Tatcha, Cerave, SkinCeuticals
Finding the best beauty products has never been easier thanks to Pia's Picks, our weekly curated list. As the Senior Beauty Editor at HelloGiggles, I test and examine the latest skincare, makeup, hair, and nail products so I can confidently recommend the best ones to you.
If you've ever browsed the face wash aisle in search of a cleanser that would calm your irritated, inflamed, or blemished skin, you've probably tried things with words such as "AHA," "BHA," and "micro-exfoliants." This is, of course, to be expected, as these are all ingredients and formulas that can keep your skin clear. However, when looking for exfoliating face washes, it's important to understand that there are two kinds of exfoliants:
Physical exfoliants: As the name suggests, these types of exfoliants physically buff away dead skin cells. Generally, they'll be in the form of granules, beads, or even facial brushes such as the Clarisonic (RIP).
Chemical exfoliants: Instead of scrubbing at your skin, these chemicals loosen dead skin cells so they can either be removed or melted away.
The latter is most popular with consumers, and if you're more inclined to try a chemical exfoliant, you're probably familiar with salicylic acid. Though it may sound menacing at first, the skincare ingredient is very effective at deep cleaning the skin's surface and ridding it of sebaceous oils (the stuff that contributes to acne). But it's not just used for acne. Salicylic is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), meaning it's an excellent natural exfoliator that can penetrate deep down into your pores and break up the oil and dead skin cells that can cause pesky pimples down the line.
NYC-based dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, M.D, explains that salicylic acid is oil soluble and can slough off the outermost layer of skin by breaking apart the bonds between the skin cells. This leads to a gentle exfoliation that's also useful for preventing acne. She also notes that it is an anti-inflammatory ingredient, which can be especially helpful for decreasing the redness and inflammation associated with tender pimples.
So, when it comes to fighting clogged pores, whiteheads, blackheads, and angry zits, salicylic acid is your go-to ingredient. However, if you have chronic, cystic acne, Colorado-based holistic cosmetic surgeon and skin care expert Manish Shah, M.D., says a salicylic face wash won't do much to clear you up completely as you'll need a product that stays on your face rather than one that washes off.
An exfoliating face wash, though, is a great way to start your clear-skin routine. And whether you prefer a chemical exfoliant, such as retinoid or glycolic acid, or lean toward scrub-like formulas, they can all work wonders for your skin depending on your skin type, concerns, and goals.
While you may be super pumped to start using an exfoliating face wash every day, Dr. Nazarian recommends using exfoliating products at most once daily for most skin types. After all, your skin can't have that many dead skin cells and you don't want to irritate your skin or over-exfoliate. If you tend to naturally be on the drier or more sensitive side, it's advised to use an exfoliant every other day until your skin builds up a tolerance.
Best chemical exfoliating face washes:
1. Best drugstore exfoliating face wash:
- 13.99 Available at Ulta
A favorite of Dr. Nazarian's for sensitive skin, this salicylic acid face wash also contains ceramides, which nourish and soothe skin to help prevent it from over-drying. Ceramides are also instrumental in replenishing your skin's natural barrier, so this option is less irritating than some more harsh formulas that strip that layer of essential oils. Plus, it's fragrance-free.
2. Best luxe exfoliating face wash:
- 38 Available at Dermstore
Named one of our 2020 Beauty Crush Award winners for its ability to brighten complexions and unclog congested pores, this powerful gel cleanser is made with glycolic and phytic acids along with salicylic acid to promote cellular turnover and remove impurities. It also contains aloe leaf extract for extra nourishment and soothing properties.
3. Best foaming exfoliating face wash:
- 9.99 Available at Sephora
Grab this lightly foaming (and affordable) cleanser to remove dirt, makeup, and more while gently exfoliating thanks to its 2% salicylic acid. It will help quell those nasty breakouts with zinc, too, a compound that helps to reduce excess sebum and minimize inflammation. It's non-drying and formulated without any harsh sulfates, so it deeply washes skin while leaving it soft and refreshed.
4. Best clean exfoliating face wash:
- 42 Available at Sephora
This cleanser is infused with natural BHAs from willow bark extract and apricot microspheres, which help polish your skin to smooth out bumps and rough texture. We love that it uses moisturizing olive oil to keep the skin from feeling tight post-wash, and if you buy the full-size bottle, the packaging is recyclable.
5. Best exfoliating face wash for oily skin:
Available at Amazon
Dr. Nazarian especially recommends this pick for people with oily skin because it combines 2% salicylic acid and 0.05% LHA (lipo-hydroxy acid), which exfoliates on a deeper cellular level. It's oil-free and targets excess oil, pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads while removing dirt and grime. If you're looking for an exfoliating face wash that will aid in a less shiny appearance, this one's it.
Best physical exfoliating face washes:
6. Best drugstore exfoliating face wash:
Available at Amazon
Dermatologist-approved for sensitive skin, the gentle cleansing scrub buffs away impurities and leaves your skin feeling super-soft, too. It's formulated with moisturizing glycerin and has a vitamin complex to brighten up dull skin.
7. Best luxe exfoliating face wash:
- 35 Available at Sephora
If cleanser seems like a necessary yet unexciting part of your skincare routine, your opinion will change after just one use. "This is the first product that's ever made me look forward to cleansing my skin," said one of the testers from our 2021 Beauty Crush Awards. "It has very fine rice grains that mix with the rich texture to create this frothy, facial-like experience that makes me feel like I'm at a salon." It even sat well with testers who have sensitive and dry skin, who said that while many cleansers make their skin feel tight and stripped, this one left them feeling nicely hydrated.
8. Best exfoliating cleanser and makeup remover:
Available at Amazon
We love a 2-in-1 product, so any cleanser that can also remove our makeup is a godsend. Add this product's exfoliating benefits on top of that, and we're sold! This formula is ultra-soft, using pressure-sensitive jojoba beads that dissolve naturally as you work the cleanser into your skin, meaning the beads won't harm the planet or your skin. Despite being a gentle formula, it removes a full face of makeup and keeps your skin feeling soft and smooth after washing it.
9. Best exfoliating cleanser with AHAs and BHAs:
- 42 Available at Sephora
The first step to a clear and smooth complexion is a cleanser, so using an AHA and BHA-infused one just makes sense. Apart from its chemical exfoliants, this product also uses jojoba beads to gently buff away any dry and dead skin cells.
10. Best refreshing exfoliating face wash:
- 23 Available at Sephora
Wake your skin and senses up every morning with this invigorating cleanser. It uses plumping coffee beans to de-puff the skin, jojoba seed oil to exfoliate, Panax ginseng to boost radiance, and is infused with uplifting scents, such as grapefruit and spearmint, to help wake you up and start your day off in a cheerful mood.