brightens, resulting in refreshed, smooth, and radiant skin. As a bonus, it deeply cleanses and can even effectively remove a full face of makeup. 

Best Exfoliator for Oily Skin: Fresh Umbrian Clay Mattifying Face Exfoliant, $33
Mineral-rich Umbrian clay absorbs excess oil, giving the skin a clear, refined, matte-like appearance. Fine bamboo and olive particles effectively remove stubborn dead skin cells that tend to stick to oily skin, which can eventually lead to blackheads and breakouts. You can apply this formula like a mask and wait a few minutes before dampening your fingers and working the product into the skin like a traditional scrub. 

Best Face Scrub for Men: Tom Ford Exfoliating Energy Scrub, $57
Tom Ford skincare (and cosmetics) definitely tap into the growing luxury men’s skincare market. Formulated for those with normal to oily skin, this invigorating scrub contains crushed apricot seeds (not shells) to remove dead surface cells and unclog pores. Ford’s proprietary skin calming complex ensures that the skin is soft, supple, and soothed during and after the exfoliation process. 

Best Face Scrub for Blackheads: Amarte Skincare Daily Exfoli Powder, $48
The biggest problem with blackheads is that they typically keep coming back, so a face scrub that you can use daily is ideal. Wheat and rice bran extracts slough away dead surface cells while willow bark and pine tighten and refine the pores. It’s not uncommon for acne and residual scarring to be associated with blackheads, so arbutin helps brighten any pigmentation issues while elemental sulfur calms redness and inflammation. Keep in mind that the best way to truly eliminate blackheads is with a chemical exfoliant with an oil-soluble ingredient like salicylic acid that can effectively break up the entire blackhead versus just removing the top of the plug.

Best Face Exfoliator for Mature Skin: Lancer The Method Polish, $75
This exfoliator blends physical and chemical properties and can be used daily to keep mature skin looking revitalized. Quartz crystals, pumpkin, and pomegranate enzymes effectively remove dead surface cells while leaving the skin noticeably softer and brighter after just one use. Between the relaxing lavender scent and the self-warming formula, it’s as though you’re giving yourself a mini spa treatment. 

Best Drugstore Face Exfoliator: Neutrogena Deep Clean Purifying Gel Scrub, $8.99
This popular Neutrogena exfoliator gently yet effectively exfoliates and removes impurities while salicylic acid targets breakouts. The formula features proprietary Barriercare cleansing technology to ensure the skin remains soft and balanced versus stripped of its natural oils. It works best on oily and acne-prone skin types. 

Best Natural Exfoliator for the Face: Tula So Polished Exfoliating Sugar Scrub, $32
Tula harnesses the power of skin-friendly probiotics in its products, which work to strengthen the skin’s microbiome that can become disrupted from over-exfoliating, using the wrong skincare products, medication, allergies, and environmental stressors. This scrub is formulated with sugar that naturally dissolves during the exfoliating process, so it’s more gentle on the skin. The addition of fruit enzymes ensures that you’re getting a thorough yet pure exfoliation.

Best Face Scrub for Dark Spots: Medik8 Pore Refining Scrub Dual-Action Exfoliator, $72.99
You can’t scrub away pigmentation issues, so you’re going to need an exfoliant that has chemical and physical properties. This dual-action scrub contains alpha and beta hydroxy acids and jojoba micro-exfoliators to help purify pores and refine skin texture. Niacinamide (vitamin B) protects the skin from environmental stressors, while allantoin keeps the skin soft and smooth. 

The Best Face Scrubs: The Bottom Line 

Exfoliating involves removing dead cells from the skin’s top layer (aka stratum corneum) to escalate cell turnover. Not only does the skin become smoother, clearer, and brighter forthwith and over time, but all of the other products in your regime will work more effectively because they’ll be able to penetrate the skin — not harbor on the surface with dead cells. There are two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. While the former is the gritty, scrub-like formula you may be more familiar with, chemical exfoliators dissolve dead skin cells versus sweeping them away.

Face scrubs aren’t dangerous, providing you’re choosing a formula with skin-safe exfoliating elements such as silica, jojoba beads, poppy seeds, oatmeal, bamboo powder, fruit powders, and rice bran. Avoid fruit pits, ground-up shells, volcanic rock, chunky salt, etc. You only need to exfoliate one to three times a week, depending on your skin type. Over exfoliation can cause redness, itchiness, irritation, micro-tears or abrasions, flakiness, and dryness. Use a light touch when exfoliating, and be sure to follow up with a serum, moisturizer, and SPF that’s appropriate for your skin type.

References:
How to Stay Ahead in the Booming Skincare Market,” Cosmetic Executive Women, January 2020.
Demand for Natural and Organic Products to Boost the Global Exfoliators and Scrubs Market Through 2020, Reports Technavio,” Business Wire, December 2016.

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