6 Excellent Exfoliators To Add To Your Routine

Plus an expert guide to this skincare hero

Tired of uneven texture? Then it might be time to crack out an exfoliator. We’ve asked the experts what to look out for in a good exfoliator, and rounded up some of our favourites for you to try at home.

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What Is An Exfoliator?

‘An exfoliator is a product – either chemical or granular (physical) – that helps to remove the dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, revealing fresher, more radiant skin underneath,’ says Clare Hopkins, co-founder of science-led British skincare brand Balance Me.

What Are The Benefits Of Exfoliating?

‘Exfoliating is important as it removes the dead skin cells that can cause breakouts, pimples or acne on the skin,’ explains Clare. ‘It helps to unclog pores, lighten pigmentation, soften skin texture and brighten the look of skin, making it a very important step in your skincare regime.’

How Often Should We Exfoliate?

‘How often you exfoliate really really depends on your skin type and what exfoliator you are using,’ says Clare. Depending on how gentle your exfoliator is, Clare indicates you can use it up to twice a day. ‘However if you have very sensitive skin, we’d recommend starting with one to two times a week and building up.’

Can You Over-Exfoliate?

Yes, you can over-exfoliate if you’re not careful. But what happens when you do? ‘If you’re using harsher chemical formulas, you might find over-exfoliating can dry skin out,’ says Clare. You can effectively strip you skin of its natural oils, and some products may be too aggressive – which can just irritate your skin, leaving it looking red and feeling sore.

Which Ingredients Are Best For Exfoliating Skin?

There are two types of exfoliators: chemical and physical. ‘The main difference is that chemical exfoliants use acids or enzymes to help dissolve dead skin cells, whereas physical exfoliants contain small particles to help gently remove dead skin cells,’ says Clare.

Chemical Exfoliators

Chemical exfoliators typically use acids to help break down dead skin cells. Most commonly broken down into AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) and BHAs (beta hydroxy acids). We’ve listed some common chemical exfoliator ingredients below:

  • Glycolic Acid (AHA): Derived from sugarcane, glycolic acid is an AHA with small molecules, making it effective at penetrating the skin’s surface to exfoliate dead skin cells and promote skin renewal.
  • Lactic Acid (AHA): This AHA is milder than glycolic acid and is derived from milk. It is suitable for sensitive skin and helps improve skin hydration while exfoliating.
  • Salicylic Acid (BHA): As a BHA, salicylic acid is oil-soluble and penetrates deep into the pores. It is particularly effective for acne-prone and oily skin as it helps to unclog pores and reduce breakouts.
  • Fruit Enzymes: These enzymes can help break down keratin proteins attached to dead cells to reveal fresher, brighter skin.
  • Mandelic Acid (AHA): Mandelic acid has larger molecules than glycolic acid, making it gentler on the skin. It is suitable for sensitive skin and can also help with hyperpigmentation.
  • Citric Acid (AHA): This ingredient is derived from citrus fruits and provides gentle exfoliation while offering antioxidant benefits.
  • Malic Acid (AHA): Found in apples, malic acid is an AHA that helps improve skin texture and can be suitable for sensitive skin types.
  • Tartaric Acid (AHA): Tartaric acid is derived from grapes and can provide gentle exfoliation.

Physical Exfoliators

As Clare explained, a physical exfoliator helps to remove dead skin cells and even out the texture of your skin. Some popular physical exfoliator ingredients include:

  • Sugar: Fine sugar granules are gentle on the skin and dissolve easily, making them a good choice for mild exfoliation.
  • Salt: Like sugar, salt granules can provide gentle exfoliation. However, they might be more abrasive, so use them cautiously, especially if you have sensitive skin.
  • Ground Oatmeal: Oatmeal is soothing and suitable for sensitive skin. It can help exfoliate without causing irritation.
  • Ground Coffee: Coffee grounds are often used in body scrubs due to their texture, which can help remove dead skin cells effectively.
  • Jojoba Beads: These are smooth, spherical beads made from jojoba oil and are less likely to cause microtears in the skin.
  • Rice Bran: Ground rice bran can be a gentle exfoliant, often used in Asian skincare products.
  • Bamboo Extract: Bamboo particles are finely milled and can be used in gentle exfoliators for the face and body.
  • Apricot Kernel Powder: This ingredient is often found in exfoliating scrubs and can provide a mild exfoliation.

How Do You Know Which Exfoliator Is Best For Your Skin?

‘It is really a case of preference and seeing what works well for your skin type,’ explains Clare. ‘We pride ourselves in our natural formulas which work well on different skin types and can be used everyday, so it is simply a choice of whether you want to use a chemical or physical exfoliator.’

Excellent Exfoliators To Add To Your Routine

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White bottle of exfoliator

Balance Me

BHA Exfoliating Concentrate, £29, balanceme.com

Best For: Anti-Inflammatory Formula

For a gentler touch, try Balance Me’s BHA Exfoliating Concentrate, which uses salicylic acid to gently remove dead skin cells. This is a fast-acting formula that simultaneously targets blackheads, blemishes and enlarged pores to create brighter-looking skin.

Clare says: ‘At Balance Me, we have gentle but hardworking natural formulas, that can be used up to twice a day – such as our BHA Exfoliating Concentrate. It contains salicylic acid from willow bark, a brilliant natural BHA exfoliant which is oil soluble and can be used up to twice a day if you have acne, congested or oily skin. It’s also particularly good for other areas of congestion such as keratosis pilaris on arms.’

Purple serum bottle with white stopper

The Ordinary

AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution, £8.40, theordinary.com

Best For: Uneven Skin Tone

One for experienced acid exfoliator users: this advanced-level peel combines multiple AHAs and BHAs in an oil-free serum, which works to exfoliate multiple layers of skin and even out texture. Note that this isn’t one for those with sensitive skin due to the high concentration of acids.

White mist bottle with greencircle design next to matching box

Balance Me

PHA Clarifying Mist, £20, balanceme.com

Best For: Sensitive Skin

Another good option for sensitive skin, this clarifying mist from Balance Me combines gently exfoliating PHAs with witch hazel, zinc and allantoin to hydrate, reduce shine, minimise enlarged pores and soothe skin.

Blue bottle of exfoliator


Daily Milkfoliant, £65, johnbellcroyden.co.uk

Best For: Vegan Skincare

Great for all skin types, Dermalogica’s vegan exfoliating formula combines oat and coconut with AHAs and BHAs to gently polish skin – revealing a smoother and hydrated texture. Works for all skin types, as well as sensitive skin.

White bottle with yellow circle design next to matching box

Balance Me

AHA Glow Mask, £22, balanceme.com

Best For: Face Masks

This fast-acting mask uses fruit acids like glycolic, lactic and malic as well as kaolin clay to help brighten skin while drawing out impurities. Expect a luminous glow in less than 15 minutes.

Clare says: ‘Our AHA Glow Mask is an exfoliating clay mask that can be used twice a week and contains fruit acids such as Glycolic, Lactic and Malic acid to brighten, plump and boost glow.’

Blue skincare bottle

Liz Earle

Gentle Face Exfoliator, £18, boots.com

Best For: Soft Skin

This botanical-based exfoliator gently buffs away dead skin and impurities, smoothing out surface texture to reveal super-soft skin. This is thanks to a combination of fine jojoba beads and ultra-hydrating ingredients like cocoa butter, purifying eucalyptus and sweet almond oil.

Featured image: Ron Lach, Pexels