The 10 Best Exfoliants for Acne-Prone Skin

Hey there! As someone who is passionate about skincare and has dealt with acne-prone skin, I understand the struggle of finding the right products. Among the essential components of a skincare routine, exfoliants play a crucial role in keeping acne at bay. In this article, I’ll walk you through the 10 best exfoliants that have worked wonders for my acne-prone skin.

Understanding Exfoliants and Acne

Before diving into the specific exfoliants, let’s understand why exfoliation is essential for acne-prone skin. Acne occurs when hair follicles are clogged with dead skin cells, oil, and bacteria. Exfoliants help remove these impurities, unclog pores, and promote skin cell turnover, preventing future breakouts. Now, let’s explore the top 10 best exfoliants for acne, each offering unique benefits and formulations to address your skincare needs.

Top 10 Best Exfoliants For Acne-Prone Skin

1. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

This cult favorite exfoliant contains salicylic acid, a potent BHA that penetrates pores to unclog them and reduce breakouts. It also gently exfoliates the skin’s surface, revealing a smoother and clearer complexion. Suitable for all skin types, it’s a staple for tackling acne while minimizing redness. Click here to check prices on Amazon

Why its amazing:

  • Unclogs Pores: Contains salicylic acid, a potent BHA that effectively penetrates and unclogs pores, preventing acne breakouts.
  • Gentle Exfoliation: Provides gentle exfoliation, revealing smoother skin texture without causing irritation.
  • Reduces Redness: Helps to calm inflammation and redness associated with acne, promoting a more even complexion.

2. The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

Featuring glycolic acid, this solution offers chemical exfoliation that helps fade acne scars, refine texture, and promote skin cell turnover. It’s a budget-friendly choice to reveal brighter skin, but it’s important to use sunscreen while using glycolic acid products due to increased sun sensitivity. Click here to check prices on Amazon

Why its amazing:

  • Fades Acne Scars: Glycolic acid promotes cell turnover, aiding in fading acne scars and hyperpigmentation.
  • Refines Texture: Exfoliates the skin’s surface, minimizing rough texture and improving overall skin appearance.
  • Enhances Absorption: Prepares the skin for subsequent products, enhancing the absorption of serums and moisturizers.

3. Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Scrub

Formulated with salicylic acid and naturally derived grapefruit extract, this scrub exfoliates and treats acne while leaving a refreshing scent. It helps clear blackheads and whiteheads, leaving your skin feeling clean and rejuvenated. Click here to check prices on Amazon

Why its amazing:

  • Dual Action: Combines salicylic acid with gentle physical exfoliation for a double acne-fighting effect.
  • Fresh Sensation: Infused with grapefruit extract, it leaves the skin feeling refreshed and invigorated.
  • Blackhead Control: Helps to clear blackheads and prevent future breakouts with consistent use.

4. COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

Featuring betaine salicylate, a gentler form of salicylic acid, this liquid exfoliant is great for sensitive acne-prone skin. It works to unclog pores, reduce sebum production, and promote smoother skin texture without causing irritation. Click here to check prices on Amazon

Why its amazing:

  • Sensitive Skin-Friendly: Suitable for sensitive skin due to its milder form of salicylic acid, betaine salicylate.
  • Gentle Exfoliation: Provides a balanced exfoliation, reducing clogged pores and promoting smoother skin without harshness.
  • Minimizes Sebum: Helps regulate oil production, preventing excess oil buildup that can lead to acne.

5. Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

Combining both alpha and beta hydroxy acids, this cleanser gently polishes the skin, helping to reduce breakouts and minimize the appearance of pores. It’s suitable for regular use and provides a balanced exfoliation for smoother, clearer skin. Click here to check prices on Amazon

Why its amazing:

  • Dual Hydroxy Acids: Combines AHA and BHA to effectively cleanse pores, preventing breakouts and refining skin texture.
  • Daily Use: Designed for regular use, maintaining clearer skin over time with consistent exfoliation.
  • Pore Minimization: Helps minimize the appearance of pores, giving the skin a smoother and more refined look.

6. Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum

Infused with glycolic, tartaric, lactic, and salicylic acids, this serum delivers a powerful exfoliation while you sleep. It helps to refine skin texture, unclog pores, and improve overall clarity, making it an effective treatment for acne-prone skin. Click here to check prices on Amazon

Why its amazing:

  • Comprehensive Exfoliation: Contains a blend of multiple acids for thorough exfoliation and skin renewal.
  • Overnight Treatment: Works while you sleep, enhancing cell turnover and waking up to smoother skin.
  • Brightening Effect: Helps fade hyperpigmentation, leaving skin more radiant and even-toned.

7. La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3

La Roche-Posay Pure Retinol Face Serum with Vitamin B3 is a potent yet gentle solution for acne-prone skin. Its blend of pure retinol and Vitamin B3 effectively targets breakouts, regulates oil production, and minimizes acne scars, all while being formulated to suit sensitive skin. Click here to check prices on Amazon

Why its amazing:

  • Advanced Acne Treatment: Contains potent retinol and Vitamin B3 (niacinamide) to effectively unclog pores, regulate oil production, and prevent acne breakouts.
  • Gentle and Soothing: Formulated for sensitive skin, the serum combines retinol’s benefits with Vitamin B3 to reduce irritation and redness, making it suitable for acne-prone individuals.
  • Holistic Skincare: Beyond acne control, it refines skin texture, fades acne scars, and addresses other concerns like fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven tone, supported by dermatological expertise.

8. Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment

Packed with natural exfoliants like papaya, pineapple, and pumpkin enzymes, as well as lactic and salicylic acids, this treatment offers both physical and chemical exfoliation. It helps to reveal a brighter, clearer complexion and minimize the appearance of acne scars. Click here to check prices on Amazon

Why its amazing:

  • Natural Enzymes: Enzymes from papaya, pineapple, and pumpkin deliver gentle yet effective exfoliation.
  • Visible Results: Provides instant radiance and smoother texture, making it great for pre-event skincare.
  • Scar Softening: Aids in softening the appearance of acne scars over time with consistent use.

9. Clinique Acne Solutions Clarifying Lotion

A medicated exfoliating lotion containing salicylic acid, this product helps clear and prevent breakouts while also controlling excess oil production. It’s a part of Clinique’s Acne Solutions range, designed specifically for acne-prone skin. Click here to check prices on Amazon

Why its amazing:

  • Medicated Formula: Contains salicylic acid to penetrate pores, targeting acne at the source.
  • Oil Control: Helps manage excess oil production, reducing the likelihood of new breakouts.
  • Tightens Pores: Assists in refining pore size, improving skin texture and appearance.

10. Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment

With a high concentration of lactic acid, this treatment targets acne scars, uneven texture, and fine lines. It gently exfoliates, leaving skin smoother and more radiant, but be sure to introduce it gradually if you’re new to exfoliation. Click here to check prices on Amazon

Why its amazing:

  • Lactic Acid Efficacy: Lactic acid gently exfoliates, revealing smoother skin while being suitable for sensitive skin.
  • Multi-Tasking: Addresses various concerns including acne scars, uneven tone, and fine lines.
  • Brightening Effect: Enhances skin radiance, making it a valuable addition to an anti-acne regimen.

Types of Exfoliants for Acne-Prone Skin

There are various exfoliants available, but not all are suitable for acne-prone skin. Let’s explore the top five exfoliants that effectively combat acne:

1. Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a holy grail for acne-prone individuals. It penetrates deep into the pores, dissolving excess sebum and dead skin cells. This beta hydroxy acid (BHA) also possesses anti-inflammatory properties, reducing redness and swelling associated with acne.

2. Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), is renowned for its ability to exfoliate the skin’s surface. It aids in removing dead skin cells, making it an excellent choice for acne-prone skin with surface-level congestion. However, those with sensitive skin should proceed with caution and do a patch test first.

3. Lactic Acid

Another AHA, lactic acid, works wonders for sensitive acne-prone skin. It gently exfoliates, moisturizes, and enhances the skin’s natural barrier. This makes it suitable for those with dry or sensitive skin who need a gentler exfoliating option.

4. Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is an excellent option for combating acne-causing bacteria. It effectively kills the bacteria residing within the pores, reducing inflammation and preventing future breakouts. However, it may cause dryness, so it’s essential to moisturize adequately.

5. Tea Tree Oil

As a natural alternative, tea tree oil boasts antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It helps reduce acne lesions and calm irritated skin. When diluted properly, it can be a fantastic addition to your acne-fighting arsenal.

Tea tree oil is considered one of the 10 best natural products for acne-prone skin. Click here to learn about how natural products can help heal your acne!

Factors to Consider When Choosing an Exfoliant

When selecting an exfoliant for your acne-prone skin, keep these factors in mind:

1. Skin Type and Sensitivity

Consider your skin type and sensitivity level. If you have sensitive skin, opt for milder exfoliants like lactic acid. For oily skin, salicylic acid can work wonders, while glycolic acid suits normal to combination skin.

2. Ingredients

Read the product labels carefully. Avoid exfoliants containing harsh chemicals or potential irritants like alcohol or artificial fragrances.

  1. Microbeads (Polyethylene or Polypropylene): These small plastic particles are harmful to the environment and can cause irritation and micro-tears in the skin, exacerbating acne.
  2. Fragrance or Perfume: Fragrance can be a common irritant, leading to inflammation and potential worsening of acne. Opt for fragrance-free products.
  3. Alcohol (Denatured Alcohol or SD Alcohol): High amounts of alcohol can strip the skin’s natural oils, leading to dryness and irritation, which can trigger acne.
  4. Physical Scrubs with Harsh Particles: Large or jagged exfoliating particles can damage the skin barrier, causing micro-tears and spreading bacteria, worsening acne.
  5. Essential Oils: While some essential oils can be beneficial, others may be too harsh for acne-prone skin and can lead to breakouts or irritation.
  6. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES): These surfactants can strip the skin of natural oils and disrupt the skin barrier, making acne worse.
  7. High Concentrations of Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) or Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs): While these can be effective in moderation, excessive use or high concentrations can lead to over-exfoliation and irritation.
  8. High-Powered Physical Exfoliants (Pumice, Walnut Shell, etc.): Harsh physical exfoliants can cause micro-tears in the skin and worsen inflammation, leading to more breakouts.
  9. Lanolin and Mineral Oil: These ingredients can be pore-clogging for some individuals, potentially exacerbating acne.
  10. Comedogenic Oils: Oils that are highly comedogenic (pore-clogging) can contribute to acne formation. Look for non-comedogenic options in your exfoliants.

3. Formulation

Choose between leave-on exfoliants (serums, toners) or rinse-off options (scrubs, masks). Leave-on exfoliants usually have longer-lasting effects.

Leave-On Exfoliants: These are products that you apply to your skin and leave on without rinsing. They are typically formulated with chemical exfoliants like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), or enzymes. Leave-on exfoliants work by dissolving dead skin cells, promoting cell turnover, and unclogging pores over time. They often come in the form of toners, serums, creams, or gels. They can be gentler on the skin and are usually used as part of your regular skincare routine.

Take-Off Exfoliants: These exfoliants require you to apply the product to your skin, massage or scrub gently, and then rinse it off. Physical exfoliants like scrubs with small particles or brushes fall under this category. They work by manually loosening and removing dead skin cells and debris from the surface. While they can provide immediate skin-smoothing effects, they need to be used with caution as harsh physical exfoliation can lead to skin irritation and damage if not used properly.

How to Incorporate Exfoliants into Your Skincare Routine

Follow these steps to incorporate exfoliants into your acne skincare routine:

1. Patch Test

Always perform a patch test on a small area of your skin before using a new exfoliant to check for any adverse reactions.

best exfoliants for acne
Patch test on either your inner forearm (left) or behind your ear (right)

2. Start Slowly

Introduce exfoliants gradually into your routine, starting with once or twice a week, and gradually increasing frequency as your skin adjusts.

3. Frequency of Use

Exfoliate no more than 2-3 times a week, depending on your skin’s tolerance. Over-exfoliating can lead to irritation and worsen acne.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Here are two common exfoliation mistakes to steer clear of:

1. Over-Exfoliation

Using exfoliants too frequently can strip your skin’s natural oils, leading to irritation and sensitivity.

2. Mixing Multiple Exfoliants

Combining multiple exfoliants can be too harsh for your skin. Stick to one exfoliant at a time to prevent damage.

DIY Exfoliants: Yay or Nay?

While DIY exfoliants may sound tempting, they can be unpredictable and potentially harmful. It’s best to rely on professionally formulated products to avoid adverse effects.

Tips for Getting the Best Results

To get the most out of your exfoliants, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Start Slowly and Gradually: Introduce exfoliants into your skincare routine gradually, especially if you’re new to them or have sensitive skin. Begin with a lower frequency, such as using the exfoliant once or twice a week, and then slowly increase as your skin builds tolerance. This helps prevent over-exfoliation, which can lead to irritation, redness, and even worsen acne.
  2. Be Consistent and Patient: Consistency is key when using exfoliants to manage acne. Results may not be immediate, and it can take a few weeks to notice improvements. Stick to your chosen exfoliation schedule and give your skin time to adjust and show progress. Avoid the temptation to overuse exfoliants in hopes of faster results, as this can lead to irritation and disrupt the skin’s natural balance.
  3. Pair Exfoliants with Proper Sun Protection: Many exfoliants, especially those containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or retinoids, can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. It’s crucial to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 daily, even on cloudy days. Sun protection helps prevent UV damage, photoaging, and further irritation that could counteract the benefits of exfoliation and exacerbate acne-related concerns.

In Conclusion

Achieving clear and radiant skin requires patience and the right skincare products. Exfoliants can be a powerful addition to your

acne-prone skincare routine. Always remember to consider your skin’s needs and sensitivity when selecting the best exfoliant for you.


Is exfoliating suitable for all skin types?

Exfoliation can benefit most skin types, but the type of exfoliant should be chosen based on individual skin needs.

Can I use multiple exfoliants in one routine?

Mixing multiple exfoliants can lead to over-exfoliation and irritation. Stick to one exfoliant at a time.

Can I use DIY exfoliants?

DIY exfoliants can be risky and may cause harm. It’s safer to opt for professionally formulated products.

How often should I exfoliate my acne-prone skin?

Exfoliate 2-3 times a week, depending on your skin’s tolerance, to avoid over-exfoliation.

Can exfoliants completely get rid of acne?

Exfoliants can help manage and prevent acne, but results may vary depending on individual factors.

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Naya Miller

From battling persistent acne through my teenage years and into adulthood, I've developed a profound passion for the realm of acne skincare. My mission is to impart the wisdom I've gained from both personal experiences and exhaustive research on acne. I aim to guide you in discovering a tailored solution that effectively addresses your unique skincare concerns.

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