The Independent’s journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

7 best face exfoliators for a bright, healthy, and glowing complexion

Unblock pores and even out skin tone with the help of these tried and tested products

Rebecca Newman
Friday 24 April 2015 11:02
<p>We all need to take extra care to remove a build up of oil, dead skin cells, traces of pollution</p>

We all need to take extra care to remove a build up of oil, dead skin cells, traces of pollution

Exfoliation: it’s easy to forget this essential stage in skincare. After all, a cleanser makes your face clean enough, right? Wrong! At least twice a week we all need to take extra care to remove a build up of oil, dead skin cells, traces of pollution and so forth – even if (like our tester) you suffer from sensitive skin. Happily, there is a broad range of products on the market, targeting every skin type and budget.

We asked skincare expert, Dr Sophie Shotter, what we need to know.

“The outer layer of the skin is made up of dead cells,” she says. “The thicker this layer, the duller, rougher and dryer your skin will be and you may end up with blocked pores, leading to breakouts. Exfoliation will help some of these dead skin cells to shed, unclogging pores, allowing your skincare products to penetrate better, and leaving your skin looking healthier and more radiant.”

Read more: 15 Best vitamin C skincare products for a brighter and clearer complexion

Not all exfoliators are, however, created equal.

Mechanical exfoliation involves the use of texture, eg beads or grains, and can be done up to twice a week. Adds Shotter, “Please never use poorly ground up nutshell exfoliators as the ragged edges can cause micro scarring of the skin.” Scrubs like this are best done twice per week.

Alternatively, you can use different types of acids for exfoliation: Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid slough away old skin and improve tone; Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid are good for oily skin and blackheads. Both can be used two to three times a week to begin with, and over time you can build up the frequency.

PHAs and bionic PHAs are much gentler as they moisturise while also mildly exfoliating. These are suitable for use every day, even on the most sensitive skin types.

What if you suffer from rosacea, we ask?

“Rosacea skins are often more prone to thread veins so for this skin type my advice is to stick firmly to PHAs and bionic PHAs. I like the new Medik8 Press & Glow as it uses gentle PHAs, meaning exfoliation is achievable for even the most sensitive skins, and those struggling with winter irritation. You apply this after cleansing morning and night, using a cotton pad. Many people think exfoliation is aggressive, but this is a super gentle yet effective way of maintaining radiance.”

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

Alpha H liquid gold

One of those global bestsellers which finally reached the UK from Australia (here via the Tweakments Guide website, a trove of brilliantly curated international skincare finds), Alpha H Liquid Gold boasts a high content of sugar cane derived glycolic acid (5 per cent). This AHA dissolves the bonds which enable dead skin cells to your face, and stimulates skin renewal, bolstering collagen and elastin.  The product is so hydrating that after the first week or so of use we didn't need to use any moisturiser. A great choice if your concerns include skin ageing, sun damage or congestion. 

PSA goals multi acids & probiotics perfecting night serum

Part of the wave that included The Ordinary and The Inkey List, PSA (or in its full name Purposeful Skincare by Allies) is a relatively new brand designed to give full skincare bang for less buck. The little sister brand to the brilliant, but not inexpensive brand Allies of Skin, PSA is all about simply packaged products containing effective ingredients. Launched in November across ASOS and Beauty Bay. We love the blend of acids; glycolic AHAs, salicylic BHAs and pyruvic PHAs, as well as anti-inflammatory probiotics. Use morning and evening. 

Paula’s Choice 2% BHA liquid exfoliant

This exfoliant is arguably the star of the show and is widely beloved by editors. Particularly good for combination and breakout-prone skin, this is a leave-on BHA exfoliant. Start by using once or twice a week and work up. Also, we found it worked well applying with finger-tips rather than a cotton wool pad (so as not to waste any product). 

La Roche-Posay ultra-fine scrub

Well priced, hypoallergenic and ocean-friendly, La Roche-Posay is the kind of product you can buy in any well-stocked pharmacy and come away pleased to use. This simple, finely milled scrub smooths without aggravating. Like all this ranges products it is an ideal pH balance for the skin and enriched with the minerals of La Roche-Posay Thermal Spring Water.

Medik8 press & glow

A really exciting product ideal for mature skin, this ‘toner with a twist’ is based on PHAs to exfoliate, resurface, hydrate and smooth - and as PHAs are slightly larger molecules than AHAs and BHAs it does it without irritation. There is also the moisturising and calming aloe - and prickly pear extract to encourage cell renewal and the titular glow. Use as you would a toner.

Oskia micro exfoliating balm

Not cheap, but for a spoiling product we would like to point out this balm from Oskia (whose sister Renaissance Body Scrub is our pick for a glorious full body exfoliator). Unlike many cheaper mechanical scrubs, this creamy balm is gentle and nourishing: it buffs away dead skin and impurities with tiny particles of MSM and organic sulphur which boosts collagen production which also contains probiotics and peptides to promote skin health.  Vegan and from a company with strong environmental credentials. 

Skin & Tonic fresh face exfoliating water

Based in nature and aromatherapy, Skin & Tonic products smell wonderful and promote a sense of ritual, of joy, even during something as straightforward as exfoliation. With brightening hibiscus and a base of neroli flower water, this uses PHAs for skin renewal to leave your skin bright, and your spirits revived. Use as a traditional toner, sweeping over your face on a cotton wool pad. 

The verdict: Facial exfoliators

Choosing our favourite was a tough call. PSA Goals multi acids is an inspiring new product, its no-frills approach meaning your money goes into powerful ingredients with a broad range of benefits. The Paula’s Choice BHA is also in the running as a time tested, good value formula that works and which is ideal for anyone with more oily or acne-prone skin. However, our choice for winner of Best Buy is the Alpha-H liquid gold, which clears congestion and encourages skin rejuvenation so efficiently you may well find you no longer need serums or moisturiser; long a cult buy in Australia it’s now a global hit (selling 30 bottles a second), it has the right price point and will suit most complexions.

For more ultimate skincare reviews check out our round-up of the 8 best facial SPFs for dark skin that don’t leave an ashy cast

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in