Give your skin a clean slate with these exfoliating face scrubs.

By Megan Falk
July 17, 2020
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Credit: First Aid Beauty/Dermalogica/Skin Medica/Anna Efetova/Getty

Face scrubs have had a major glow up since the days of your tweenhood, back when you used the gritty scrub or scratchy paste that buffed out all your rough spots—and then some. Now, these feel-good products smooth skin, make it instantly bright and more radiant, and are still gentle enough to prevent your face from looking like a red hot mess after use. 

So what are face scrubs *actually* doing when you massage them on top of your skin? Basically, a face scrub is a type of exfoliant that’s designed to help eliminate dead skin cells, says Marisa Garshick, M.D., F.A.A.D., a dermatologist based in New York City. An exfoliant can either be physical or chemical. The former typically using either microbeads and small granules that physically rub against the skin and lift away grime or the latter utilizing acids and enzymes that dissolve the bonds that keep the skin connected, removing dead skin cells in the process. In some cases, a face scrub will contain a combination of the two exfoliants, she says.

Sloughing off these perished cells can boost your skin both instantly and in the long run. When built up over time, dead skin cells can make the skin look dull and dry, so by buffing them away with a face scrub, you’ll improve the skin's texture and brighten its tone, she explains. Those who are prone to breakouts can benefit, too, as face scrubs can help unclog pores, and scrubs containing chemical exfoliants such as salicylic acid can penetrate deep into the pores to dislodge sebum (aka oil). (Related: What Are Sebaceous Filaments and How Can You Get Rid of Them?)

“Another reason to incorporate face scrubs into a skin-care routine is by getting rid of that dead skin layer, you’re also allowing your other treatments to be more effective, [meaning] it can sometimes help other products penetrate better,” says Dr. Garshick. So that night cream you slather on after using an exfoliating face scrub is going to hydrate and nourish your skin *much* better than it would if it had to fight its way through a thick layer of dead cells first. 

But what makes face scrubs so great is also what can cause some serious damage. “I think where face scrubs get their value—and where they become very addicting for people—is that unlike many other skin-care products that take time to see a benefit, with face scrubs, you really do feel like the skin feels smoother and softer right after it comes off, and many people notice an instant brightening,” says Dr. Garshick. “So there is this feeling of wanting to keep using it.”

However, if you use a face scrub day after day without giving your body enough time to regenerate skin cells between uses, you can experience skin sensitivity, redness, irritation, or burning sensations, she explains. Plus, for those with oily skin, over-exfoliating can actually dry the skin out too much and tell the body to ramp up oil production, actually resulting in more breakouts despite their intentions. To get all the perks of a face scrub without wreaking havoc on your skin, Dr. Garshick recommends capping your use to a few times per week.

And when you do use a face scrub, be sure to give your skin some extra TLC. No matter the type of exfoliants (granules or enzymes), your skin is going to be more sensitive to both skin-care products and the sun now that you’ve removed a layer of dead cells. After your (gentle!) scrub sesh, apply your normal moisturizer to nourish the skin barrier and avoid using harsh active ingredients, such as retinol, which may irritate the skin, explains Dr. Garshick. You’ll also want to stick with products that are oil-free or non-comedogenic, which are going to re-clog pores right after you’ve cleaned them out. And remember to wear sunscreen daily (although you *should* be doing that already).

Convinced that you need to give your skin a clean slate ASAP? Stock up on these dermatologist-recommended best face scrubs that are sure to smooth out your skin and give you the glow you're after. 

The Best Face Scrub for Acne-Prone Skin: Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant Exfoliator

Credit: Sephora

Straight out of the bottle, this best face scrub is a fine white powder, but it transforms into a creamy paste when combined with a few drops of water. Its stand-out ingredient is a rice-based enzyme powder, which works to loosen and eliminate dead skin cells, says Dr. Garshick. Simultaneously, salicylic acid draws out excess oils and clears clogged pores, making this one of the best face scrubs for those susceptible to breakouts, she says.  

The Best Face Scrub for Normal Skin: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Polish

Credit: Sephora/Flavio Coelho/Getty

This best face scrub gets its power from natural, biodegradable ingredients, such as willow bark extract, which functions similarly to salicylic acid, helps clear out pores, and evens skin texture, says Dr. Garshick. The gentle face scrub also contains shea butter and shea nut shell powder, which work together to remove dead skin cells on the surface and brighten the skin, as well as moisturize the skin barrier. (Related: How to Boost Your Skin Barrier (And Why You Need To))

The Best Face Scrub for Cleansing the Skin: SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

This best face scrub is a one-two punch of physical and chemical exfoliants. The jojoba beads are small and gentle enough to scrub away dead cells while preventing microtears to the skin—something facial scrubs with larger-sized exfoliating particles may cause, explains Dr. Garshick. The product also contains lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, and malic acid, alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) that provide mild exfoliation to improve skin texture. But the list of beneficial ingredients doesn't stop there. This bad boy also has salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that clears out the gunk. “It’s doing what it can to remove makeup and oil, so it functions as a great cleanser, but it will also help to improve the overall appearance of skin tone and texture,” says Dr. Garshick. (Related: Why Jojoba Oil Is the Only Oil You Should Be Using On Your Face)

The Best Face Scrub for Oily Skin: Good Science Beauty Skin Renewing Polishing Powder

Just like the Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant Exfoliator, this best face scrub with physical exfoliants starts off as a powder. It boasts bentonite and silicon clay to cleanse deep in the pores while soaking up surface oil, as well as vitamin E and turmeric to provide antioxidants that smooth and revitalize skin, says Dr. Garshick. And yes, it gently removes dead skin cells too. (See also: Here's Why Should You Consider Using Vitamin E for Your Skin)

The Best Face Scrub for Dry Skin: Tatcha Rice Polish Foaming Enzyme Powder

Credit: Tatcha/Xuanyu Han/Getty

Made from nourishing Japanese rice bran (the outer layer of the rice grain), this best face scrub is another one that starts as a powder—only this time it turns into a foam when activated with water. Star ingredients like rice and papaya enzymes (both considered chemical exfoliants) gently exfoliate and release debris from pores, making it ideal for sensitive and dry skin, says Caroline A. Chang, M.D., F.A.A.D., a board-certified cosmetic and medical dermatologist. The face scrub also contains crushed pearl (yes, pearl!) extract, which further hydrates the skin with its amino acids, collagen, and minerals. 

The Best Face Scrub for Sensitive Skin: Cetaphil Extra Gentle Daily Scrub

Credit: Cetaphil/Katsumi Murouchi/Getty

If you’ve got skin that seems to flares up even if you just look at it the wrong way, you’ll want to give this best face scrub a shot. Design specifically for sensitive skin, the product has micro-fine granules (read: physical exfoliants), vitamin E, and vitamin B5 that provide the same benefits of exfoliating without drying out skin, says Dr. Garshick. Plus, it’s non-comedogenic, making it ideal for people who are prone to breakouts but also have sensitive skin, she adds. 

The Best Face Scrub with a Dual Purpose: Dove Exfoliating Body Polish Pomegranate Seeds & Shea Butter

Credit: Dove/Oxygen/Getty

Who doesn’t love a good two-for-one deal? This best face scrub isn’t specifically designed for the face, but it’s still gentle enough to use it as a facial scrub, says Dr. Garshick. Plus, it buffs away dull, dry skin thanks to physical exfoliants while providing moisture. “It’s formulated with part of [Dove’s] standard moisturizing technology to support the skin's natural barrier, so even when you're getting rid of the dead skin cells, you’re still keeping it smooth and nourished,” says Dr. Garshick.

The Best Face Scrub for Instant Radiance: GlamGlow FLASHMUD Brightening Treatment Mask

Credit: Sephora

Packed with both chemical and physical exfoliating properties, this best face scrub will give you a much-needed pre-event glow, says Dr. Chang. It has a blend of salicylic acid and lactic acid to exfoliate the skin and improve texture, as well as vitamin C to brighten and help dissolve hyperpigmented or discolored skin cells. The skin-care goodie also contains betulin and betulinic acid (extracts from the bark of white birch trees) to further balance skin tone. But the face scrub stands out from the crowd with its unique application technique: “It goes on like a scrub, but then you let it sit [for about 20 minutes] to allow the chemical exfoliants such as alpha and beta-hydroxy acids to do their job,” says Dr. Chang. 

The Best Face Scrub on a Budget: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Foaming Scrub

Credit: Neutrogena/ Valeria Aksakova/500px/Getty

Coming in at just $8 for a 6.7-ounce bottle, this best face scrub is both wallet-friendly and ideal for acne-prone or oily skin, says Dr. Chang. The product contains both physical and chemical exfoliants: salicylic acid to exfoliate, cut through the oils on the skin, and treat acne, as well as vitamin C to brighten all over. As for the grapefruit scent? That’s just an added bonus. 

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