Did you know that every hour about 40,000 skin cells are shed? This is why a frequently disregarded, yet crucial, skincare practice is exfoliation. Luckily, plenty of Korean skincare brands offer exfoliating solutions for every skin type and concern. You might not be ready to jump into the 10-step Korean skincare routine, but it's highly advised to squeeze in exfoliation once or twice a week.
That's why we did our research and came up with a list of the top 10 Korean exfoliators to refresh your skin. Innisfree's Super Volcanic Clusters Pore Clearing Clay Mask, for example, is our favorite since it strips away the dead skin to reveal youthful and radiant skin. Read on for nine other great options, and make sure to check out the buying guide below to see why these K-beauty secrets are worth a shot!
Dr. Levy is a board certified dermatologist practicing in NYC and Westport, Connecticut. She has expertise in treating inflammatory skin conditions like acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. She has an interest in skincare and takes a personalized approach to all of her patients.
mybest US' editing team consists of experienced members who have backgrounds in writing, editing, translation, and more. We are dedicated to researching what makes a product or service the best to users in the US in order to create top-quality articles. From skincare, to kitchen appliances, and to DIY supplies, our mission is to find the best ones for you.
The expert oversees the Buying Guide only, and does not determine the products and services featured.
Table of Contents
This buying guide explains the world of exfoliation in great detail. It turns out there is so much more to this practice than scrubbing or peeling! We've provided which types of exfoliants work best for each skin type as well as other vital aspects to look for when picking out your holy grail exfoliator.
There are two main types of exfoliating products in the market: those you apply topically and wash off when done or a formulation with a physical "peeling and scrubbing" effect.
Chemical exfoliators use acids, enzymes, or extracts to dissolve or loosen the dead skin cells on your skin's surface. Said ingredients include hydroxy in the form of alpha-hydroxy (AHA) and beta-hydroxy (BHA).
AHAs include glycolic, lactic, and citric acids, while salicylic acids belong to the BHA group. These chemicals work by seeping under the layer of dead skin and waking up the new skin underneath. These acids also unstick the cellular glue that's keeping that dead layer on the skin.
AHAs and BHAs are the most common ingredients used in chemical exfoliants and have been made wildly popular by K-skincare brands. These are known to increase cell turnover while improving hyperpigmentation and reducing fine lines and wrinkles.
AHAs and BHAS are suitable for use if you have acne-prone skin or want to combat the signs of aging. These chemical exfoliators can clean out pores, removing sebum, dirt, and oil.
These ingredients will leave your skin looking bright and smooth. However, you should avoid them if you have dry skin or are prone to rosacea, as they can cause irritation and burning in such cases.
You may also want to alternate using AHAs and BHAs with a retinoid. Try not to use them on the same night so you can prevent excess irritation. You don't have to use the exfoliator every night but can use them one to three times a week for great results.
Choosing a chemical exfoliant is all about studying the ingredients, trusting a reliable brand, and testing the product. The lack of "physical effort" in chemical exfoliation means that you are relying on the formula to work. This is why grabbing a product that's attuned to your skin type is crucial. We will touch more on this later!
When choosing a chemical exfoliator, whether it's a serum, toner, or cleanser, look for the concentration or pH level of the AHAs and BHAs in the product. Hydroxy acids with a high pH mean the acid won't have enough power to seep through the skin. Meanwhile, a low pH could risk skin irritation, chemical burns, or lasting damage.
As a general rule of thumb, choose AHAs with a pH level of less than 4 or a concentration of four to 10 percent. For BHAs or salicylic acid, go for a pH level that's less than 3.5 or a concentration of one to two percent.
The typical pH level of formulations that mix AHAs and BHAs is 5 to 6.5. Be sure to check your bottle's label for this type of information, or ask customer support if it isn't readily available.
Physical exfoliators use particles, grit, or scrubs to physically remove dead skin. You massage the product gently and in small circles on your skin to begin the magic.
Physically massaging the skin is also great for circulating blood on the face, which leads to a natural glow. You can get physical exfoliators that use pumice, beads, salt, sugar, rice bran, clay, or coffee grounds as their not-so-secret scrubbing weapon.
Peeling gels are perhaps the gentlest form of physical exfoliation. These are formulated with cellulose fiber or carbomer, which clump together upon skin contact. The process of massaging activates the peeling gel to pick up dirt and dead skin.
Check to see if the product can be used with a particular tool such as a face brush, facecloth, Konjac sponge, silk cocoon, exfoliating mitt, or loofah. These help you achieve the desired results more efficiently. They vary in harshness, and it is advised to go for gentler methods when dealing with sensitive skin.
You can also go through the product reviews to see if a particular formulation is best paired with a sponge or facecloth. The application is often talked about among reviewers, so be sure to take a look!
You should only use physical exfoliators a few times a week for best results, and to prevent unnecessary dryness or irritation of the skin. Physical exfoliators should be avoided if you have dry skin or are eczema-prone, as they can be too harsh.
Make sure you use a cream-based moisturizer after applying your physical exfoliator. This will restore hydration to your skin.
The good news is that's there is an exfoliant for each skin type, including those with sensitive skin. You can even get any of the two types, physical or chemical, for each skin type. The key is finding which formulation will complement your skin.
Due to overreactive sebum glands, those with oily skin usually have an extra layer of oil on their skin that blocks new skin from emerging. So, those with oily skin need extra sloughing power from an exfoliator.
Look for the words "deep cleansing," "pore unclogging," "absorbing," or "blackhead/whitehead clearing" when you're picking out an exfoliator. Physical exfoliants work well with oily or acne-prone skin because the particles work to remove excess oil and dead skin. This leaves your skin fresh and ready to be moisturized.
Salicylic acid is effective in healing acne, relieving redness, and removing blackheads from oily skin. Furthermore, generally try to go for an oil-free formulation as extra oil may be counterproductive in the long run.
However, some oils are non-comedogenic and won't clog pores! For example, Jojoba oil is great for oily or acne-prone skin because it helps promote balanced skin.
Oily skin can tolerate an exfoliator more frequently, but be aware that exfoliating nightly may be too much. I personally recommend glycolic acid as an exfoliating ingredient for oily skin. It's wonderful for treating both active acne and any pigmentation or acne marks that are left behind.
Using an exfoliator as part of an acne regimen can bolster other acne treatments you may be doing, such as retinol, retinoids, or other anti-inflammatories. It will help them penetrate deeper into your skin.
Just be cautious that you don't use too many drying products at once. You may want to start alternating using your retinoids and exfoliators on different nights.
Hydration and moisture are key in ensuring an exfoliator is beneficial for dry skin and won't cause that dreaded flaking effect. Go for cream or oil-based scrubs with tiny particles to gently remove the dead skin cells. Once the visible flakes are removed, you can moisturize.
For chemical exfoliants, grab one with glycolic or lactic acid. Glycolic acid is great at adding hydration to skin layers lacking healthy protective oil barriers.
Dry skin is known to have a higher proportion of water barriers where oily skin would have oil barriers. This means dry skin needs more hydration to maintain balance. Lactic acid is considered to be the most hydrating acid in chemical exfoliants.
You can also combine physical and chemical exfoliants for dry skin. However, make sure not to use them on the same day or one after the other.
On top of getting an exfoliator that says "made for combination skin," you can also mix and match your products. For example, go for a physical scrub for an oily T-zone and a hydrating exfoliator for flaky areas. It might mean that you need two products, but this will ensure your skin is getting the best treatment.
If you have sensitive skin, approach exfoliators cautiously. While physical exfoliants are typically out of the question for this skin type, many with sensitive skin types still swear by this method. They advise avoiding physical exfoliators with large particles that can cause irritation instead of gentle exfoliation.
For chemical exfoliators, if you can't find one that's specifically designed for sensitive skin, look for PHAs. Poly-hydroxy acids are a hydroxy acid known to be less irritating and more gentle, making them highly recommended for sensitive skin.
Acids that belong to the PHA group are gluconolactone and lactobionic acid. These work the same way as the other acids but at a much slower pace. They're also humectants, which means they will give your skin a boost of hydration.
In addition to advice from your dermatologist, reviews can be helpful when choosing an exfoliator for sensitive skin. Both reviewers and skincare professionals can confirm if a product is indeed sensitive skin-friendly and that it won't cause redness or irritation.
To play it safe, avoid physical exfoliators if you have sensitive skin. Instead, stick to chemical exfoliators with poly-hydroxy acids.
Many people can still tolerate applying an AHA exfoliator once a week. Sensitive skin should not be exfoliated more often than once or twice a week. This method still gives the benefit of the exfoliator without being overly drying or irritating.
When it comes to skincare, there are always ingredients to avoid. These ingredients might have been accepted in the past because consumers didn't know better. While the jury is still out whether these compounds are indeed skin irritants, those with sensitive skin are advised to approach them with caution.
Examples of such compounds include phthalates, parabens, mineral oil, sulfates (sometimes listed as SLS or SLES), and synthetic fragrances.
After considering any possible irritants, look for beneficial ingredients. On top of the AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs, you can get exfoliators that offer your skin some extra nutrition from natural ingredients.
Try aloe vera for extra moisture and a soothing effect or green tea and rice bran for antioxidants that reduce inflammation and correct visible skin damage. Multifruit acids and extracts offer a natural boost of nourishment, too!
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Super Volcanic Clusters Pore Clearing Clay Mask
A Thick, Easy-to-Spread Exfoliator Mask
Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Pads
Gentle Exfoliating Pads Infused With Vitamin C
Stabilized Rice Bran
Rice Bran Enzyme Powder Face Wash
Rice Bran Wash Loaded With Nutrients
Some By Mi
AHA.BHA.PHA 30 Days Miracle Toner
A Versatile 3-in-1 Exfoliating Toner
A Mild Exfoliating Serum for Dry Skin
Rice Daily Scrub Foam
A Daily Scrub Foam for Brighter Skin
Treatment Enzyme Exfoliating Powder Cleanser
A Daily Deep-Cleansing Exfoliator
Black Sugar Mask Wash Off
A Face Mask Suitable for Dry Skin
Original Clear Pad
The Perfect Exfoliator for Combination Skin
Mandelic Acid 5% Skin Prep Water
A Gentle Exfoliator With Moisturizing Ingredients
This thick and creamy face scrub is a physical exfoliant that removes dead skin cells to leave your skin bright and clear. It even addresses blackheads, uneven texture, and large pores. As you apply, you'll feel a cooling effect as it pulls out oil and dirt from your pores.
A few reviewers noted that washing the mask off could be tedious. They recommend using lukewarm water to speed up the process. Some also noted there's a slight chemical scent that might bother those who prefer products with no smells.
Despite the small size of the jar, reviewers were pleased that a small amount of the mask went a long way. They felt their skin becoming soft and hydrated after just one use! There was no over-drying or tight feel when the mask was on their face, too.
If you're new to K-exfoliation, consider giving these peeling pads a try. They have a physical and chemical approach to exfoliation. The pads remove dirt, dead skin cells, and other impurities. The gauze side does the physical scrubbing while the other side has vitamin C from fruit extracts, among other ingredients, for chemical exfoliation.
A few reviewers felt like they didn't see any significant change in their skin after finishing the 30 pads. Some saw their skin had brightened a bit but commented that continued use is required to see visible results.
Meanwhile, those who used it continuously twice a week noted that their skin condition improved. The scent is fantastic, added reviewers. It's a gentle exfoliator that even those with sensitive skin enjoyed.
Rice washing is a traditional skincare practice. Now, everyone can get in on the benefits! This compound is loaded with over 50 nutrients, enzymes, and antioxidants, to be exact. Activate the powder cleanser with some water to create a slightly gritty foam that doubles as a face scrub.
According to a few reviewers, there is an unpleasant baby formula-like smell that might bother some users. It is also challenging to remove the right amount from the bottle.
As for the exfoliation prowess, the product does work in removing dead skin and prepping the skin for the next step. Those with sensitive skin confirmed that they did not experience any irritation after using this face scrub!
When it comes to chemical exfoliation, most products offer AHAs, BHAs, or PHAs. This item incorporates all three into a toner that can be used regularly and works well with other skincare brands. This cult-favorite toner prevents pimples, balances skin tone, and provides moisture.
The product is not recommended for those with sensitive, oily, or acne-prone skin as it could lead to breakouts, which a few reviewers experienced.
Meanwhile, many reviewers commented on how easy it was to use the toner with other products; they were able to incorporate it into their skincare routine. Those with acne scars and small pimple-like bumps could see visible results after a few weeks of continued use.
This product is excellent for treating hyperpigmentation, dark spots, or acne scars. Use it for spot treatments a few times a week before bed to create new, radiant skin. Meanwhile, the rest of your face will experience a retexturizing, brightening effect thanks to the papaya fruit and yarrow extracts.
A few reviewers did not like the sticky feeling after application. Those with sensitive skin found it too harsh, as well. Note that this product does contain parabens, which may cause skin irritation for some.
Many reviewers with combination, normal, dry, or oily skin commented on the visible improvements of their skin! It took some time, but acne scars disappeared and pores got smaller. Users also noted that it works great with other products.
Those looking for a pick-me-up for dry and dull skin should try this rice bran exfoliating face scrub! It's like feeding your face with nutritional skin food since rice bran is packed with antioxidants, enzymes, and nutrients that rejuvenate skin.
A few reviewers noted that the product could cause breakouts if misused. They advised using it sparingly and suggested using it only twice a week to get your skin used to the product.
Many reviewers noted that their skin definitely got brighter and loved that it had no scent. Those with sensitive skin were able to try it as well since the tiny scrub particles aren't too harsh.
AmorePacific is the "mother" of many big Korean brands of today like Innisfree, Laneige, and Etude House. Their treatment exfoliator is known to address dull skin, uneven skin texture, and large pores. The green tea and papaya enzymes help remove dead skin cells and give underlying fresh skin a boost.
A few reviewers noted that this product has a powdery smell, which could irritate asthmatic users. Some thought that the scrub didn't do much for their skin and wondered if using it more frequently would provide more visible results.
On a positive note, many reviewers of varying skin types, including those with sensitive skin, said that this was their holy grail exfoliator! It's gentle, easy to apply and wash off, and lasts for a long time.
The search is over for those that avoid wash-off masks because of their drying effect! This product is infused with shea butter and natural oils from macadamia nuts and meadowfoam seeds for extra moisture and nourishment. The black sugar, on the other hand, is a gentle exfoliator.
This product is not for acne-prone skin due to its highly abrasive consistency, which may aggravate the skin. However, many reviewers commented the scrub does what it's supposed to do, and they advised using it once or twice a week for the best results. The product left their faces deeply exfoliated while still feeling moisturized.
It's never easy finding products that work for combination skin. This one, though, is perfect for this skin type! It has AHA ingredients to address dry areas and BHA to control sebum. What's more, the dual-sided pads exfoliate and moisturize your skin.
A few reviewers thought this product was just okay and didn't do much for their skin. Some also thought it has a pungent medicinal scent. However, the pads excelled in convenience and efficiency. Reviewers said that they are easy to swipe, and the two sides are handy. Those who battle acne also saw their breakouts greatly minimized.
Do you have dry or sensitive skin? This toner uses mandelic acid to gently exfoliate and prep your skin for other skincare products. Mandelic acid has a larger molecule size, so it's less likely to irritate sensitive skin. Plus, this product has moisturizing ingredients, like vitamin B5, to keep your skin hydrated.
Some reviewers didn't like the sticky feeling after application, while others experienced adverse reactions. Since it is an exfoliant, other reviewers suggested only using it once or twice a week to avoid irritation!
Overall, reviewers said that this product really improved the texture of their skin! Many reported that their skin was much softer and their breakouts weren't as severe. Some users found that their dark spots and ance scars were less visible, too.
Exfoliating is not an everyday habit! If you're starting with the tradition, then once or twice a week is recommended until your skin adjusts. Eventually, you can exfoliate up to three times a week, which is the absolute maximum for anyone.
Don't forget to cleanse before using an exfoliator to prep your skin. After the process, follow it up with moisturizers, serums, or essences! Your skin is now ready to accept whatever product you want to use next.
When it comes to the weather or seasons, exfoliate less frequency during winter or dryer weather to prevent your skin from getting taut and flaky. As the seasons get hotter and more humid, you can exfoliate more as your pores are more likely to get clogged by sweat, pollutants, or humidity.
Communication between you and your skin must be present when working with exfoliants. Don't use the product more than the recommended frequency to maintain your skin's proper pH balance. Whenever your skin feels taut, dried out, stripped, or irritated, it is advised to tone down the frequency.
As your skin adjusts, you will discover which dosage fits you best and should start to see your skin becoming smoother, brighter, and more radiant!
Both physical and chemical exfoliators make your skin more sensitive to the sun. So, it's important that you use a daily sunscreen on your face to prevent accelerated photoaging, sunburns, and skin damage.
Avoid exfoliating if you've had excess sun exposure or a recent sunburn. Wait until your skin heals fully before you start your exfoliating routine again.
You can bet there are more K-beauty skincare products to complete your regime! Let's start with the best serums, night creams, and facial cleansers.
No. 1: Innisfree｜Super Volcanic Clusters Pore Clearing Clay Mask
No. 2: Neogen Dermalogy｜Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Pads
No. 3: Stabilized Rice Bran｜Rice Bran Enzyme Powder Face Wash
No. 4: Some By Mi｜AHA.BHA.PHA 30 Days Miracle Toner
No. 5: Mizon｜Peeling Serum
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The descriptions of each product are referenced from content available on manufacturer, brand, and e-commerce sites.
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