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The Best Vegan Exfoliators For Soft, Bright, Beautiful Skin

by Katie Muirhead

Aug 29, 2022

By sloughing off dead or dull surface skin, exfoliating can help you achieve a soft, even, glowing complexion. And with so many exfoliators on the market, there's a product out there for everyone.

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From gentle daily chemical exfoliants to intense physical scrubs, exfoliating will make your skin feel refreshed and rejuvenated.

But with so many types of exfoliators and different formulas out there, how do you know which is suitable for your skin type? Don't worry, we've done a deep dive to help you find the best vegan exfoliator for your skin.

What does exfoliation do?

Exfoliation is the process of scrubbing away or dissolving the dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. This buildup of dead skin can make the skin feel rough, dull, and even trigger clogged pores and blemishes.

Regular exfoliation encourages skin cell turnover, allowing the bright, smooth skin underneath to show through. The benefits of exfoliation can include a more even skin tone, brightening and smoothing effects, and even increased absorption of your other skincare products.

However, too much exfoliation can be harsh on the skin and lead to sensitivity, irritation, or even breakouts.

Finding the right formula for your skin type and concerns is crucial to avoid damaging your delicate moisture barrier. When it comes to exfoliation, it's better to take it slow and start gently.

Chemical vs. physical exfoliation

Exfoliators fall into two categories: chemical exfoliators and physical exfoliators. While both work to remove the dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, the way they achieve this is different.

Physical exfoliators

Physical exfoliants, such as face scrubs or cleansing brushes, are abrasive enough to manually slough away the outermost layer of the skin.

These formulas often contain ingredients such as sugar, clay, or crushed-up walnut shells that work with friction to scrub away at the surface of your skin. While you may associate physical exfoliation with harsh scrubbing, even the act of towel drying can be considered a gentle act of physical exfoliation.

This can be an effective way to smooth and refresh your skin, however, it comes with the risk of over-exfoliation.

The sharp, irregular shape of ingredients such as walnut shells can lead to micro-tears in the skin, causing sensitivity, irritation, or breakouts. There are a few physical exfoliants suitable for use on the face. In general, these scrubs are better for the more resilient skin on the body.

Chemical exfoliators

Chemical exfoliants use acids or enzymes to dissolve the dead skin cells on the surface. They leave your skin feeling bright, glowing, and even.

Examples of chemical exfoliants can range from gentle PHAs to intensive peels that use glycolic acid. (The acne-fighting fave salicylic acid is also a BHA, another example of a chemical exfoliant.)

Chemical exfoliants can be used daily, weekly, or monthly, depending on the formula and your skin. And the good news is that there are chemical exfoliant formulas suitable for every skin type, including sensitive, acne-prone, and aging.

But chemical exfoliants also come with the risk of irritation, as they disrupt the function of your delicate moisture barrier. This is the protective layer of lipids that regulates hydration and defends against environmental stressors.

To avoid aggravating your skin, it's best to start slow with chemical exfoliants while you learn your tolerance to certain actives and formulas.

How often should you exfoliate?

There is no hard and fast rule for how often you should exfoliate. But in general, it is better to err on the side of caution.

Some gentle exfoliating toners can be used daily, while stronger peels or scrubs should be reserved for weekly or bi-weekly use. Take the directions on the formula as a guide, but always listen to your skin first.

Also, it's important to remember that exfoliants aren't always compatible with other active ingredients in your routine. Avoid using an exfoliant at the same as a retinoid, for example, as they both work to increase cell turnover and could cause irritation.

Best vegan exfoliators

The world of exfoliants can be confusing. That's why we've done the research and found the best vegan formulas on the market for both chemical and physical exfoliators.

Of course, all of the products featured are cruelty-free. We believe that animal testing has no place in the beauty industry and want to make transparent shopping more accessible.

Best For Body:

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Type of exfoliantPhysical and chemical
IngredientsGlycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, sugar, lemon peel extract
Best forFine lines, wrinkles, dullness, pores

This combination of physical and chemical exfoliants works to slough off any dead skin and reveal the smooth skin underneath.

Glycolic acid and lactic acid dissolve rough skin, while fine sugar and lemon peel extract will physically polish any remaining skin texture.

Use this scrub two to three times a week, leaving it on wet skin for up to two minutes before washing it off. (If your skin is on the sensitive side, go slow with this one!)

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Type of exfoliantChemical
IngredientsLactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid,
Best forBlemishes, dullness, pores, aging

This wash-off mask is an effective chemical exfoliant, containing five different alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). These combine to thoroughly dissolve any dead, dry, or uneven surface skin.

For a gentle exfoliating texture, it also contains bamboo powder and berry seeds. The result? Refined pores and a smoother skin texture.

Suitable for even sensitive skin, this mask is gentle enough for daily use. Leave it on for up to five minutes and rub it in with your hands in circular motions to activate a double exfoliation.

Best Budget:

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Type of exfoliantChemical
IngredientsGlycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid
Best forDullness, uneven texture, blemishes

Known for its bright red color, this mask is as recognizable as it is effective.

Containing a blend of glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acid, alpha-hydroxy acids work to dissolve any dead skin cells in just a few minutes while beta-hydroxy acids clear out the pores.

A great option for acne, this mask can help resurface any scars or texture from previous breakouts, as well as keep future ones at bay.

This mask should be used at most twice a week, preferably in the evenings.

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Type of exfoliantPhysical
IngredientsSugar crystals
Best forScalp buildup, dry body skin

This luxurious scalp and body scrub is a great example of the effectiveness of physical exfoliation.

Sugar crystals work to gently polish the scalp and body skin, getting rid of any buildup and visibly smoothing dry skin, while the addition of coconut oil replenishes any lost moisture.

Apply this scrub to your wet skin and scalp in the shower, gently rubbing it in circular motions to activate the lather.

Use this whenever your skin feels dry or rough, but be gentle on the scalp as this area is more prone to irritation.

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Type of exfoliantPhysical and chemical
IngredientsSugar, sea salt, sand, and avocado powder (physical), pomegranate, papaya and pineapple enzymes (chemical)
Best forDry, dull, uneven body skin

If you're after a tropical glow on your whole body, this scrub will help slough off any dull skin or uneven texture and leave you feeling smooth.

Physical exfoliants sugar, sea salt, sand, and avocado powder work to manually scrub away any dead skin cells. Fruit enzymes then work to gently renew and brighten the surface of the new skin underneath, while coconut oil keeps you glowing and hydrated.

Massage this body scrub into wet skin in the shower whenever your skin feels dry or dull.

Best Chemical Exfoliant:

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Type of exfoliantChemical
IngredientsGlycolic acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid
Best forPores, hyperpigmentation, fine lines, dullness

This wash-off mask contains four different AHAs, chemical exfoliant actives.

In just 10 minutes, this mask can tackle the signs of acne and aging. Squalane is added to boost the skin's moisture retention, leaving your skin glowing and plump.

Use this effective mask up to twice a week on cleansed skin.

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Type of exfoliantChemical
IngredientsGlycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid, retinol
Best forAnti-aging, uneven texture, blemishes

These two-step wipes contain an effective blend of chemical exfoliants to dissolve any dead, dull skin on the surface or within your pores.

They also contain retinol to fight the signs of aging. While combining chemical exfoliants and retinol in your routine should be approached with caution, these wipes are an example of trusting the pros.

Formulated to balance each other out, these extra strength peel wipes can be worked up to daily use.

After applying Step 1, wait two minutes before using Step 2. Don't rinse off. Your skin will be effectively exfoliated, and the addition of hyaluronic acid will leave your complexion feeling plumped. Follow with your favorite moisturizer to lock in the hydration.

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Type of exfoliantChemical and physical
IngredientsSalicylic acid, papain enzymes (from papaya)
Best forUneven texture, blemishes

This unique cleanser formula blurs the line between physical and chemical exfoliant.

The rice-based powder cleanser feels slightly textured when first applied but quickly dissolves on wet skin. It harnesses pore-clearing salicylic acid and gently exfoliating papaya enzymes to smooth texture and fight acne.

This exfoliating cleanser is sensitive for those with sensitive skin or rosacea. Apply this fine powder to wet hands and massage it into your skin to form a creamy lather.

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan, organic, clean beauty
Type of exfoliantChemical and physical
IngredientsPapain (papaya) and bromelain (pineapple) enzymes (chemical), bamboo and diatomaceous earth (physical), niacinamide
Best forUneven texture, dullness, pores

A great option for combination or oily skin, this exfoliating mask combines chemical and physical exfoliants to refresh dull skin and boost brightness in just a few minutes.

Fruit enzymes gently break down dead skin cells to smooth skin texture, while bamboo and diatomaceous earth work to physically polish the skin.

Loaded with caffeine, this active-packed formula will leave your skin looking radiant.

Apply this mask to damp skin after cleansing, and leave for two minutes to let the chemical exfoliants get to work. Then, add some extra water and massage the mask to activate the physical exfoliant properties.

Use one to three times a week. If your skin is sensitive, try diluting the formula before application.

Best Physical Exfoliant

EthicsCruelty-free, vegan
Type of exfoliantPhysical
IngredientsRice powder
Best forUneven texture, dullness, acne and blemishes, plumping

While some physical exfoliation can be harsh on the delicate skin of the face, this scrub is formulated with finely-milled rice powder, so it's effective yet gentle.

If you're used to harsh exfoliators it can be hard to fight the urge to over-scrub, but this luxurious formula will help you break the habit. Ashwagandha is added to soothe stressed skin and lotus seed quenches dry, dehydrated skin.

Use this scrub one to three times a week on dry skin. Gently rub it in circles, then add warm water to emulsify the formula and rinse off.

The verdict

Adding an exfoliation step to your skincare routine is the key to soft, smooth, glowing skin.

By dissolving or scrubbing away those dull skin cells on the surface, your skin will feel renewed and reenergized. Finding the right formula for your skin, however, is key to getting the glow without any irritation.

The right formula for you will depend on your skin type, whether you prefer chemical or physical exfoliants, and if you're looking to exfoliate your face or body.

To wrap it up, here are some of our favorite vegan exfoliator formulas:

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