Do Exfoliating Cleansers Work?

by Gio
exfoliating cleansers

You need cleanse and exfoliate. These steps AREN’T optional.

Why not buy an exfoliating cleanser and do both at the same time? It’ll save you money and time in the evening, right?

Not so fast…

There are two types of cleansing exfoliants: physical and chemical. One of them doesn’t work. The other one does, but it’s not that good for your skin.

Here’s what I mean:

Do Exfoliating Chemical Cleansers Work?

Chemical exfoliants dissolve the glue that holds skin cells together, allowing them to slough off. The most common types of chemical exfoliants are:

  • Glycolic acid: It also hydrates skin and (in high doses) stimulates collagen production, so it’s perfect for dry and sun-damaged skin.
  • Lactic acid: It’s hydrating and gentle, so it’s the best option for sensitive skin.
  • Salicylic acid: It exfoliates pores from within and treat breakouts, so it’s ideal for oily skin.

These acids work wonders when left on the skin for hours. But in a cleanser?

If you massage them onto your skin for several minutes, some exfoliation will occur indeed. But, as you rinse the cleanser off, they end up down the drain, too.

If you want to see some serious and quick results, get yourself a leave-in exfoliant. You can check out my fave picks here.

Related: Why I Prefer Chemical Exfoliants


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Do Exfoliating Physical Cleansers Work?

Physical exfoliants mechanically remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. The most common types of physical exfoliants are:

  • Apricot kernels
  • Plastic microbeads
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Walnut shells

In other words, exfoliating physical cleansers are scrubs, but in a cleanser form.

Exfoliating physical cleansers work. But, in my opinion, that’s irrelevant. Let me explain.

These small grains and particles often have uneven, jagged edges that can tear at the skin and scratch it. Apricot kernels are the worst offenders (for the love of your skin, stay away from those St Ives scrubs!).

Plastic microbeads are the gentlest, as the tend to have even, rounded edges that don’t harm skin. But, they’re bad for the environment, which is why there’s talk of getting them banned soon.

Exfoliating physical exfoliants will get dead cells off the surface of your skin while you massage the cleanser on, but they often cause irritation in the process.

Thank you, but no thank you.

Related: Physical VS Chemical Exfoliants: Which One Is Right For You?

The Bottom Line

Exfoliating cleansers aren’t the awesome idea they seem to be. Do your skin a favour, and cleanse your skin first, and exfoliate it later. With two separate products. It’s a bit more time-consuming and expensive, I know. But, it works so much better.

Do you use exfoliating cleansers? Share your experience in the comments below.

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21 comments

Ana July 3, 2012 - 1:31 pm

Do you by any chance know how much salicylic acid needs to stay on the skin for it to work?

I read/hear that 10-15 second aren’t enough, but no one tells how much is.

I asked Dr Schultz a long time ago, but he hasn’t answered, and my internet searches brought no results.

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beautifulwithbrains July 3, 2012 - 6:46 pm

Ana, I wondered the same too but I’m afraid my search wasn’t more successful than yours. I always hear that it should be used in leave-in products which can remain on the skin for 8 hours or more so I assume the longer, the better.

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Maha May 9, 2018 - 2:40 am

I have very oily skin, so I typically leave it on until my next fave wash i.e. 12 hours

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Gio May 19, 2018 - 12:31 pm

Maha, that’s good. 🙂

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Socialite Dreams July 3, 2012 - 3:18 pm

i have used some with physical little beads that were gentle, good to know not to waste my money on the chemical kind! thanks

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beautifulwithbrains July 3, 2012 - 7:03 pm

Socialite Dreams, I’m glad you’ve found some gentle physical exfoliants. The chemical ones are a waste of money in a cleanser unfortunately.

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Trisha July 3, 2012 - 4:02 pm

I’ve always preferred physical exfoliants anyway. I just don’t like the idea of the chemicals eating away at my skin.

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beautifulwithbrains July 3, 2012 - 7:07 pm

Trisha, I had never thought of it that way. I think they both have their pros and cons, but if you want an exfoliating cleanser, definitely go with a physical one.

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Eyegraffiti July 3, 2012 - 7:24 pm

You’re so full of useful information!!!
Though i don’t use exfoliating cleansers mainly because the scrub effect is nice the first time, but not the third…. So i like a good scrub every third day or so, especially before masks!!!/Azure

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beautifulwithbrains July 3, 2012 - 8:05 pm

Eyegraffiti, I agree that using a scrub too often can irritate skin. But every once in a while, it is a nice treat. 🙂

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Janessa July 4, 2012 - 12:34 am

You seriously read my mind! I was eyeing Philosophy’s Microdelivery exfoliating wash but now I know what really works best. :] You’re still the best! Do you like Juicy Couture Viva La Juicy or Couture Couture fragrance? I don’t use face scrubs because I sometimes use a cotton ball to help take off my face cleanser (works really well without tugging or constant rubbing) and I feel like it kind of exfoliates… lol.. I don’t know if it really does, but should I get myself an exfoliator? I don’t have many limits when it comes to skincare :3

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beautifulwithbrains July 4, 2012 - 6:08 am

Janessa, I’m glad I posted it in time to make you save money. 🙂 I’m not sure if a cotton ball exfoliates, but a washcloth definitely does so you can use that. Just make sure you dry it well after each use or it could harbour bacteria.

I love the packaging of Juicy Couture fragrances. They are so pretty! The fragrances themselvesaren’t really my thing (I prefer, heavier oriental blends), but they are nicely-crafted.

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Dao July 4, 2012 - 2:29 am

I used a cleanser with glycolic before and it worked really, really well to the point that my skin became really thin. I don’t use it anymore but I do love it still 🙂

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beautifulwithbrains July 4, 2012 - 6:10 am

Dao, I’m glad it worked so well for you, although I’m not sure it was the Glycolic Acid that made it work as that would have been neutralized by water. But the most important thing is that it worked. 🙂

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Cooper July 4, 2012 - 3:30 am

I have always preferred physical exfoliants over chemicals because I felt that I had better control. These days I like to use a little face brush with my regular cleanser and I find it to be quite effective.

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beautifulwithbrains July 5, 2012 - 6:05 am

Cooper, I’m glad you found something that works for you. I will try the face brush trick too, thanks for sharing.

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Michelle @Radiant Brown Beauty July 9, 2012 - 2:12 pm

Great article! I do however find that cleansers with glycolic acid have some efficacy. I wouldn’t say they are totally useless. However, I can see how you would think that since exfoliating products with actual micro particles in them are more effective at sloughing off dead skin.

By the way, I saw your article in the BlogHer stream and had to stop by 🙂

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beautifulwithbrains July 10, 2012 - 6:40 pm

Michelle, thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. The problem with Glycolic Acid is that it gets deactivated by water, so even should it have some efficacy when used in a cleanser, it is never gonna perform as well as it does in a leave-in product. I do like Glycolic Acid but I think that if you’re gonna invest in a product with it, it’s much better to buy one that’s gonna stay on your skin. You get more bang for your buck that way. 🙂

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AJ March 9, 2018 - 10:39 pm

You have a point of Glycolic Acids needing more time to work for best efficiency. However, water does not deactivate Glycolic Acid, it dilutes it. The strongest Glycolic Acid available to the general public is 70%, the other 30% is water. Gycolic Acids are water soluble and are added to the water phase of cosmetic formulation. Water can be used to neutralize the pH of skin after a chemical peel because acids are only stable at a specific pH range, but a the small amount used the create lather with a cleanser won’t deactivate the Glycolic Acid on contact. When it is washed off, yes it is effectively deactivated. Cleansers aren’t the most effective vehicle for Glycolic Acid, but they aren’t entirely useless. Glycolic Cleansers can be useful to introduce Glycolic Acids to the skin, and when used in conjunction with other Glycolic Acid products.

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Gio March 16, 2018 - 7:53 pm

AJ, thanks for your explanation. I guess in my eagerness to simplify things, I can lose some things in translation 😳

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Bob January 31, 2020 - 7:51 pm

Most AHA cleansers have less than 1% of the AHA ingredient. This is pointless when people wash their face for 1 min and rinse off. Glycolic and lactic acid are very susceptible to pH levels in how they are absorbed. Water lowers the acidic environment so even the part that is used in the cleansing isn’t absorbed appropriately in such a short amount of time. People who are serious about chemical exfoliants always use a stay on toner or serum after a wash or they use a much higher concentration peel that is left on temporarily.

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