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 • Skincare  • Skincare Guides  • *Every* Type of Exfoliator Decoded (and How to Pick One)
Woman exfoliating her face showing the different types of exfoliatior

*Every* Type of Exfoliator Decoded (and How to Pick One)

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Main image – Ohlamourstudio/Stocksy

You’ve probably seen (and heard) a lot about exfoliation on social media, TV, magazines, and, well, basically everywhere it seems.

But if you’ve got to the point where it would now just feel awkward to ask *exactly* what counts as exfoliating, you’ve come to the right place. There’s no judgement here! (After all, how long should you wait to ask the name of someone you met ages ago? Asking for a friend.)

And then once you’ve figured how what exfoliation actually is, you’ve then got to work out the difference between all of the separate types. And there are a lot to get your head around. Yup, exfoliation can be just a teeny bit mind-boggling.

But don’t worry. Because with the help of skincare expert Merry Thornton and expert in anti-ageing medicine, Dr Saulis Banionis, this article is going to de-bunk all your exfoliation-related confusion.

From explaining exactly what it is and how it can help your skin, to discussing the different types of exfoliators and which one’s best for you. Zero judgement, zero awkwardness.


Face exfoliator showing the different types of exfoliator

Image –


What is exfoliation?

First up, let’s dive into what exfoliating actually does.

Exfoliation is a skincare technique that is slightly more abrasive than your cleanser, aiming to get deep into pores, buff away dead skin cells and bacteria. This causes the skin to produce a better glow, look brighter, feel smoother and ultimately help makeup last longer.

At-home exfoliation products usually contain either grains, acids or retinoids whilst the professionals use peels, lasers, crystals or scraping tools.

The frequency of home exfoliation varies depending on which product you’re using, and how your skin has adjusted to it, but it’s generally recommended up to three times a week. 

Now, let’s delve into the different types of exfoliator.


What is a physical scrub?

In short, it’s the grainy kind and the one that feels, well, the most physical. You’ve probably seen it in a tube or pot and it feels slightly gritty on the skin.

“These contain tiny abrasive particles like sugar, salt, or microbeads that physically remove dead skin cells when massaged onto the skin,” explains Dr Banionis. I love Liz Earle’s Gentle Face Exfoliator (£17 from Liz Earle UK /$20.40 from Feel Unique US) for its gentle, hydrating properties and for offering a good glow.

A physical scrub is close to a ‘mechanical scrub’; which is an exfoliating brush or sponge, glove or towel. “Brushes or sponges are used to buff away dead skin cells when you gently scrub your face with them,” Dr Banionis adds. 

“Similar to brushes, exfoliating gloves or towels are used with a gentle rubbing motion to physically exfoliate the skin.”

While some skincare brushes and sponges are suitable for the face, the harsher mitts are generally reserved for exfoliating the body.

Try The Body Shop Bath Gloves ($6 from The Body Shop US) for easy physical body exfoliation. I find these comfy, easy to use and, most importantly, you can choose from four colours.


Face scrub showing the different types of face exfoliator

Image – Tatyanarow/Adobe


What is a chemical exfoliant?

This uses either acids, enzymes, retinoids and peels, feels less ‘scratchy’ on application and helps to gently buff the skin.  You’ll find chemical exfoliants in everything from cleansers to toners, serums and face masks.

Here the experts break the (many) different types of chemical exfoliant.

Acid exfoliants

Acid exfoliants often come in liquid form and contain AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids),  BHAs (beta hydroxy acids), PHAs (polyhydroxy acids), or a mixture of some or all of them.

“AHAs (or alpha hydroxy acids) include glycolic acid, lactic acid and citric acid,” Dr Banionis explains. “AHAs are water-soluble and help to exfoliate the skin’s surface. They are good for dry and sun-damaged skin.”

I love Ren Skincare Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic (from £16 from Cult Beauty UK /from $22 from REN US) as it leaves skin feeling even and smooth (and smelling delicious).

A BHA is better for breakouts. “Salicylic acid is the most common BHA,” he says.

BHAs are oil-soluble, making them ideal for acne-prone and oily skin. They can penetrate pores and exfoliate from within.” Try Paula’s Choice Skin Perfect 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant (from £12 from Cult Beauty UK /from $13 from Paula’s Choice US) which I’ve found brilliant for clearing up pores.


Chemical exfoliant showing different types of exfoliators

Image – Adobe


If you’ve got sensitive skin, listen up as enzymes are one of the gentlest forms of exfoliation.

“These are natural enzymes from fruits like papaya or pineapple to dissolve dead skin cells,” Dr Banionis says. “They are often gentle and suitable for sensitive skin.” 



Ok, these aren’t strictly an exfoliant- but they function like one. 

Confused? Us too. Luckily Dr Banionis is on hand to explain.

“Retinoids encourage cell turnover so they are effective for addressing signs of aging, acne and hyperpigmentation,” he tells us.

That means that while retinoids don’t remove dead skin cells like an exfoliator, they do offer many of the same results by speeding up our cell turnover (think improved acne, scarring and hyperpigmentation).

“They can be potent and may cause irritation, so use them with caution,” warns Dr Banionis though.

If you find a retinoid that works for your skin though, stick with it as it generally takes up to 6 months to see results with retinol.

I like CeraVe Resurfacing Retinol Serum (£21 from Cult Beauty UK /$21.99 from Ulta Beauty US) for its gentle lack of fragrance and the fact that it’s just the right balance for my oily skin.


Chemical peels

One for the professionals, Dr Banionis says a chemical peel is a step up from a DIY chemical exfoliant. “These are stronger chemical exfoliants. They can provide deeper exfoliation and are used for more serious skin concerns.”


What is microdermabrasion?

“This is a mechanical exfoliation technique performed by professionals,” explains Dr Banionis.  

Put simply, it’s a vacuum for dead skin cells. “It involves using a machine to spray tiny crystals on the skin’s surface, which are then suctioned away, taking dead skin cells with them.” Clever huh?

You’ll typically have this treatment performed by a dermatologist or aesthetician and benefits include improved hyperpigmenation, skin texture and scars.

Prices in the UK typically start at around £45 per session, while in the US they can be anywhere from $75.


Woman with acne showing importance of exfoliating for good skin

Image – Alona/Adobe


What is laser exfoliation?

Aimed at those who need a bit of extra TLC in the skin department, Dr Banionis says laser exfoliation is a medical procedure.

“A laser is used to remove the top layer of skin, promoting collagen production and addressing various skin issues,” he explains. “It’s typically done in a controlled clinical setting.”

Benefits can include improving fine lines and wrinkles and hyperpigmenation. Prices start at around £110 for a laser facial in the UK and $250 in the US.


What is dermaplaning?

Do not try this at home!

Dermaplaning is where a scraping tool comes into play and is most definitely one for a licensed professional.

“They use a scalpel to gently scrape away dead skin cells and peach fuzz (vellus hair) from the surface of the skin,” says Dr Banionis. 

Fans report smoother, glowing skin after a dermaplaning treatment.

Professional dermaplaning costs from around £40 per session in the UK and from $75 in the US.


So which one is right for you?

“The choice of exfoliation method depends on your skin type, sensitivity and the specific concerns you want to address,” says Dr Banionis

You’d think that something with the word ‘chemical’ or ‘acid’ in the name would be a big no-no for most. But Thornton actually recommends chemical exfoliators over physical srubs as they are most kind to the skin. “I prefer them to scrubs because they are gentle and will not create micro-tears in the skin,” she says. 


Chemical exfoliant

Image – Adobe


But how do you choose the right chemical exfoliator for you? “Any skin type can use a chemical exfoliator but if you have sensitive skin, stick to cleansers with a lower percentage of glycolic acid (under 5%),” she explains. “Those with less sensitive skin can go above 10%.”

When exfoliating at home, be careful not to overdo it, no matter how resilient your skin is. There is a lot of misinformation out there (social media, I’m looking at you) and it doesn’t usually explain clearly enough that every exfoliation method varies in strength.

“Over-exfoliation can lead to irritation and damage,” warns Dr Banionis. “Start with a lower frequency and gradually increase as your skin becomes accustomed to the treatment.”

Don’t forget your SPF either. “Always follow exfoliation with sunscreen during the day to protect your skin, as it may be more sensitive to UV damage after exfoliation,” he says.

Those experiencing extreme skin issues such as acne or hyperpigmentation should explore going down the professional route. A dermatologist or aesthetician can advise whether they think you need to go any further towards lasers, peels or dermaplaning. 


The takeaway

There sure is a lot to get your head around when it comes to exfoliation. But the type you go for really boils down to your skin type and what you want to address. 

Want a regular glow, makeup longevity and overall cleaner, clearer skin? Then go for a chemical exfoliator, whatever your skin type (because, as we’ve learned, it’s the gentlest form of exfoliation, despite its off-putting name).

A physical exfoliator will help those who don’t experience sensitivity to achieve a smoother finish but only when used a few times a week. Any more than that and your skin might react, so start small and build your way up.

And finally, if you need to address more serious skin concerns through exfoliation that you’re not getting anywhere with at home, then seeing a professional might be the route for you. 

My advice? Block out the noise from social media and TV ads and think about your skin alone. How does it behave and what do you want to change? Hopefully this article has helped to narrow your choices down.


Meet the experts

Merry Thornton, PA-C, Board Certified Physician Assistant in Dermatology, licensed skincare expert and Founder of Element Medical Aesthetics in New Canaan


Dr Saulis Banionis is board certified by The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine and was trained extensively in aesthetic and regenerative medicine to become an expert in anti-ageing medicine.  His practice is PB Antiaging and he has also worked as a Medical Expert for the Florida Board of Medicine.


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Beauty Editor

The former Beauty Editor of Glamour UK, Philippa has been a beauty and lifestyle journalist for over 16 years, picking up countless tips and tricks from makeup artists, hair stylists, dermatologists and celebrities. In that time she’s written for names like Cosmopolitan, The Sunday Times Style, The Telegraph, Grazia, Refinery 29 and Byrdie. Philippa lives in the UK with her husband, two children and their hyperactive cockapoo, Paddy.

Expertise: Makeup, hair care
Education: Oxford Brookes University

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