It’s almost fall (!!!), and we’re busy tweaking our skincare routines to make sure that cold weather doesn’t bring with it dry skin and flaky patches. (We’ll take the cashmere and cute boots, though). Along with amping up our moisturizers with a couple of drops of our favorite face oils, we’re focusing our attention on gentle exfoliation. Exfoliating correctly is the real key to glowing breezily through the changing seasons, but there are seemingly infinite products designed to slough away dead skin. You can pretty much divide exfoliators into two categories: chemical or physical. Chemical exfoliants use alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), like glycolic and salicylic acids, while physical exfoliators are, well, physical—a scrub with tiny grains, for example, or a dry brush that rubs away dead skin cells.
Though we’re huge fans of chemical exfoliation, there’s something so satisfying about a good old-fashioned scrub, washing away that dull outer layer to reveal baby-smooth skin underneath. Sweet, sweet instant gratification. If you already use a chemical exfoliant at night, it also helps to use a physical exfoliant first thing in the morning to nudge away the already-loosened dead skin cells. There are a few rules to using physical exfoliators.
- Stay away from larger particles that can cause tiny, tiny tears in the skin
- Avoid physical exfoliators if you have inflamed acne
- Start slowly and learn what your skin can tolerate
We had our team recommend three physical exfoliators ranging from super gentle to heavy duty to help you find one that works for you.
Brooklyn Herborium Sow Your Wild Oats Cleanser
Tester: Koun, Editorial Team
First Impression: I had never tried a grain exfoliator before, so I was intrigued by the concept—and Brooklyn Herborium hasn’t failed me yet, so I was game to test this one out. I have easily congested skin, so I already use a retinoid gel (Differin) most nights, and a clay mask a couple of times a week (this one‘s hands down the best one I’ve ever tried), but I wanted to try using a gentle physical exfoliator in the morning to brush away loose dead skin cells and give me a fresh face to let morning serums work their magic.
The Test Drive: The Sow Your Wild Oats Cleanser is a soft, delicate powder, so it’s not as easy as, say, a tube of something, but that also makes it super versatile. I shook out a little pile in the palm of my hand and then mixed it with a splash of water before massaging it into my skin. You have almost no chance of over-exfoliating with this stuff—it feels much more delicate than, let’s say, apricot scrub or anything with granular beads. Then, I just wiped my face clean with a face towel, and oh, man. This makes your face so soft. Like, can’t-stop-touching-your-face soft. It’s day three, and I still want to rub my grubby hands all over my baby-seal skin, but I won’t because I have modicum of self control. (Not really, though.) It also makes your skin feel really balanced and hydrated, which is great because I enjoy keeping my morning skincare routine low-key.
Verdict: I’m in love. At night, I could see it working as the second step in a double-cleanse situation. You can mix it with yogurt or honey for a somewhat-DIY face mask, but I haven’t had a chance to try this yet. Judging by how soft and smooth your skin feels just by using it as a cleanser, I can only imagine what that would do. Amazing for people with intolerant, sensitive skin.
Better Skin Lava Magik
Tester: Amber, Marketing Team
The Better Skin Co.
First Impression: First of all, it comes with a little scoop, so you don’t have to dig your fingers into it, which I really appreciate. You just spoon out a little of it on the palm of your hand—it has the thickness of clay—and massage it into your wet skin. It smells like sunshine thanks to the orange peel and has such a pretty orangey-pink color.
The Test Drive: I tried it as a cleanser by mixing a little water into it, but I preferred it as a twice-a-week scrub. It’s an invigorating way to start your day, leaving your skin looking so fresh and so clean. Tiny, very-fine pumice particles buff away dead skin cells, so your skin looks noticeably brighter and smoother once you wash it off. And unlike a lot of other scrubs, it’s not drying at all (it actually feels like it balances my skin) and hasn’t irritated my skin once.
Verdict: For those who love traditional scrubs, this is an excellent choice (and an earth-friendly alternative to microbeads). It can get addictive, but I recommend restraint and only using it a couple of times a week.
Alternatives: Jojoba beads are also a great physical exfoliant.
Diana Ralys Charcoal Microfoliant
Tester: Katie, Editorial Team
Diana Ralys Skin Health
First Impression: I discovered long ago that my skin needs regular exfoliation or I’m left with blackheads, blocked pores, and just generally rough and uneven texture. So when I came across this facial treatment that contains both chemical and physical exfoliants (in the form of fruit-derived alpha hydroxy acids and microdermabrasion crystals) and charcoal (with all of its detoxifying powers), I had high hopes. The texture was oddly satisfying—very bouncy and jelly-like, thanks to a base of algae—and it smelled fruity and citrusy, but not in a fake way.
The Test Drive: I massaged it into my skin and could immediately feel the tiny crystals go to work, de-gunking my pores and lifting away dead skin cells. Even though they’re very fine, the crystals pack a punch, so I’d recommend going very gently if you have sensitive skin. I left the scrub on my skin as a mask for the recommended 15 minutes, which I assume is important for the AHAs to work. When I rinsed, my skin was noticeably softer and felt completely renewed, like I had just sloughed off a layer of dull, dry buildup (gross, I know, but true).
Verdict: I wouldn’t use this more than once a week—don’t be mistaken by its natural ingredient list, it’s powerful stuff—but I could see it becoming a good Sunday night treat to reset my skin for the coming week. This one’s not for the amateur exfoliator, but used correctly, it’s a dream.
Alternatives: For more boss-level exfoliation, try home microdermabrasian.
Are you a fan of face scrubs? Have any questions about exfoliating? Let us know below.