Best facial exfoliators to make your skin glow from scrubs to other treatments

Support your skin’s own renewal process

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Kate Somerville
Ellie Davis21 June 2023
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Growing up in the Noughties, my skincare routine consisted of three vital elements; cleanser, an exfoliator and a moisturiser. Things were simple back then (especially as they were typically from the brand Simple).

There has been rapid innovation in the space in the last couple of decades and as it has evolved so too has our understanding of the damaging effect that some of these exfoliating formulas may have. It may seem farfetch for the environmentally-conscious Gen Z generation but before 2014, when they were banned, these face scrubs contained microplastic beads, chosen for their ability to unblock pores and buff away dead cells. They were swiftly replaced by the likes of apricot kernels or walnut shells, but this posed an altogether different problem.

Dermatologists revealed these abrasive granules may cause microtears that could irritate the skin, opening up the pores and thus leading to blemishes and redness. While there are physical exfoliants of this type that are kinder to the skin and are effective in encouraging the removal of dulling dead skin, to many, chemical exfoliants have become the preferred and most popular method.

Dr Ifeoma Ejikeme, CeraVe Consultant Doctor explains the difference, “Chemical exfoliants use acids or enzymes to dissolve dead skin cells, promoting cell turnover and revealing smoother skin. Physical exfoliants involve granules or particles to physically slough off dead skin cells. They can be effective but need to be used with caution, as they may cause micro-tears or irritation if not used properly”.

Chemical exfoliators harness the power of active acid ingredients, whether that’s alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid or lactic acid or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid. These components dissolve dirt, grime and pore-clogging bacteria to promote a healthy, radiant glow, often in a far more gentle way.

When should you exfoliate? And how often should you exfoliate your face?

But beyond just the ingredients, Dr Ejikeme says that newer formulations “focus on incorporating exfoliation as a regular part of skincare routines rather than aggressive or abrasive methods”. While some are designed to be used one or twice a week for a thorough cleansing, others can be used daily.

She breaks it down: “Exfoliation should generally be done after cleansing and before applying other skincare products such as toners, serums, or moisturisers. By removing dead skin cells and unclogging pores, exfoliation allows subsequent products to penetrate better and work more effectively”.

She adds that, “If you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, it’s best to exfoliate less frequently to avoid irritation”.

How to exfoliate your face

It’s not quite as simple as slathering these products on your face and aggressively rubbing it all over. As Dr Ejikeme alluded to above, there is a right and a wrong way to exfoliate with the latter leading to redness and irritation. “Start with clean skin and choose an exfoliating product suitable for your skin type”, she says. “Apply the exfoliant in gentle, circular motions, avoiding the delicate eye area and then rinse off thoroughly with lukewarm water. Follow up with a hydrating moisturiser to nourish the skin”.

What to do after exfoliating your face

As exfoliation removes dullness-causing dead skin cells, you are left with a clear, clean base to then layer up your nourishing ingredients. Dr Ejikeme stresses that “It’s important to replenish and protect your skin”. She recommends following application with “a gentle, alcohol-free toner to restore the skin’s pH balance. Hydrate your skin with a moisturiser, followed by a sunscreen with SPF 30, such as CeraVe’s Facial Moisturising Lotion SPF30 or higher to protect your skin from UV damage”.

For softer, smoother skin, shop the best exfoliators below

Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment

Kate Somerville

The reputation of the ExfoliKate precedes it. It’s considered a cult buy and there’s over 3,000 five star reviews to testify to that. The formula takes its origins from in-clinic treatments, giving you the power of a professional facial in your own home. It’s a scrub in texture that acts fast to declog pores and smooth out uneven texture - it takes just a couple of minutes.

In an independent clinical trial, 94 per cent saw an improvement in the texture of their skin in just one use, 97 per cent saw improvement in their pores and every single participant noticed anti-ageing benefits - namely the reduction in the appearance of crow’s feet, fine lines and wrinkles. Apply before a mask to take it to the next level.

Buy now£24, Kate Somerville

WISHFUL Yo Glow AHA & BHA Facial Enzyme Scrub


Not content on dominating the makeup space, Huda Kattan took her expertise as a professional makeup artist into the skincare realm to prep skin before her signature full-coverage aesthetic. In that vein, this is a scrub in the most literal definition. The coarse texture offers an intense exfoliating experience, combining a physical exfoliator of the star papaya and pineapple enzyme extracts with chemical in the form of AHAs and BHAs.

By buffing away at the skin, you should notice an improvement in the appearance of dark spots and scars, a dimished look of soft set wrinkles and a boost in radiance. Just a tiny amount of the product goes a long way so the modest outlay gives real bang for your buck. Not for daily use but two or three times a week when your complexion needs an overhaul.

Buy now£34, Boots

St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Face Scrub

St. Ives

There is a reason that St. Ives has remained the number one scrub brand in the UK for as long as this writer can remember. First and foremost, the brand was ahead of the curve with no microplastics contained within the formula and instead spotlighting wallnut shell powder as the main ingredient in its natural formulation.

It gives a helping hand to your skin’s own renewal process to clear build-up of dullness and leave skin soft, smooth and refreshed. The apricot aroma will send you back to your childhood - it’s not the most pleasant but does the job.

Buy now£4.19, Boots

Avène Gentle Exfoliating Gel for Sensitive Skin


When your skin is easily irritated, you may think that an exfoliator that is literally sloughing away at your complexion is a recipe for disaster - and we’d agree with you. However, it was with this in mind that Avène created this gel product that is specifically designed to give those with sensitive skin the opportunity to create a smooth base for makeup and a bright, healthy look.

The luxe French skincare label sets jojoba wax beads and niacinamide alongside its signature thermal spring water to ensure that while it works its buffing effect, it is immediately slathering on a soothing, irritation-fighting ingredient too.

Buy now£16.25, Boots

Liz Earle Superskin Microdermabrasion Polish 75ml

Liz Earle

Apply this polish in advance of a mask or moisturiser to optimise their nourishing ingredients. This will allow these formulas to better absorb into the skin. The Superskin Microdermabrasion Polish also refines the skin texture to leave a luminous look in its wake. British botanical skincare label Liz Earle has chosen a combination of physical and chemical exfoliants to work in tandem for an effective buffing experience.

Ultra-fine volcanic pumice crystals are combined with naturally-derived fruit enzyme AHAs but before you get concerned that this will remove the surface layer of your skin, fear not. Also included in the cocktail of exfoliation is shea butter and rosehip oil that is nourishing and skin-loving. The icing on the cake is the neroli aroma that makes the whole process that extra bit more luxurious.

Buy now£32, lookfantastic

Elemis Pro-Collagen Glow Boost Exfoliator


If you’ve ever got your hands on the Elemis Pro-Collagen, you will have experienced the pillowy-soft nourishment that the range provides. The exfoliator is slightly different due to the inclusion of cellulose beads derived from spruce trees, but it still retains that signature blend of velvety oils aka starflower, elderberry and optimega to leave you with skin so supple you’ll have to resist stroking it throughout the day. This deeply cleansing product will encourage less congestion, plump the skin and up the luminosity of your complexions a few notches.

Buy now£55, John Lewis

Fresh Sugar Strawberry Exfoliating Face Wash


The sensorial experience of this face wash will turn the more mundane of your skincare practices into a luxurious moment of self care. As you slough away the dead skin on your face, your olfactories will be sent into overdrive with the real stawberry element of this polish.

But scent aside, the wash packs a real buffing punch to remove dead skin cells that will be standing in the way of a refined, clear finish by harnessing the gentle properties of white sugar crystals that melt as soon as they are applied onto wet skin. It’s a deeply cleansing product but remains gentle and nourishing due to the nutrients from the strawberry and blackcurrant fruit extracts.

Buy now£29, Space NK

Paula's Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Best for: Unclogging angry pores and battling breakouts over time

There is a reason why beauty editors everywhere don’t stop waxing lyrical about this serum from Paula’s Choice. Unlike exfoliators of time gone by, this is a leave-on product that you apply after you have cleansed your skin.

It is packed with blemish-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid but combines this with soothing and calming properties so doesn’t aggravate further irritations, and also targets the appearance of fine lines as an added bonus.

The multipurpose product has a lightweight and non-greasy texture and should be followed by an SPF of at least 30 when used during the day. In only a couple of weeks you will start to notice that blemishes become clearer and pores are minimised.

Spot type tested: Blackheads, hormonal acne and irritations

Results: Clearer skin and a preventative measure

Buy now£34, Paula’s Choice

Sunday Riley Good Genes Glycolic Acid Treatment

Sunday Riley

This treatment from Sunday Riley has a cult following and for good reason. If you ever see the product featured in “empties” videos, it’s almost always followed by a direct replacement for its ability to smooth, brighten and clarify the complexion. It’s a potent treatment that is made up of tiny molecules of the star, named ingredient glycolic acid. This allows it to penetrate deep into the skin, dissolving dirt and grime that can clog pores to prevent congestion, while also serving up anti-ageing benefits with its ability to minimise the look of fine lines.

This component is set alongside lactic acid for further buffing as well as prickly pear extract that makes the formula more tolerable for those with sensitivities. Lemongrass extract is also used for its brightening benefits.

The list is extensive but just a few things you’ll notice with continual use is; reduced hyperpigmentation, a boost in circulation, healing of scar tissue, radiance and a more youthful complexion. Win-win-win-win.

Buy now£70, Cult Beauty

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

The Ordinary

The Ordinary’s MO is simple, effective and affordable skincare products and this solution is the embodiment of why the label is so beloved. It provides an effective buffing solution using a 7 per cent solution of the star AHA for a more mild buffing process than the harsh physical exfoliants on the market.

This means you are getting all the benefits of increased radiance without the after effects of irritation or redness - especially due to the inclusion of a Tasmanian pepperberry derivative, ginseng root and aloe vera that are soothing. Silky smooth skin is just a swipe away.

Buy now£11.50, Boots

Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser


Murad’s Aha/Bha Exfoliating Cleanser tackles skin renewal from two angles: by dissolving dead skin cells and renewing the skin’s texture. One that you’ll probably want to use sparingly (once or twice a week to begin with) if you haven’t experimented with acids before, it combines salicylic, lactic and glycolic acids to encourage clarity and brightness.

Those looking for a little extra exfoliation will enjoy its never-ending list of other benefits: jojoba beads to further polish and re-texturise the skin; sodium PCA and jojoba seed oil to help counteract dryness and liquorice extract to provide anti-irritant and anti-inflammatory properties to your skin.

Buy now£39, lookfantastic

Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Peel Pads

Dr Dennis Gross

Whisk the dark marks away with a swipe of this wipe. The pad has been created by dermatologist led label Dr Dennis Gross to act as a professional-level treatment that you can achieve at home. As such, it isn’t as harsh to the skin as you will find in clinic and has been created so that it can be used on a daily basis if needed. The peel is made up of a two step process.

You begin with the first pad - infused with AHAs lactric, mandelic, glycolic and BHA salicylic - that you glide across the face in a circular motion, wait for it to dry and repeat with the pad labelled ‘two’ that spotlights retinol, reservatrol and ascrobic acid among more anti-ageing powerhouse ingredients. The peel pads will leave your complexion luminous with sun spots appearing much lighter, while uneven tone has been smoothed out.

Buy now£89, Space NK

The Outset Exfoliating Caffeine Micro Polish

The Outset

Dermatologists have long stressed the need to rid our facial routine of harsh exfoliants, detailing first of the microplastic content and then of micro tears that cause moisture loss and redness - which is why I was first surprised at the inclusion of this product, especially when learning of Foster and Johansson’s sensitivities.

This product is likely too harsh for those with sensitive skin and not the kind of formula that you would use every day, despite what’s detailed on the box. In fact, I would only do so once or twice a week as a reset for a really thorough cleanse. It uses a fine perlite that is said to not abrade the skin but with a texture this coarse, how could it not?

There’s also the complex, white tea to protect against oxidative stress and caffeine for brightening. Skin is left feeling soft, smooth and bright after application, but reserve it for a mid-week reset.

If it feels too harsh, take a leaf out of Johansson’s book: take in the shower and thin it out with water.

Buy now£34, Cult Beauty