The Best Facial Scrubs, Microdermabrasion & Peels

01
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Here Are the Top Picks From Cheap to Steep

Japanese Woman using facial scrub on her face.
Shuji Kobayashi/Getty Images

One of the many secrets to gorgeous skin is proper exfoliation. Getting rid of the dead skin and flakey bits can transform an ashen complexion into a dewy one. But you have to have the right products for your skin type, and I've got your rundown on the very best of the best.

But before we get started on my list of the best products, here's what you should look for in an exfoliation method. You can use facial scrubs, microdermabrasion kits or peels:

AHA Peels & Creams

Peels work to brighten skin by removing dead skin cells with alpha-hydroxy acids (or AHAs).

AHAs are glycolic or lactic acids derived from natural products including milk, sugarcane, and tomatoes. They work as a mild exfoliant, breaking down dead skin cells and helping create new cell turnover. Use these often and you're left with smoother skin, a clearer complexion, and fewer blackheads.

Use AHAs once a week in the form of chemical peels or daily in the form of a moisturizer or topical cream. AHAs are also great for treating acne.

BHA Peels & Creams

Beta-hydroxy acids (or BHAs) are very closely related to AHAs. Another term for BHAs is "salicylic acid." These come in the forms of creams and are great for anti-aging and for treating acne.

Scrubs

Scrubs work by manually removing dead skin. Great scrubs contain an exfoliant (think sugar or salt) and an oil (think jojoba, olive, coconut, almond). Any many, unfortunately, contain polyethylene microbeads, which are tiny plastics that are great for exfoliation but bad for the environment, since these plastics wend their way back into our lakes, streams, and water sources.

Full disclosure: I do include a few scrubs on this list that contain microbeads, mainly because they are so beloved and get rave reviews from users. But if a product does contain them, I note it. I've also contacted each company and every single company has informed me that they are aware of this problem (which, frankly is a problem that many are just becoming aware of) and are busy phasing out microbeads. Finding alternative ingredients that work just as well can take time, however, so it could be years or more before these beloved scrubs are free of plastics.

Read more about microbeads here.

How to Use Scrubs and Peels

If you have sensitive skin, you should test the product out on your neck before subjecting your face to chemicals and irritants. Make sure to follow with moisturizer after using a scrub.

See "How to Exfoliate" for more information.

02
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Neutrogena Healthy Skin Face Lotion With AHAs

Neutrogena Healthy Skin Face Lotion, SPF 15, 2.5 Ounce
Courtesy of Amazon.com

Neutrogena Healthy Skin Face Lotion SPF 15 is a great daily, affordable face lotion. It contains AHAs, which help even out your complexion. This lotion also contains the antioxidants Vitamins C and E and the moisturizing pro-Vitamin B5.

It's oil-free so great for people with oily or normal skin. Add a drop of oil or serum if you have dry skin.

It gets pretty good reviews online.

03
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Fresh Sugar Face Polish

Fresh Sugar Face Polish
Fresh Sugar Face Polish. Courtesy of Fresh

It smells like strawberries but will work wonders on your face removing impurities, obliterating whiteheads and leaving skin feeling soft and supple. A beauty editor and junkie favorite, Fresh Sugar Face Polish is pricey, but you use very little at a time so it could last for a year or more. Gets almost 5 stars on all the review and buy sites I checked.

This, in fact, is in my medicine cabinet right now. I use it at least once a week.

And good news! No microbeads, the exfoliation is purely in the sugar.

04
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Konjac Cleansing Sponge With Bamboo Charcoal

Konjac Facial Sponge
Courtesy of Amazon.com

I know this seems like a weird addition to my best list, but this "pillow-soft" cleansing sponge is very popular and beloved by those who've tried it.

How it works: Basically, the Konjac Root has been used for more than 1,500 years in Asian cultures as a beauty product. You're meant to rub it over the face, neck and even under the eyes to remove makeup and dirt. The root apparently absorbs impurities from your skin while the bamboo charcoal cleanses and exfoliates the skin making it softer and brighter.

Pros: People report it's really great for sensitive skin. It's best for people with combination to oily skin. Contains no parabens, sulfates or phthalates. It's also fragrance-free, gluten- and ethanol alcohol-free.

Cons: The only con I read were that the sponge sometimes doesn't last the 3 months it's supposed to. Some people reported it tore after just a few weeks' use.

Buy it from Amazon.com

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Tatcha Polished Classic Rice Enzyme Powder

Tatcha Classic Rise Enzyme Powder
Courtesy of Tatcha

The Japanese really know their skincare. This rice enzyme powder contains Japanese rice bran, green tea and red algae extract to exfoliate skin. It contains no detergents, fragrances, mineral oil, sulfates or parabens so it's ideal for sensitive skin. It works for all skin types.

Buy it online from Amazon.com

06
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Clinique 7 Day Scrub Cream

Clinique 100ml/3.4oz 7 Day Scrub Cream Rinse Off Formula
Courtesy of Amazon.com

This is a universal tried-and-true favorite exfoliator. It's an Allure Magazine Readers' Choice Award Winner and 98% of the 776 reviewers on Clinique's Website would recommend it to a friend (as of the time this was written). Users love this facial scrub because it's gentle enough to use every day, leaving skin feeling polished and thoroughly cleansed, without stripping the skin. Some reviewers report the scrub leaves a bit of a "greasy" film on the skin afterward, so I recommend trying it out and returning it if you don't like it.

Big con: This product currently contains microbeads, which are exfoliators made of plastic that end up in rivers, streams, and lakes, polluting them. I called the company and was assured by their Consumer Care team that their parent company, Estee Lauder, is "in the process of removing them." No timeline on when that will happen.

Buy from Amazon.com

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AmorePacific Treatment Enzyme Peel

Amore Pacific Enzyme Peel
Courtesy of Amore Pacific

If you are into natural ingredients you'll love this enzyme peel. It doesn't use chemical abrasives and instead uses natural papaya enzymes to eliminate dead surface skin cells. It leaves skin soft and brighter. A great dull complexion fixer. Or so say the reviewers who overwhelmingly love this product.

Out of 669 reviews on Sephora at the time of this writing, it got an average 4.7 out of 5 stars.

While it contains no sulfates, petrochemicals or phthalates, it does have a floral scent, so if you are extremely sensitive to fragrance, you may pass on this one. Use it 2-3 times a week.

Buy it online from Amazon.com

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Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

Paula's Choice SKIN PERFECTING 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant for Blackheads and Enlarged Pores - 4 oz
Courtesy of Amazon.com

The name is a mouthful, but this exfoliant from "Cosmetics Cop" Paula Begoun is beloved by the hundreds who have tried it. You can trust her products because she has years of experience casting a stern eye on ingredients and how they work with different skin types.

BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) work by increases collagen production while also smoothing the surface of the skin, unplugging clogged pores and clearing skin of blackheads. As an added bonus, BHAs contain antibacterial properties that make them ideal for treating acne-prone skin.

For those of you with sensitive skin, this exfoliant is 100% fragrance- and colorant-free with a pH range of 3.5-3.9. Every Paula's Choice BHA product is formulated with additional soothing agents.

I recommend buying a trial size if you are worried about your skin not working with this product.

Cons: It's not great for dry skin and may dry it out more. Don't use this or any product containing salicylic acid (beta hydroxy acid) if you are allergic to aspirin. Some people reported they experienced breakouts from this product.

Additional uses: Use this on elbows, knees, and feet to get rid of dead skin and calluses.

Buy it from Amazon.com

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Caudalie Divine Scrub

Caudalie Divine Divine Scrub-150 g
Courtesy of Amazon.com

Caudalie makes a gorgeous scrub full of natural ingredients including the brilliant exfoliant brown sugar and four natural plant oils (grape, argan, hibiscus and sesame rose).  

I first read about this scrub on my favorite beauty blog Into the Gloss, in which the reviewer, MacKenzie Wagoner, writes, "I love the way it smells: a little molasses-y because of the brown sugar and notes of vanilla, a little woodsy because of the cedar, and extremely clean because of the rose and grapefruit. I love the way it scrubs: medium-fine granules that you can feel sloughing off dead skin, but not tearing you apart. I love its consistency: not too oily and not too dry, so you really get the most out of the product (i.e. you don’t lose the exfoliant or the four-oil base to the bathtub drain). And I love the way it leaves my skin: hydrated but not rotisserie-chicken oily. It's like giving a milk bath to an infant."

Consider me sold. A quick search on the other big review sites shows this scrub is a true winner.

Cons: If you are sensitive to fragrances, this might not be for you.

Buy it online from Amazon.com

10
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Kiehls Rare Earth Deep Pore Daily Cleanser

Kiehl's Rare Earth Deep Pore Daily Cleanser
Kiehl's Rare Earth Deep Pore Daily Cleanser. Courtesy of Kiehl's

If you love the feel of a clay mask AND the results of a scrub, you might like this cleanser from Kiehl's which combines the benefits of Amazonian white clay and diatomaceous Earth particles (whatever that is) to scrub your skin while leaving it super soft without flaking.

Buy from Amazon.com

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Arcona Cranberry Gommage

Arcona Cranberry Commage
Courtesy of Arcona

Formulated for oily skin, this cleansing scrub exfoliates your skin using only natural products. You get the wonderful effects of AHAs -- in this case cranberry and raspberry enzymes -- as well as the mechanical exfoliation from the jojoba beads, zeolite, and sucrose. These beads exfoliate while leaving skin soft supple.

No microbeads here!

I first heard about this product on my favorite blog Into the Gloss and it turns out this product has reached cult status among product junkies. The reviews are overwhelmingly positive. I mean, check this out from writer Kim Johnson on ITG:

"After only a week and a half of using it, I began wearing less and less makeup to cover my somewhat uneven skin tone. The product smells crazy incredible, and it's smoothed my skin and even helped unclog my pores. All I need is a nice light scrub in the morning and my face is good to go. I even defy the lazy college student mold and use it on my neck and chest."

Uh....sold!

Buy it online from Amazon.com

12
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Avon Anew Clinical Advanced Retexturizing Peel

Avon Anew Retexturizing Peel
Courtesy of Avon

This is a glycolic acid (another AHA) peel that you can do at home 2-3 times a week. This jar comes with 30 pads, so it will last you a few months.

This peel gets great reviews on Avon's Website.

Buy from Amazon

13
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Lancome 'Exfoliance Confort' Comforting Exfoliating Cream

Lancome Exfoliance Confort
Courtesy of Lancome

If you prefer a scrub that's not very abrasive, you may love this gentle exfoliating cream from Lancome. It's formulated with honey, almond and yeast extracts plus micro-spheres to remove dry spots.

Reviewers report it's wonderful for dry skin and gentle on skin.

Big con: This product contains microbeads (as so many scrubs on the market today do). I spoke with a spokesperson from L'Oreal, the parent company of Lancome, and they assure me that the microbeads will be phased out of all L'Oreal products, including Lancome, by 2017. 

Buy from Amazon

14
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Kiehl's Facial Fuel Energizing Scrub (For Men)

Kiehls Facial Fuel
Courtesy of Kiehls

This is a pre-shave scrub formulated for guys. It works by softening up hair on the face for a smoother, more comfortable shave. From what I've read, it's a favorite product of metrosexual men everywhere.

What it has: caffeine and menthol, which is great for waking one up in the morning. (Too strong for my girlish skin).

According to Kiehl's, it's a customer favorite. The reviews, overwhelmingly positive, prove it.

This makes a great gift for a guy.

Big con: This product contains microbeads (as so many scrubs on the market today do). I spoke with a spokesperson from L'Oreal, the parent company of Kiehl's, and they assure me that the microbeads will be phased out of all L'Oreal products, including Kiehl's, by 2017.

Buy from Amazon

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SW Basics Exfoliant

SW Basics Exfoliant
Courtesy of SW Basics

I read about this scrub on a beauty blog and then I read about it again and again. What I love about this Brooklyn-made exfoliant (aside from the fact that it's made in Brooklyn, where I live), is that it contains only 3 ingredients: organic oat flour, organic almond flour, and sea salt).

Now you thrifty types can go out to your local health food store or go online and buy these 3 ingredients and craft your own scrub, saving mucho, mucho dollars. Or you lazy types (like me!) can just buy it and use it and love it and then buy it again.

It's uncomplicated. It's good for the environment (no microbeads here!). And it's a local company (none of this L'Oreal and Estee Lauder parent company stuff here).

Buy from Amazon

16
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MD Skincare Alpha Beta Daily Peel, $78

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Peel, Original Strength, 30 Count Jar
Courtesy of Amazon.com

Skip the costly peels at a dermatologist and use this instead. It's like a chemical peel in a box that you give yourself over the course of a month. According to Gross, using these pads once a day is better than getting a professional peel once a month because the skin reacts better to the more gentle approach. About $78 for 30 applications.

Buy it on Amazon

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Kate Somerville ExfoliKate® Intensive Exfoliating Treatment, $85

Kate Somerville Exfolikate
Courtesy of Kate Somerville

People swear by Kate Somerville products and this exfoliating treatment is a fan favorite.

Here's how it works: Apply a couple pea-sized amounts to your fingertips and massage into damp skin to remove flakes. The microbeads (more on them in a bit) exfoliate while the salicylic acid leaves skin glowing without over-drying.

It's pricey, but one 2 oz. bottle should last you a year.

Cons: This product contains microbeads, which are exfoliators made of plastic that end up in rivers, streams, and lakes, polluting them. I called the company and they assured me they are aware of this problem and are working to remove the microbeads from their products "by the end of 2016 at the very latest."

Buy it online from Amazon.com

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Your Only Virtually Free Option: Plain White (or Brown) Sugar From Your Kitchen

Sugar face mask
Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

So now that you've seen your store bought options, how about a free tip from this beauty expert?

One of the best facial scrubs can be created from ingredients found in the average kitchen. Use plain white or brown sugar to create a scrub for the face. There are many recipes out there, but here are some suggestions:

1. Add a pinch of sugar to your cleanser and massage into skin for a couple minutes. Rinse with a warm washcloth.

2. Mix sugar with honey and massage into skin. Rinse with a warm washcloth.

3. Mix sugar with any oil you have on hand: coconut oil or almond oil is my favorite but even olive oil works. Add couple drops of honey for extra moisturizing purposes.

4. Cure chapped lips by mixing brown sugar with honey and massaging into lips.

More great exfoliating articles:

  • The Best Body Scrubs Today
  • My Best Exfoliating Tips for the Face & Body