How To Choose The Best Exfoliator For Your Skin Type

by beautifulwithbrains
how to choose the best exfoliator for your skin type

“I have sensitive skin. Can I exfoliate?”

“Last time I tried an exfoliator, my skin got so red and sore. Should I really give it another go?”

“Exfoliation’s not working for me. I’ve tried every scrub under the sun to get rid of my pimples, but those nasty buggers are still there. What else can I do?”

Don’t give up on exfoliation. No matter your skin type or what woes you’re dealing with, exfoliation IS the key to the brighter, smoother and pimple-free skin you crave.

But then… why does exfoliation often backfire? The problem is not exfoliation itself. It’s what you use to exfoliate.

That’s right. Different skin types have different needs. They need different exfoliators to fulfil them. Question now is, how do the heck do you know which one is right for YOU?

I’ve got your back. Here’s how to choose the best exfoliator for your skin type:

Why Should You Exfoliate?

First thing first: what the heck is the point of exfoliation?

Exfoliation  does wonders for your skin. It removes the dead cells that accumulate on the surface of the skin.

You see, those dead cells have been there for a while. They’ve been attacked by UV rays, pollution, germs and all other sorts of skin enemies. Day after day, they’ve suffered so much damage, they’ve become rough to the touch, developed a darker colour here and there, and lost all their glow.

Get rid of them and you expose the newer skin underneath. These new cells didn’t suffer much damage yet, so they’re softer to the touch, even in colour and have a glow of their own.

Exfoliation doesn’t just make you look younger overnight. Now those dead cells are out of the way, your skincare products can penetrate skin better and faster.

One more thing: some exfoliators can get inside the pores, unclogging them from within. Bye bye breakouts!

Related: 10 Reasons Why You Should Exfoliate Your Skin

goldfaden md doctor's scrub

How Do You Exfoliate Skin?

Did you know your skin can exfoliate on its own?

Problem is, as you get older, this natural exfoliation process breaks down. Your skin can’t exfoliate as well as it used to on its own.

You can tell when this is happening. You skin becomes rough. It loses its glow. You may get more pimples than before.

That’s your cue to give your skin a helping hand. You can do this in two ways:

1. Physical exfoliation

Physical exfoliation means you’re manually scrubbing dead cells off your skin. You can do this with:

  • Apricot kernels
  • Clarisonic
  • Foreo Luna
  • Microbeads
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Washcloth

Basically, if you’re using a scrub or a “cleansing device” (they’re exfoliators in disguise!), you belong to Team Physical Exfoliation.

Physical exfoliation is the most popular type of exfoliation. Heck, for years, those harsh apricot scrubs were all you could find at the drugstore!

I’m not a fan of physical exfoliation. Let me count the reasons why:

  • Natural particles like apricot kernels have rough, jagged edges that scratch and irritate skin
  • Plastic microbeads are polluting
  • Cleansing devices are too harsh to be used everyday as advertised
  • Massage them a little too long and you irritate skin
  • Massage them longer on the cheeks than the forehead and you get uneven exfoliation
  • They’re one-trick ponies that only exfoliate skin

Related: Is The Clarisonic Good Or Bad For Skin?

nip + fab glycolic fix liquid glow extreme 6% review

2. Chemical exfoliation

Don’t let the name scare you. Chemical exfoliation is a gamechanger.

Chemical exfoliation uses acids to dissolve the “glue” that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off.

I know it sounds painful but it’s not. Not unless you abuse it. Exfoliating too much or too often always leads to irritation. In small doses, chemical exfoliators are way gentler than scrubs, exfoliate skin evenly and go the extra mile.

I’ll go into the benefits of each exfoliant in a minute. For now, all you need to know is that chemical exfoliants belong to two different families:

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids: they’re suitable for dry and sun-damaged skin. The most famous members are glycolic acid and lactic acid.
  • Beta Hydroxy Acids: they’re suitable for oily and acne-prone skin. Its most famous remember is salicylic acid.

Related: Why I Prefer Chemical Exfoliants

Why Exfoliation Can Screw Up Skin (And How To Avoid It)

Exfoliation is like magic for your skin. But even good magic can terribly backfire if you do it wrong.

You see, those dead cells are there for a reason. Their job is to protect the living cells underneathIf you remove too many layers of dead cells, you expose the rawer cells that weren’t ready to come to the surface yet.

That’ll turn your face red (and hurt like hell). So how do you avoid it? Easy. To find the best exfoliator for you, you need to know two things:

  1. Your skin type (if you don’t know it already, check out this post to find yours)
  2. How often you can exfoliate your skin type before it starts to complain

Related: How To Determine Your Skin Type (Plus, Free Test!)

benton aloe bha skin toner

What’s The Best Exfoliator For Each Skin Type?

If you’ve read this far, you know your skin type. So what’s the best exfoliator for it and how often should you use it? Let’s find out:

Best Exfoliator For Oily And Acne-Prone Skin

What to use:

Salicylic acid. This beta hydroxy acid is the best exfoliator for oily skin – bar none. It exfoliates skin in two ways. It removes dead cells from the surface of the skin, and then penetrates inside the pores, getting rid of all the crap that’s clogging them up. Bye bye blackheads & breakouts.

How often?

This is the skin type that better tolerates exfoliation. I recommend you start exfoliating three times a week. But, if your skin can take it, you can gradually increase frequency.

Best picks:


Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is Key To Spot Free Skin

Best Exfoliators For Dry Skin

What to use?

Glycolic acid. This alpha hydroxy acid doesn’t just get rid of dead skin cells. It also boosts the production of collagen and hydrates skin. That’s something your skin badly needs!

How often?

Glycolic acid is awesome, but don’t overdo it. Two or three times a week is enough.

Best picks:


Related:The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid

Best Exfoliator For Combination Skin

What to use?

Salicylic acid to unclogs your pores and glycolic acid to hydrate skin. You can use different exfoliants on different areas of your face or opt for exfoliators who have both.

How often?

Two or three times a week. If your oily areas are very oily, you can slowly increase frequency there.

Best Picks

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($68.40): available at Sephora
  • Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Overnight Purifying Gel ($14.99): available at Feel Unique and Ulta


Related: How To Care For Combination Skin

the ordinary lactic acid 10 + ha 2 01

Best Exfoliator For Normal Skin

What to use?

Your skin is able to exfoliate on its own. If it’s soft and glowy, leave it be. But if, as you get older, you notice it starts lose its luster and become a little rough, go for a glycolic acid exfoliant. It’s the best exfoliator for your skin type because it boosts the production of collagen, helping to keep wrinkles at bay.

How often?

Go easy on exfoliation. Your won the skincare lottery so don’t mess it up now! Once or twice a week is more than enough.

Best picks:


Related: How To Care For Normal Skin

Best Exfoliator For Sensitive skin

What to use?

Your skin is very delicate so you need to use the gentlest thing you can find. That’s either a washcloth or lactic acid. Lactic acid goes the extra mile: it hydrates skin too.

How often?

Once a week. For your skin type, it’s more than enough.

Best picks:


Related: Glycolic Acid VS Lactic Acid: Which One Is Right For You?

The Bottom Line

Exfoliation is for everyone. The key is to find the best exfoliator for your skin type and needs so you can get brighter, smoother skin without any side effects.

Do you know what the best exfoliator for your own skin type is? Share your picks in the comments below.



Renee May 11, 2009 - 2:50 pm

Interesting post, Gio! I personally do not exfoliate, don’t really know why but I’ve tried it in the past and didn’t really see a difference :s

I really should though, but a lot of the scrubs I’ve seen has salycylic acid, which I’m allergic too (very sensitive skin). Is it REALLY that important? 😛

Danielle May 11, 2009 - 10:28 pm

Oh gosh.. I have dry/normal skin with hyperpigmentation, especially around the nose. How often should I exfoliate? I usually do it about 3 times a week. Is that too much?

anastacia May 12, 2009 - 12:26 am

OMG! I love your page! it as a beauty book! very helpful and so exciting always!

prettybeautiful May 12, 2009 - 1:36 am

thanks for this post gio 🙂 very informative. i scrub about 3x a week

Nikki May 12, 2009 - 2:00 am

though I’ve always thought exfoliation is not for me due to my dry skin, it does help if you use the right exfoliating products 🙂 thanks for the post 🙂

beautifulwithbrains May 12, 2009 - 9:37 am

Renee: I didn’t think exfoliation was important and for years I wouldn’t bother. But now I do it I can see a difference. My skin looks brighter and helathier and active ingredients in skincare products penetrate more easily and can therefore do their job better. If your skin is very sensitive, just using a washcloth to slought off dead cells once a week should be enough.

Danielle: if three times a week works well for you and you haven’t had any side effects (ie red or irriated skin) then it shouldn’t be too much, but I definitelky wouldn’t exfoliate more often than that.

Anastacia: thanks hun, glad you like it 🙂

Prttybeautiful: you’re welcome 🙂

Nikki: you’re welcome. I think anyone can exfoliate as long as they use the right products for the skin type. If you use something that’s too harsh for your skin, it’s only gonna cause problems and irritations.

Renee May 12, 2009 - 11:45 am

Alright, you’ve convinced me! 🙂 I’ll start researching on some gently exfoliators. Will probably look at the Clinique counters though, as I love their products. 😛 Thanks!

beautifulwithbrains May 13, 2009 - 9:21 am

Renee, I love Clinique products too although I haven’t trid any of their exfoliators yet. Using the right products for your skin typ does make a huge difference. If a product is too harsh it could cause irritations.

Vanessa March 27, 2012 - 7:33 pm

I think exfoliating once a week is really important. I find if I haven’t done it in a while my forehead gets flaky and my overall face looks dull.

beautifulwithbrains March 27, 2012 - 7:37 pm

Vanessa, I agree. Exfoliating is really important and makes a great difference in how your skin looks.

Maya April 29, 2016 - 6:29 am

Thanks for this great post!
Question, is it true you should not exfoliate when pregnant?

Gio April 30, 2016 - 4:14 pm

Maya, it depends on what you use. Salicylic acid is not recommended. Glycolic acid is controversial because some experts say it’s ok while others that we don’t have enough data to know for sure. Lactic acid is ok. Exfoliation with a washcloth is fine, too.

Jelena January 29, 2019 - 7:05 pm

Amazing post, thank you for sharing. Could you tell us how to exfoliate skin during the spring and summer, if we don’t wanna use BHA/AHA? What is the alternative for BHA/AHA that doesn’t make our skin photosensitive?
Thanks in advance.

Gio February 7, 2019 - 6:12 pm

Jelena, ANY form of exfoliation makes skin photosensitive. It’s removing dead cells and exposing the newer layers underneath that makes you more prone to sun damage. So I’d say, use your acids less often and make sure to wear sunscreen every day and you’ll be fine.

Ify June 9, 2019 - 10:08 pm

Your mails are everything. I always look forward to them. I have a few cystic acnes on my right cheek..always reoccurring. I’m currently using Neutrogena oil free acne wash , it contains 2% salycilic acid. I hav combination skin, so If I have to exfoliate, do I need to get The Ordinary salycilic acid 2% while using the Neutrogena acne wash?

Gio July 6, 2019 - 1:26 pm

IFY, thank you! So glad you enjoy the emails. 🙂

Salicylic acid in cleansers doesn’t work. Get rid of the cleanser and use TO Salicylic acid instead.

Kristina Crane April 21, 2020 - 10:10 pm

I started using the recommended Paul’s Choice BHA 2% daily (according to its label as well as your recommendation based on oily, aging skin care steps.) Should I back this down to 2-3 times per week instead? My skin is tolerating it well.

Gio May 15, 2020 - 3:54 pm

Kristina, I wouldn’t use it more than any other day.

Sasha May 17, 2020 - 9:45 am

Thank you for writing these Articles they are really helping me

Comments are closed.