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Best exfoliant 2023: Slough away dirt and grime

Dull, grey-looking skin? Bring back radiance with our pick of the best exfoliants that clean, smooth and nourish

Over time, a build-up of dead skin cells can result in patchy, uneven-looking skin, while clogged pores can result in spots, too. If your complexion is looking dull, it could be time to seek out the best exfoliant for your skin type, to help return your skin’s natural glow.

“Exfoliation can have myriad benefits; it helps to remove dead skin cells, pollution and product build-up on the epidermis (the outer layer of skin), which can clog pores and cause breakouts,” says Dina El Adlani, skincare specialist and founder of Espérer Skincare. “It also encourages cell turnover, which is great for anti-ageing and minimising the appearance of sun damage.”

However, it’s important to tread carefully with exfoliants, since overuse could result in irritating and sensitising skin. As such, it’s best to start tentatively, upping frequency and strength depending on how well your skin is tolerating a particular product.

So, it’s time to get your glow on. Before we reveal our pick of the best exfoliants available right now, check out our guide on how to choose the ideal product for your skin type.

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Best exfoliants: At a glance

How to choose the best exfoliant for your skin type

What types of exfoliants are there?

Exfoliants are divided up into two main categories: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants are your scrubs, microfibre cloths or brushes, which manually dislodge dirt and grime. While they can be effective, products that are particularly abrasive can cause micro-tears in the skin, which can lead to irritation, redness, and a compromised skin barrier. As such, it’s always best to approach these types of exfoliants with caution.

“Certainly, don’t be too rough if using a physical exfoliant,” adds Dina. “Clay masks work particularly well as a physical exfoliant because the powder is so fine that it won’t be abrasive. It also contains natural detoxifying minerals that gently draw out impurities and exfoliate the skin, without the need to physically scrub.”

Chemical exfoliants, on the other hand, are acids and enzymes that help to resurface the skin and promote cell turnover (and they’re not as scary as they sound, we promise). There are two types: AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) such as glycolic and lactic acid, and BHAs (beta-hydroxy acids), most commonly salicylic acid. The way in which both exfoliate is different, however.

AHAs are water-soluble and work by dissolving the bonds that keep dead skin cells clinging on to the surface of the skin, therefore making way for the smoother, brighter skin beneath. They’re widely celebrated for their anti-ageing benefits, including treating fine lines and hyperpigmentation. BHAs, on the other hand, are oil-soluble, which means they can get underneath and around the oil that sits within our pores. These exfoliate by dissolving the trapped debris and excess sebum, so they’re a go-to for anyone who suffers with acne, but also other conditions that result in blocked pores – keratosis pilaris, for example, which often affects the upper arms.

How often should I exfoliate?

“Two or three times per week is a good place to start, but it very much depends on your skin’s sensitivity, so keep an eye on how it reacts,” suggests Dina. “Over-exfoliating can cause your skin to dry out, become inflamed and produce even more oil, resulting in further acne and breakouts.”

Remember, you can have too much of a good thing, so avoid overloading your skin with harsh anti-ageing products. A chemical exfoliant containing AHAs followed by a slick of retinol, for example, could be enough to set off a stinging code red if your skin is sensitive.

How much should I spend?

There are certainly affordable options out there – as you’ll see from our top picks below, which range anywhere from £8 to just shy of £100. And while a bigger price tag doesn’t necessarily mean a better product, if you’re looking to target specific concerns such as pigmentation, ageing or acne, some of the skincare heavyweights are undeniably worth the investment, particularly if they pack a powerful combination of AHAs and BHAs. Whatever the case, always choose a product based on the ingredients that agree with your skin type, rather than price.

How we test exfoliants

We test a wide range of exfoliators for both face and body, from scrubs and peels to chemical formulas in the guise of toners and cleansers. To ensure skin doesn’t end up irritated as a result of overuse – and for best results – the products are used twice a week over the course of a few months. When trialling, we consider everything from ease of application and how gentle they are on the skin to how soft skin feels after use and value for money. We also note any active ingredients. Below you’ll find the exfoliants that left us with the smoothest, most radiant complexions.

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The best exfoliants you can buy in 2023

1. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant: The best daily exfoliant

Price: £31 (118ml) | Buy now from Feel Unique

While we wouldn’t usually suggest TikTok as a go-to for solid skincare advice, sometimes it does throw up a few cult buys that get the approving nod of facialists and beauty editors alike. One such product is Paula’s Choice BHA Liquid Exfoliant with salicylic acid – a light, water-weight toner that’s super-gentle, irritant-free, and suitable for everyday use. Everyday use means cleaner pores in the long-term, and cleaner pores means a smoother skin texture, fewer blackheads, and an overall reduction in breakouts – this makes it particularly great for acne-prone skin. Swipe the leave-on formula over your face with a saturated cotton pad after cleansing and it will sink in quickly, prepping your skin for your favourite moisturiser.

Buy now from Feel Unique

2. Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel: The best exfoliating pads

Price: From £18 (pack of five) | Buy now from Look Fantastic

If you’re looking for a quick and convenient fix, then you can’t be pads. Simply swipe and go; no water or rinsing required. Among the many available, these remain a firm favourite, combining a powerhouse blend of five exfoliating acids that unclog pores, improve skin texture, and speed up the dead-skin shedding process. This is a two-step formula that’s been designed to mimic the expert peels administered to clients of Dr Dennis Gross at his NYC practice: the first part delivers pre-dosed acids for exfoliation; the second step dispenses retinol and resveratrol for anti-ageing benefits. The pads are a brilliant option for travel or festivals.

Buy now from Look Fantastic

3. Nourish London Kale Enzymatic Exfoliator: The best exfoliant for sensitive skin

Price: £19 (50ml) | Buy now from Nourish London

When you first squeeze it out of the tube, this thick and creamy scrub from organic skincare label Nourish London looks like any other facial scrub; but it’s far gentler on the skin than you might expect. Jojoba beads provide an ultra-light polish without scratching the skin, and it also packs a healthy dose of pomegranate enzymes and pineapple fruit extract to chemically slough away dead skin cells. In addition, organic, vitamin-rich kale increases suppleness and provides protection against pollutants – think of it as your sensitive skin’s bodyguard. There’s a light scent of geranium that lingers following use, but it’s subtle – not at all overpowering.

Buy now from Nourish London

4. Dr Levy 3Deep Renewal Micro-Resurfacing Cleanser: The best exfoliating facial cleanser

Price: £42 (150ml) | Buy now from Face the Future

Purchasing a cleanser that includes exfoliating acids means you won’t need to use a separate exfoliator every day. Enter this gentle, creamy but super-effective number from Swiss skincare specialist Dr Levy, which contains a blend of glycolic and lactic acids to slough away the daily build-up of dirt, bacteria, and pollutants. It also contains organic rice extracts, which physically polish the skin to refine its texture. Applied to damp skin, this is a great daily cleanser (as part of your evening routine, though, since it contains active ingredients that may make skin more sensitive to sunlight) because it feels nourishing and doesn’t strip the skin. However, you can also apply it to dry skin a couple of times a week – leaving it on for five minutes before rinsing – for use as a more intensive, exfoliating mask. If you’re looking for brighter, more refined skin, then the 3Deep cleanser deserves a permanent place in your cabinet.

Buy now from Face the Future

5. ZitSticka Fizz Fountain Multi-Exfoliant Body Scrub: The best exfoliating body cleanser

Price: £23 (180ml) | Buy now from Cult Beauty

Your first line of defence against bumpy skin and blocked pores on your back, chest or upper arms should be an in-shower body exfoliator, and this dreamy scrub from the acne expert at ZitSticka ticks all the boxes, thanks to its combination of physical exfoliants (superfine pumice grains and bamboo powder) and chemical (salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acids). Together, alongside niacinamide to help reduce redness and irritation, these ingredients actively help to fight body breakouts and other conditions caused by clogged pores, such as keratosis pilaris. Oh, and it does exactly what it says on the bottle: just a couple of squeezes of this product on your loofah and your shower turns into a frothy, eucalyptus-scented paradise. After a couple of days, you’ll wonder how you ever showered without it.

Buy now from Cult Beauty

6. The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution: The best budget exfoliant

Price: £8 (240ml) | Buy now from Boots

Few brands have changed the way we shop for skincare in the way of The Ordinary and its effective, no-frills products – and this glycolic toner is certainly a game-changer. In fact, as well as being a brilliant budget-friendly option for tackling enlarged pores, blackheads, and to achieve a glowing complexion, social media users have been raving about this acid toner curing the dry, flaky skin on their scalps and even lightening dark patches on their underarms. At 7%, it has a higher percentage than many other glycolic products on the market, so it’s best used every other night to avoid leaving your skin feeling stripped. We’d also suggest it could be a tad too powerful for drier and more sensitive skin types.

Buy now from Boots

7. Youth to the People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant: The best exfoliant for pigmentation

Price: £32 (118ml) | Buy now from Cult Beauty

If you suffer with melasma, fine lines, and/or dullness, mandelic acid could be the lesser-known ingredient missing from your skincare regime. Like other AHAs, it works by dissolving the tiny bonds that hold dead skin cells together, but it also strengthens collagen, which will improve skin firmness and elasticity, and tends to be gentler. And when it comes to pigmentation and discolouration, mandelic acid has been shown to reduce melasma by up to 50% in just four weeks. Our tester found this toner to work a dream on their oily complexion. It sinks in quickly and feels wonderfully light, without being too drying. The leave-on formula combines that hero ingredient – mandelic acid – with salicylic to get beneath the pores alongside gluconolactone, a PHA that targets skin texture. Overall, this contains a powerhouse of ingredients that will work for a variety of skin types.

Buy now from Cult Beauty

8. Frank Body Rosehip Body Scrub + Cleanser: The best exfoliant body scrub

Price: £16.95 (250ml) | Buy now from Frank Body

Is anything quite as effective on lizard-like skin as a good old-fashioned sugar scrub? This lightly scented scrub works a treat on arms, legs and anywhere else on your body for that matter. It contains a nourishing blend of rosehip oil and coffee seed extract, while the lavender oil gives it mind-calming powers without the scent being too overbearing. The texture is light and silky, with just the right amount of grit to help you slough away rough skin, so you leave the shower feeling baby soft and hydrated.

Buy now from Frank Body

9. Mimi Luzon 24K Pure Gold Exfoliator: The best luxury exfoliant

Price: £96 (50ml) | Buy now from Mimi LuzonSkin expert and aesthetician Mimi Luzon is the woman behind the glowing complexions of Irina Shayk, Jessica Hart, Kaia Gerber, and several other celebrities who have snapped themselves in her cult gold-sheet masks and uploaded them onto social media. At £96 a pop, you might expect it to be laced with gold… and, well, you’d be right. Superfine gold particles delicately polish the skin to buff and boost cell turnover, while TECA (a purified extract of Centella asiatica, a medicinal herb) helps stimulate collagen and hyaluronic acid delivers a serious dose of hydration. The texture is much lighter than we expected – it’s almost frothy when you open the tub – but it feels wonderful on the skin, with the microscopic gold flecks leaving a subtle shimmer. There’s no doubt our skin felt glowy and hydrated afterwards – but it could prove an expensive regular habit, so save this one for when you really feel like making an occasion of your nightly routine.

Buy now from Mimi Luzon

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