17 best face exfoliators to buff away pollution and grime

Finding the best face exfoliators is hot on everyone’s agenda at the moment. Not that they haven’t always been a skincare staple, but with heatwave after heatwave, there’s been a spike in searches around exfoliating.

Lots of us have spent a good chunk of the past few weeks fighting our own individual battles against heat, sweat and pollution, as well as the effects they all have on our skin. Hence, we’re leaning on face exfoliators to help us deep clean and de-clog pores. That said, our facial skin is still quite delicate, so we need to be careful not to overdo it on the exfoliating front either. 

No-one wants to feel like they’re sand-papering their skin, but thankfully, all of the best facial exfoliators have come a looong way since the scratchy nut shell scrubs of the noughties. Gentle formulas can help you polish your way to brighter, fresher, beautiful skin. All it requires is finding the right match for your skin needs.

Kiehl’s Pineapple Papaya Facial Scrub

Dermalogica Daily Superfoliant

How can a face exfoliator help?

Healthy skin naturally sheds dead cells to make way for the fresh ones beneath. However, age or stress can slow this process down, creating a dull layer of build-up over our skin. That’s where your exfoliator comes in, manually shifting those cells to restore your glowy complexion. “Exfoliation promotes cell turnover, allowing old dead keratinocytes [that’s skin cells] to shed, which enables new healthy skin to come toward the surface,” explains Pamela Marshall, Clinical Aesthetician and Co-Founder of Mortar & Milk. When incorporated into your skincare regime, exfoliating will help to keep skin as “smooth, bright and healthy-looking as possible,” she adds.

Of course, we only have one face, so it’s important to be gentle with it. Finding your exfoliating sweet-spot can involve a little trial and error to work out the concentration, format and frequency that suits your skin.

Which face exfoliator is right for you?

There are two types of exfoliator to choose from: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliators like scrubs, flannels and cleansing brushes involve manually buffing the skin, with salt, grains, bristles or fibres. Chemical (or liquid) exfoliators include products that contain acids such as glycolic and salicylic, or fruit enzymes such as pumpkin and pineapple. These are then usually applied to a cotton pad and swept over skin. They work in a similar way to a nail polish remover, breaking down the bonds that hold dead skin cells together in order to lift them away. The difference, is they’re much, much gentler and more diluted. Think of a couple of drops of lemon juice in a glass of water – it’s acidic, but it’s much more mild.

Most dermatologists have moved to chemical exfoliators as they tend to be less abrasive on skin, however, a light gentle scrub with soft particles is a good option, too. In terms of ingredients, glycolic acid is a hero exfoliator and one of the most common ones you’ll spot in chemical exfoliators. Often, they’ll note the concentration on the bottle. Pixi’s iconic Glow Tonic, for instance, contains 5% which is about average. More than that and you might want to limit your usage to once a week. As for sensitive skin types, lactic acid and enzyme exfoliators can be a more gentle alternative.

How to exfoliate your face gently?

In general, depending on the type and strength of the exfoliator your’ve chosen, it’s a good idea to exfoliate 2-3 times a week in order to lift any dead skin cells, clean out your pores and reveal your skin’s natural glow. For a more thorough look at this, take a look at our complete guide to exfoliating. It’s important to bear in mind that over-exfoliating can cause issues, so monitor your usage and keep an eye on how your skin responds. You can react accordingly by upping or lowering the frequency with which you use it. “Exfoliating more than your skin needs can deplete its barrier function and cause capillary damage, leaving skin dehydrated and weak,” explains Pamela. If your skin appears red, flaky and dry, you’re probably using a product that is too strong, or applying it too often, so pare it back.

But whether your skin is sensitive and dry or oily and congested, there’s an exfoliator out there suited to your concerns. The best weekly face exfoliator is Summer Friday’s Overtime Mask which works to leave your skin smoother than glass, while the best face exfoliator for oily skin is the Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant – available for £28 from Cult Beauty. The hard-working ingredients remove dead skin cells and prevent blackheads in one swipe. Dermalogica’s Daily Microfoliant is a great daily option for all skin types – and the application process is really cool. You simply pour some of the powder into your hands, add some water and exfoliate away! Snap it up from LookFantastic for £55.

Keep scrolling for more of the best face exfoliators for your face and how often you should be using them…