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Scared of scrubs? Read our guide to selecting the perfect exfoliant

We don’t want no scrubs – scouring is for dishes – and although physical face polishers still exist, they’re no longer the über-abrasives of yore. Exfoliators come in many (three) different guises, so here’s a quick guide to deciding which type’s right for you…


For traditionalists (and the thick-skinned), physical exfoliators are effective when your skin’s bunged up or looking parched. Containing tiny grains (usually finely ground ‘organic matter’ such as nuts, seeds, sugar, silica or even coffee), suspended in an oily balm or gel, these buff skin back to beautiful – physically ‘lifting’ the dead cells and debris that can can compromise its light-reflective properties. Best used sparingly (once or twice a week), they’re ideal when you need to get skin glowing – stimulating blood flow to promote a youthful luminescence.

{Top Picks} Goldfaden MD’s {Doctor’s Scrub}, fresh {Sugar Face Polish} and Aesop {Tea Tree Leaf Facial Exfoliant}


‘Chemical exfoliant’ sounds scary, but don’t be deterred. These acid-based resurfacers are often remarkably gentle. Invariably A/BHA (alpha/beta-hydroxy acid) based, they star things such as glycolic, salicylic or lactic acids (all of which are nature-derived), and target the bonds that bind dulling dead scurf to skin’s surface. By dissolving this glue, they help shed the super-thin ‘stratum corneum’ – the oldest, uppermost layer of cells that contributes to dullness and makes skin look ‘meh’. Best used overnight – and always in conjunction with an SPF – these dead cells are protective and without them, skin is more susceptible to ageing UV rays.

{Top Picks} Alpha-H {Liquid Gold}, Dr. Dennis Gross’ {Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel} and The Ordinary’s {Salicylic Acid 2% Masque}


Perfect for more sensitive skins, prone to blocked pores or congestion, enzymatic exfoliants contain fruit enzymes – papaya, pineapple and pomegranate are all common – which collaborate with the enzymes found naturally on skin’s surface, to accelerate cellular turnover and ‘gobble up’ dead surface tissue. By refining skin texture in this way, cells are compelled to regenerate faster – which means signs of damage (scars, blemishes, dark spots) are diminished, and skin soon looks brighter and plumped-up. Enzymes are also less irritating than their chemical counterparts – therefore better for those with an easily upset complexion.

{Top Picks} Josh Rosebrook {Active Enzyme Exfoliator}, Susanne Kaufmann {Enzyme Peel} and Dr Barbara Sturm’s {Enzyme Cleanser}


Verity Douglas

Verity Douglas

Content Editor

Verity is our Content Editor and a Cult Beauty veteran. Currently on maternity leave, raising Cult Beauty’s honorary ‘word nerd’, Tabitha, she speaks fluent ‘beauty’ and loves nothing more than the marriage of language and lip balm (and cleanser and candles… ad infinitum). Nothing can stop her from quoting Nancy Mitford, treating herself to yet another Bella Freud candle for her desk or buying that pilgrim-esque collared or heavily fringed outfit she’s been eyeing. You can trust her to debunk widespread beauty myths and dispense invaluable advice with ease…