When it comes to taking care of your skin—and by “skin,” we mean your delicate, beautiful, face skin, you’ve got to have the basics covered. Unless, of course, you’re in the 0.001 percent of the population who needs nothing more than a bar of soap to do the trick. (If that’s you, please keep the rest of us in your skin prayers.)
The rest of us, meanwhile, usually need an assortment of products carefully curated for our individual skin needs and wants. Still, the following generally holds true: You need your cleanser, your moisturizer, your sunscreen and, let’s not forget, your exfoliator.
A great exfoliator will help slough away dead skin cells, unclog stubborn pores and ensure you’re really deep-cleaning your skin. The thing is, many of us grew up during an era when the best way to exfoliate your skin was with the help of a facial scrub composed of tiny micro-beads. Read: very bad for Mother Nature.
Fast-forward to today, though, and we now face a different beauty world. And it’s one where beauty brands cater to the needs of sensitive skin. Which, as it turns out, is a good thing. Since, for many of us with sensitive skin, the last thing you want is a harsh exfoliant. But, finding the right exfoliator can be tricky. Using an exfoliator on the skin too often can lead to dryness or more breakouts, while one that’s too rough can lead to dryness or redness.
To find the best exfoliators, we reached out to beauty editors and writers for their top picks. Here’s what they swear by.
The one with a gentle lactic acid
I love the Sunday Riley Good Genes serum. I’m all about chemical exfoliators—physical scrubs are too harsh for my sensitive, acne-prone skin. (I wish I could go back in time and tell this to my apricot-scrub-loving high school self!)
The gentle lactic acid in this formula sweeps away dead skin cells, brightens my acne scars, and makes my whole face glow. I hate checking a bag with full-size products, so I stash a collection of skin-care samples for trips; I threw this serum in my carry-on before a week in Paris.
At first, I just thought my skin had that carefree vacation glow, but I quickly learned it was a lot more scientific than that. Now it’s in my permanent routine. Don’t forget to use sunscreen when you wear it!
—Cat Quinn, beauty director, Refinery29
[Editor’s note: This was so loved by beauty insiders it received two nods.]
I have very sensitive skin so I tend to favor chemical exfoliators over physical ones that often leave my skin feeling try and tight. My go-to is Sunday Riley Good Genes serum. The price tag is steep but after hearing so many good things about it in the beauty world, I finally caved—and it is oh so worth it. Formulated with alpha hydroxy acid, I reach for this on dull days for a brightening boost or to help clear my skin when it gets a little congested. A little goes a long way.
—Macaela Mackenzie, beauty writer
The one that’s also a gentle moisturizer
I exclusively use chemical exfoliators, and my newest favorite is Origins High-Potency Night-A-Mins Oil-Free Resurfacing Cream with fruit-derived alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). The very first night I used it, I noticed a massive difference in the texture of my skin. I woke up with basically a perfectly smooth face, and zero redness. Plus, it’s super hydrating—perfect for my very dry skin type.
The Origins PR team sent it my way a couple months before launch. If you find that exfoliators of any kind tend to irritate your skin, go for a moisturizer with AHAs! They’re generally more gentle and soothing than an exfoliating serum, and definitely easier on your skin than a physical exfoliator.
—Kara McGrath, executive editor, fashion and beauty, Bustle
The one that’s perfect for using in the shower
One of my favorite parts about my job is having access to super smart beauty experts—I love getting to interview them for stories as well as experience their expertise hands on. And, full disclosure, I get a ton of invitations to get facials (#thingsbeautyeditorssay), but the one who I clear my schedule for is celebrity esthetician Renée Rouleau.
When she’s in Austin, TX (where she’s based), I use the next best thing to her fingertips—her Triple Berry Smoothing Peel. She introduced me to it a few years ago and it has remained a staple in my skincare routine ever since. It’s a yummy, raspberry jam-like texture that I use in the shower for five minutes. (Using it in the shower makes for a less messy rinse—I shave while it’s on). It contains antioxidant rich berries along with five skin-smoothing fruit AHAs, BHAs, and enzymes to smooth lines, lighten brown spots, and clear pores.
It’s the first thing I do when I accidentally sleep in my makeup (whoops) or am having a breakout.
—Heather Muir Maffei, beauty director, Real Simple & Health magazine
The one that’s a double-exfoliating mask
I use this three-minute Dior Hydra Life Jelly Mask before any big event because it really makes my skin glow. The jelly mask actually exfoliates in two different ways—first with an alpha-hydroxy fruit peel and then with a gentle scrub.
Plus, it’s pumped with citrus extracts, so it smells heavenly. My skin is always instantly dewy and beaming after using it, which is a lot to deliver in just 180 seconds.
—Kristen Nichols, associate editor, Who What Wear
The one that’s great for daily use, no matter your skin type
It’s so important to exfoliate your skin to get rid of all the product build-up, dirt, and dead skin on your face, but there is such a thing as over-exfoliating or using products that are too harsh, too often. That’s why my favorite exfoliator is Tatcha’s Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder made with pearl extracts.
It’s super gentle, so you can use it on a daily basis if you really wanted to. It’s also made with other anti-aging Japanese superfoods like green tea and algae, which help deliver that desirable lit-from-within glow and a super-soft surface. They just came out with three more versions, so there’s one for every skin type.
—Sara Tan, senior fashion and beauty editor, Bustle
The one that uses bamboo powder to work its magic
My favorite exfoliator is Drunk Elephant’s Juju Bar. I became obsessed with the brand’s products when I decided I wanted to make the switch to using more natural skincare, and this exfoliator has been a staple in my routine for almost two years.
I have dry skin, so I don’t exfoliate often, and when I do I need to be sure that whatever I’m using is super gentle. The bar uses bamboo powder as an exfoliator, which is really subtle, and it has marula oil in it to hydrate my skin and protect the moisture barrier.
Plus, it looks like a bar of soap, which I love, and it lives in my shower so that I have it on hand any time my face feels like it could use a little extra scrub.
—Zoe Weiner, beauty and wellness writer