What Should I Look For In An Exfoliating Product?

Exfoliating products come in different concentrations and delivery methods, and require different applications. Choose the perfect exfoliant by simply following these three steps.

With so many exfoliating products to choose from, it's easy to get overwhelmed. 'Where do I start?' 'Which item is right for my skin concerns?' 'Can a cream really exfoliate?' If you've been trapped in this thought-circle, we're here to set you free.

Exfoliating products are segmented by three factors:

  • Their mode of action

  • The skin type they're formulated for

  • Their concentration

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1. What's the exfoliant's mode of action?

Exfoliation is a simple process: it increases the rate at which your skin cells shed by giving them a nudge. Every exfoliant can be classed as either physical or chemical.

Physical exfoliants smooth skin instantly by treating the visible layers of skin, requiring interaction and a level of abrasion. Physical exfoliating products include facial scrubs, muslin cloths, facial brushes and konjac sponges. 

Chemical exfoliants treat both the visible layers and deeper layers of skin. After they applied to the skin they are left, and require minimal interaction. With regular use their effects build and increase the skin’s natural rate of exfoliation, in addition to providing antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and collagen boosting benefits. Chemical exfoliating products include exfoliating toners, Salicylic acid masks, Glycolic acid moisturisers, chemical peels and exfoliating cleansers. 

If you want a quick and easy exfoliation step, then a chemical exfoliant is for you. On the other hand, if you want the instant result of smooth skin, a physical exfoliant should be your go-to product.

2. Choosing an exfoliating product based on your skin type

While exfoliating products usually aren't labelled 'normal', 'dry', 'sensitive', or 'oily', certain ones are more appropriate for certain skin types. Oil-soluble ingredients are best for oily skin, and water-soluble ingredients are best for dry skin. Some exfoliants specifically address ageing and/or acne as well. Knowing your skin type can help you pick the right exfoliant for you, and help you to avoid overdoing it. 

  • Normal skin: those with normal skin can enjoy gentle physical exfoliants, as well as chemical exfoliants like Glycolic acid and Enzymes. These do a great job of sloughing away dead skin cells away from the top layer of the skin. 

  • Dry Skin: those with dry skin respond well to chemical exfoliants like Glycolic acid and Lactic acid, which boosts moisture and improves skin tone. On the other hand, chemical exfoliants like Salycilic acid can have a drying effect on this skin type.

  • Sensitive Skin: those with sensitive skin types respond well to Lactic acid, as it tends to be more gentle than other chemical exfoliants. If you have sensitive skin try to steer clear of Glycolic acid and Physical exfoliants, which can easily trigger irritation, as they are quite harsh. 

  • Oily/combination: those with oily/combination skin types may be prone to acne and blackheads due to the overproduction of sebum in their skin. This means they can use something a little more harcore like Salycilic acid or Physical scrubs to exfoliate the skin. 

  • Mature: those with mature skin may use exfoliants for a number of reasons, which can include fighting pigmentation, sun damage, fine lines and wrinkles. This means they can use a combination of Physical and Chemical exfoliants several times a week to combat these problems. 

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3. Choosing an exfoliant based on concentration

Just like coffee, every exfoliant has a strength—even the physical ones. If you have sensitive skin, you'll want a mild product. If you have maturing, tolerant skin, you'll want a stronger exfoliant.

The concentration of a physical exfoliant is determined by two factors:

  • The type of exfoliant—crushed pumice is strong; perfectly spherical jojoba wax beads are mild.

  • Your application—how much product you use, how vigorously you scrub, etc.

The concentration of a chemical exfoliant is a little more straightforward and is very similar to that coffee we mentioned. The more coffee you use for a pot of water, the stronger the coffee will be.

  • Salicylic acid, for instance, can be found at strengths of up to 2%. At this level, this Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) are able to penetrate the skin deeply. We recommend The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Masque - 50ml, which balances oil production and features Charcoal and Kaolin clay to clear up blemish prone skin. 

  • Glycolic acid can be found at strengths of up to 30%, but most commonly at 14% or less. At this level, Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), like Glycolic acid, works by clearing the surface of the skin, and can improve acne and acne scarring. 

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Want to experience the benefits of Glycolic acid? We recommend Skinstitut Glycolic Scrub 14%, which combines Physical and Chemical exfoliants to improve the skin’s texture. This Glycolic acid product contains Jojoba Beads and Tea Tree oil, which help to clear, brighten and decongest the skin. 

Choose the perfect concentration based on your skin type, usage habits, and desired results. Keep in mind that highly concentrated exfoliants are intended for infrequent use, and to always use SPF after sensitizing the skin through exfoliation. Read our guide 'Should I Exfoliate Before, During or After Cleansing?' to learn when the best time to exfoliate is!



Brand and product inclusions are at the sole discretion of Adore Beauty’s highly trained Customer Service team. We do not seek or accept payment from brands or individuals listed in our guides.


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