Do Exfoliating Cleansers Work?

In our fast-paced, busy lives, multitasking products can be real lifesavers. They cut down on primping time and make us save some money too. But not all multi-tasking products are as useful as they seem at first sight. Exfoliating cleansers, for instance, are very tempting. We all need to cleanse our faces and why not exfoliate it at the same time?

Exfoliation is, after all, one of the most important steps in our skincare routine because it removes all the dead skin cells on the surface, preventing them from clogging our pores and avoiding breakouts, and exposing the brighter skin underneath, giving us a healthy and younger-looking complexion.

But do exfoliating ingredients do a good job when used in a cleanser?

Cleansers with chemical exfoliants are useless

Chemical exfoliants work by dissolving the “glue” that holds the skin cells together, thus allowing them to slough off. The most common types are HAHs and BHA. HAHs, which include Lactic Acid and Glycolic Acid, don’t just exfoliate skin, but also hydrate it and stimulate collagen production, making them a great choice for those with sensitive and sun-damaged skin. Salicylic Acid, a BHA, is instead more suitable for those with oily skin because of its ability to penetrate inside the pores, removing all traces of dirt, excess oil and dead cells from them, thus preventing breakouts.

Because of this, if you have acne, oily skin, or don’t like using exfoliating beads, and want to save some time in your daily skincare routine, you may think that a cleanser with these ingredients will solve all your problems. Sadly, that’s not the case. That’s because these ingredients need to stay on the skin for a lot more than the 15-30 seconds that it takes you to wash your face. When you rinse the cleanser off, these chemical exfoliants will end up down the drain too.

Although some dermatologists recommend to massage Salicylic Acid on the skin for a couple of minutes to increase its efficacy, it still won’t work as well as when it is used in a leave-in product. Glycolic Acid instead is completely neutralized by water, so it doesn’t matter for how long you keep it on your skin, it simply won’t work at all when used in a cleanser. So save your money. Applying a separate cleanser and exfoliant may take a bit more time, but your skin will thank you for it!

Cleansers with physical exfoliants actually work

But not all exfoliating cleansers are useless. Cleansers with physical exfoliants, ie those which contain small grains or particles, don’t need to remain on the skin to work. Instead, as you massage them onto your skin, they will mechanically remove the dead skin cells on the surface. However, their efficacy depends, not just by how long they are massaged onto the skin, but also by the size and shape of these particles. Nut shells and fruit pits can, for instance, have uneven surfaces that can tear up the skin, doing more damage than good. Remember to be gentle when using a physical scrub and discontinue the product if it irritates your skin.

The Bottom Line

Although chemical exfoliants are gentler and provide more predictable results, they just don’t work when used in a cleanser. Physical exfoliants instead are effective even when used in rinse off products, but they can be rougher on the skin, so use them with caution.

Do you use exfoliating cleansers?

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  1. says

    Do you by any chance know how much salicylic acid needs to stay on the skin for it to work?

    I read/hear that 10-15 second aren’t enough, but no one tells how much is.

    I asked Dr Schultz a long time ago, but he hasn’t answered, and my internet searches brought no results.

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Ana, I wondered the same too but I’m afraid my search wasn’t more successful than yours. I always hear that it should be used in leave-in products which can remain on the skin for 8 hours or more so I assume the longer, the better.

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Socialite Dreams, I’m glad you’ve found some gentle physical exfoliants. The chemical ones are a waste of money in a cleanser unfortunately.

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Trisha, I had never thought of it that way. I think they both have their pros and cons, but if you want an exfoliating cleanser, definitely go with a physical one.

  2. Eyegraffiti says

    You’re so full of useful information!!!
    Though i don’t use exfoliating cleansers mainly because the scrub effect is nice the first time, but not the third…. So i like a good scrub every third day or so, especially before masks!!!/Azure

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Eyegraffiti, I agree that using a scrub too often can irritate skin. But every once in a while, it is a nice treat. :)

  3. Janessa says

    You seriously read my mind! I was eyeing Philosophy’s Microdelivery exfoliating wash but now I know what really works best. :] You’re still the best! Do you like Juicy Couture Viva La Juicy or Couture Couture fragrance? I don’t use face scrubs because I sometimes use a cotton ball to help take off my face cleanser (works really well without tugging or constant rubbing) and I feel like it kind of exfoliates… lol.. I don’t know if it really does, but should I get myself an exfoliator? I don’t have many limits when it comes to skincare :3

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Janessa, I’m glad I posted it in time to make you save money. :) I’m not sure if a cotton ball exfoliates, but a washcloth definitely does so you can use that. Just make sure you dry it well after each use or it could harbour bacteria.

      I love the packaging of Juicy Couture fragrances. They are so pretty! The fragrances themselvesaren’t really my thing (I prefer, heavier oriental blends), but they are nicely-crafted.

  4. says

    I used a cleanser with glycolic before and it worked really, really well to the point that my skin became really thin. I don’t use it anymore but I do love it still :)
    Dao´s last blog post ..P90X Again!My Profile

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Dao, I’m glad it worked so well for you, although I’m not sure it was the Glycolic Acid that made it work as that would have been neutralized by water. But the most important thing is that it worked. :)

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Cooper, I’m glad you found something that works for you. I will try the face brush trick too, thanks for sharing.

  5. says

    Great article! I do however find that cleansers with glycolic acid have some efficacy. I wouldn’t say they are totally useless. However, I can see how you would think that since exfoliating products with actual micro particles in them are more effective at sloughing off dead skin.

    By the way, I saw your article in the BlogHer stream and had to stop by :-)
    Michelle @Radiant Brown Beauty´s last blog post ..The Debbie Downer Called DebtMy Profile

    • beautifulwithbrains says

      Michelle, thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. The problem with Glycolic Acid is that it gets deactivated by water, so even should it have some efficacy when used in a cleanser, it is never gonna perform as well as it does in a leave-in product. I do like Glycolic Acid but I think that if you’re gonna invest in a product with it, it’s much better to buy one that’s gonna stay on your skin. You get more bang for your buck that way. :)

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