Ask Belle: Non-Drying Exfoliants

Jan 4, 2017


I recently had my make-up proffessionally applied before a formal event.  The attendant asked if I used an exfoliant – and we both knew the answer was no.  Do you have any recommendations for a good exfoliant that won’t over dry my skin? Thank you, Rachel

A good exfoliant really is a lifesaver.  Exfoliating benefits oily skin by removing dead skin and keeping pores clear.  Dry skin will respond better to moisturizing.  Dull skin will be brightened.  But not every skin type needs the same type of exfoliation.
Dry Skin.  If you need something gentle, Simple makes a smoothing facial scrub that’s easy on dry skin and just $5.  Kate Sommerville also makes a gentle exfoliator that people rave about.
Oily/Combination Skin. This is my skin type, and without question, my favorite exfoliators contain charcoal, silt and other oil-absorbing ingredients.  A good mask will also exfoliate your skin.  Origins makes a great charcoal mask.  I also like Aztec Secret Indian Healing Clay for an affordable option; you mix the powder with apple cider vinegar.
Dullness requires a great scrub like Ole Henriksen Truth Scrub.  It’s loaded with Vitamin-C and other brighteners.  For something a bit cheaper, I had a sample of Clean & Clear’s Morning Burst Scrub, and it was surprisingly great for the price.
Other Options.  For some women, scrubs and masks provide too much exfoliation.  If that’s the trouble you face, I recommend a toner like Clinique Clarifying Lotion.  It comes in multiple strengths and removes dead skin cells and excess oil like a champ.
Manual exfoliation is also an option.  The Clarisonic devices is the strangest competitor in the field.  However, my aging skin needs something less harsh, so I use the Foreo Luna device.
Please leave other recommendations in the comments.  Products you’ve loved, products you’ve disliked.

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  1. Bonnie says:

    I’m 40 and have been loving Lush Cup o’ Coffee scrub as a daily exfoliant. It would not be for anyone with sensitive skin, for sure, but for my (still!) oily/combo/acne-prone skin, it’s been pretty amazing. I also took your advice and bought the Origins charcoal mask; I’ll be using it soon.

  2. Monica T says:

    I make a very gentle exfoliant out of white (kaolin) clay, colloidal oatmeal, fine ground almond meal and rose petal powder. Oil absorbing, soothing and a little bit of exfoliating. Since I do oil cleansing it also is great at getting all of the oil off, and then I use a rose water and witch hazel toner afterward. Twice a week I do a French Green Clay mask with aloe vera, rose water and a dropper of Rosehip Seed Oil. I really notice if I miss a mask.

  3. M says:

    For skin that tends dry or sensitive, I’ve had GREAT success with these three gentle, natural products. They leave my skin baby smooth and not dried out or irritated so my moisturizer can get to work.

    Belif Mild and Effective Facial Scrub – scrub is a misnomer for this. It’s a mild face wash that gently sloughs off dead skin. Good to use 1-2x/week (

    If you prefer more frequent use and more benefits, try Josie Maran Argan exfoliating cleansing powder ( or Tatcha Polished Classic Rice Enzyme Powder (

  4. Eleni says:

    Acure Organics brightening facial scrub is a staple in my skin care routine. Leaves my skin softer, brighter, and without any irritation.

    • Allison says:


      How often do you use the scrub? I just ordered it and it says use 3 times a week. Do you use it 3 times a week instead of your usual facial cleanser?



  5. Chelsea says:

    Rather than using a physical exfoliant (like a scrub), you might want to consider a chemical exfoliant like AHA or BHA. It exfoliates more evenly and thoroughly and you won’t risk damaging your skin with a scrub. Paula’s Choice has some excellent chemical exfoliants at a reasonable price, and Drunk Elephant makes a chemical exfoliant that’s much pricier (their night serum).
    If you do use a scrub, make sure to avoid ones where the grit exfoliting your skin is sharp – never use a salt or apricot scrub. The Simple scrub Belle suggested is a good choice.

    • Christy says:

      I second Paula’s Choice. Been using her stuff forever and love it!

      • Matthews says:

        I second the Drunk Elephant recommendation. In addition to the night serum, which is a chemical exfoliant, they have a soap bar which contains mild physical exfoliates (like clay) which are gentle enough to use once/daily. Highly recommend the entire line, but the soaps bars and serums are truly amazing.

        • Chelsea says:

          OK – genuinely not trying to be catty – but I researched the Drunk Elephant brand online (ultimately stuck with Replenix and Paula’s Choice) and every mention of DE’s product online is immediately followed by at least one super positive comment, usually within an hour. Every online store has massive numbers of glowing reviews with no negatives mentioned. The comments/reviews typically follow similar themes; “kind to my skin,” “best line I have ever used,” “amazing.” It seems odd to me, especially for a new line at a high price point.

          • M says:

            That’s a really interesting observation! Must be a very eager PR team haha But, I have been using their virgin marula oil for about a year and a half now after it was the only “affordable” (HA!) option on a GOOP article about face oils and I really love it. I JUST bought their night serum (used for the first time last night) so jury’s still out on that one but just wanted to chime in as a real person who genuinely does like one of their products. I’ve highly recommended to friends with dry or sensitive skin and in my experience, those who don’t mind the price point love it and those who do don’t buy it.

        • Jamie says:

          I didn’t love DE’s exfoliant, but loved Sunday Riley. There was a really interesting youtube review about this by Stephanie Nicole ( She’s become my guru when it comes to skin care/exfoliants/oils.

      • Sade says:

        I second an aha – I tried alpha-h liquid gold and it was a real game changer. Used overnight I literally can see a difference the next morning. And that’s not something I’ll say about anything else.

    • Kiki says:

      I third the Paula’s Choice exfoliants! Her BHA products are especially effective on blackheads, and don’t irritate my dry, sensitive, 40YO skin. I use the 2% gel and put moisturizer on top of it. *Her products are now available at Nordstrom, free shipping, free returns!

    • Coco says:

      Yes and yes and yes to chemical exfoliant and Paula’s Choice, specifically. Cost effective, cruelty free, and great ingredients. I’ve been using it for 3+ years now, and I won’t be without a chemical exfoliant.

  6. Mackenzie says:

    Lush’s Ocean Salt scrub is my favorite to use on my face. It’s a little expensive, so I choose to just use on my face as it lasts longer that way. I tend to use it 3-4 times a week and my face is clear and bright. For my body (especially in the winter) I use Lush’s Buffy bar. It’s got ground rice and almonds in a bar made of shea and cocoa butter to both exfoliate and moisturize.

  7. Anne says:

    I cannot do physical exfoliants on my face (very dry, sensitive, acne prone skin, and I’m 35). I am obsessed with Paula’s Choice RESIST Weekly Resurfacing Treatment with 10% AHA, I use it 2-3 times a week (it’s good to build up to the multiple times a week application) and it’s been a wonderful addition to my skin care routine. BHAs aren’t as effective for me, but many people rave about the 2% BHA lotion.

  8. Tazzy says:

    I am an unabashed Clarasonic girl! My acne breakouts are now non-existant when I use the Clarasonic with the acne brush head.

  9. Claire says:

    I’ll make another plug for chemical exfoliants over scrubs. I have sensitive dry skin and use an AHA serum (from La Roche) nightly, and a Bliss glycolic wipe weekly. A Bliss rep recommended cutting the wipes in half because they’re pretty large, and using it 2 nights in a row for best results – it works really well for my regimen. It keeps my skin clear and prevents dullness in the winter.

  10. A.J. says:

    I don’t know how you would classify it (physical vs. chemical) but the Cure Aqua Gel is my favorite. If you’ve never tried it, it is a a plain clear gel with no smell. You apply it to a clean, dry face and then a grit forms. The grit is your dead skin. It’s gross and amazing and I love it. I just finished my first bottle–it took over a year. I like to use it right out of the shower because it makes my makeup application smoother. I have VERY sensitive skin and this does not bother it in the least.

    The Peter Thomas Roth FIRMx Peeling Gel is in my opinion a more expensive dupe. I got a sample of it and it works exactly the same, but with possibly bigger dead skin balls.

  11. Kk says:

    One more plug for chemical exfoliants! I love the Paula’s choice, and I like a lot of the Ole Hendrickson products- especially the AHA.

  12. Alison says:

    Philosophy’s Microdelivery Exfoliating Wash. I use it as my morning cleanser as it is gentle enough to use every day. Gently buffs the surface and does not dry my skin out at all. (

    If you’re looking for something with a little more gusto that you wouldn’t necessarily use every day, I would also recommend Lancome’s Exfolliance Radiance Exfoliating Clarifying Gel ( — I find that I cannot use it every day but it is also comparatively gentle.

  13. Jess says:

    Has anyone used any cheaper version of the Clarisonic, like the Olay one or others?

    • Jenn S. says:

      I have! It is more effective than using your hands, but it isn’t a deep cleaner. It sweeps the ilk off the surfact of your skin, but doesn’t do much for pores. It’s a reasonable entry-level device though!

  14. LT! says:

    I don’t know how or why since I have fairly sensitive skin, but I will go to my grave swearing by St. Ives Apricot Scrub. I use it everyday as a facial cleanser and then follow-up with oil-free moisturizer. I’ve been using it since high school and am now pushing 40 – no issues, no inflammation, no irritation, etc.

    I’ve just learned that there’s a class action lawsuit against it (!!!) so I might be hitting my local drugstore to stock up in case it gets pulled from the shelves…

    • SC says:

      I know I’m not supposed to like the St. Ives stuff either, but I do! I had to stop using it in my mid-20s when I had terrible acne but since my face has normalized it’s my favorite physical exfoliator. I use it in the shower once or twice a week. And it’s dirt-cheap. 🙂

      I also have tried and liked Dermalogica Microfoliant (nice because you can control the intensity of exfoliation if your skin is more sensitive), and Lush Mask of Magnaminty (which is a clay mask/scrub combination). Neither are cheap but they are nice products.

  15. Liz says:

    I used to have pretty bad acne, but after 6 months of Accutane, I was all clear. However, I was left with dull skin and dark spots. After 2 months of using First Aid Beauty’s Radiance Intensive Peel twice a week, my skin has been transformed.

  16. Liz says:

    I used to have pretty bad acne, but after 6 months of Accutane, I was all clear. However, I was left with dull skin and dark spots. After 2 months of using First Aid Beauty’s Radiance Intensive Peel twice a week, my skin has been transformed. I recommend it to everyone.

    • Liz says:

      This is a different Liz — hi! — seconding the First Aid Beauty range. Their intensive repair cream is my winter moisturizer — a thin layer does wonders!

  17. katherine says:

    I quake in terror remembering the days of the Buf Puff (aka a peachy colored Brillo Pad!) but I’m happy to report that about a month into using a konjac sponge has produced great results. its SO soft and gentle (I have the white one now, but will swap for a pink clay one in a few weeks when I toss this one).

    • Trista says:

      I second the konjac sponge. I used to swear by my clarisonic, but developed dermitis out of the blue after using it for 8+ years. I’ve been using a konjac sponge for over a year now and my skin has never looked better. They are super cheap, you can find them everywhere, and can be used without any cleanser to effectively remove all traces of makeup.

    • Lisa says:

      I was looking for someone to suggest a konjac sponge! I’ve been using konjac sponges for about a year now, and the difference is amazing. It’s gentle, cheap, and works for my dry, sensitive skin.

      The only downside is that as it is a sponge, it does need to be replaced or sanitized often. When I’ve gone too long (3 months) without boiling/ completely disinfecting or flat out replacing the sponge, I start to get breakouts.

  18. Nicole says:

    I have normal/dry skin that can get dry patches in the winter, and I strongly recommend Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid. I accidentally bought the gel version, which is great too, and neither have any grit but somehow still exfoliate. I really think it’s helped my skin retain its natural moisture, look dewy, and avoid random breakouts.

  19. Lexi says:

    I also prefer chemical exfoliants– I have normal to oily but sensitive skin. This is the one that I use, started with a 5% and now use a 10%.

  20. SGW says:

    Another vote for a chemical exfoliant – I really like M-61’s Powerglow Peel. I use it probably 1x/week (more if my skin looks dull), and I wake up glowy. I’ve also tried the Dr. Dennis Gross version (alpha beta peel), but I think I prefer the M-61 because it’s one step (vs. two) and each peel is individually wrapped, so I’m less concerned that they’ll dry out + they’re travel friendly.

  21. Liz says:

    I have dry, sensitive skin and use both physical and chemical exfoliation — I use a fresh washcloth most mornings and every night, and either a otc retinol or an aha every other night/when I feel my skin needs it/etc.

    The fresh washcloth thing sounds nuts but honestly, it makes the biggest difference in whether or not I break out and how well makeup application goes. Sunday Riley and Drunk Elephant are both out of my price range but now, but if they’re not out of yours, they’re fantastic. The ordinary’s lactic acid is good, as are PC’s retin-based products. Hada Labo’s anti-aging hyluronic acid serum (contains retin…ol. I think. Can’t check right now.) is really gentle a good starter.

    Really recommend Caroline Hiron’s blog for skincare advice and product recs — Belle, if you don’t already read her, you’ll like her! She’s witty, sarcastic, and knows her shit.

  22. Abby says:

    Pixi Glow Tonic is a very gentle chemical exfoliant but it has great calming ingredients too. I love it!

  23. Susan says:

    I have super dry, eczema prone skin and exfoliation has always been a tough topic for me. Dermalogica has really helped with the inevitable stinging and burning associated with most products (looking at you, Olay!) . Their exfoliator doesn’t tear me up and their products soothe.

  24. Susie says:

    Nexcare Absolute Waterproof tape is a must for feet prone to blisters. It can prevent blisters as well as add cushion should you get a blister that needs to be covered. I won’t break in any shoe without this. It stays on all day, dosen’t move. I keep a roll at home and at my office, it’s that good!

  25. Kate says:

    Chemical exfoliator here, too. I’ve used Biologique Recherche’s P50 for the past ten years. It’s a miracle worker. I sometimes use it in connection with a serum and I also like Drunk Elephant products; the Paula’s Choice Beautypedia website rates them very highly.

    • Erin says:

      Yes to P50. Started using the non-phenol version when I was pregnant and hormonal breakouts started getting bad. I stopped using after I ran out and just went back to it after about 8 months of trying other options from Pixi and Nip +Fab. Those were good, but I needed the bigger guns to deal with hormones. It’s expensive but worth it for me.

  26. Sara says:

    I have very dry, sensitive skin, so I only exfoliate 1-2x/week, but I ADORE Vasanti’s Brighten Up! enzyme exfoliant. You can use it as a regular exfoliator or leave it on as a mask for about 10 minutes and it’s amazing. I get mine at Birchbox but I’m sure it’s sold also at Ulta, etc.

  27. Danielle says:

    I am a devotee of Clarin’s One-Step Gentle Exfoliating Facial Cleanser:

    I’ve been using it for years. It’s the best exfoliator I’ve ever used and it lasts forever. It perfectly sloughs off the dead skin without making my skin super dry or red.

  28. Tiffany says:

    I’m usually not one to go for skincare from a makeup brand, but the NARS exfoliant is by far the most amazing thing I’ve ever used. I use that twice a week, followed by a mud mask, and my skin is ridiculously clean and glows. Most exfoliants trash my skin and leave it red and angry, but the NARS product doesn’t do that at all. I combine it with their oil-free moisturizer and my skin looks better than it ever has. Can’t really recommend their eye cream though, I’ll be trying something else once I run out.

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