The 5 Best Exfoliators for Black Skin That Work [in 2021]

The 5 Best Exfoliators for Black Skin That Work

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best exfoliator for black skin
In a hurry? Here are our top picks:

BEST FOR SENSITIVE SKIN, ORGANIC

ZELEN Life Exfoliator

Exfoliators are a necessary part of any good skincare routine.

But how to decide what are the best exfoliators for black skin?

While skin properties typically remain the same across gender and race, there are a few specific differences that you will want to consider when picking out your next exfoliator.[1]

This is why we studied the latest research extensively to let you know what really works and what doesn’t for black skin.

Despite over 60% of the world population having either brown or black skin, most studies have been carried out so far on fair-skinned people.[2]

Thankfully this is beginning to change, and we outline below the key factors that you should consider when buying an exfoliator for black skin.

Quick summary

bb2-table__imageZELEN Life Exfoliator
  • Gentle organic formula, handmade with supersoft sugar
  • Packed with calming ingredients, helps black skin prone to hyperpigmentation
  • Jojoba oil unclogs pores and regulates sebum, helps acne
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bb2-table__imageHey Honey Come Clean Propolis & Minerals Facial Scrub
  • Made with propolis, antibacterial and fights breakouts
  • Containts antioxidants that reduce inflammation
  • Smoothes skin and encourages an even skin tone
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bb2-table__imagePaula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid
  • Salicylic acid shrinks and unclogs large pores
  • Very gentle, suitable for daily use
  • Fast absorbing compounds
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bb2-table__imageOle Henriksen Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping Crème
  • Retinoid has regenerative effect
  • Reduces fine lines and hyperpigmentation
  • Edelweiss stem cell flower extract improves skin elasticity
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bb2-table__imageNeutrogena Body Clear Body Scrub
  • Oil-free formula, idea for black skin which is naturally oilier
  • Contains salicylic acid which assists in lifting dead and dried skin
  • Prevents acne breakouts
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Before you buy: 4 things you have to consider when purchasing an exfoliator for black skin

Before we get into the specifics, bear in mind that regardless of your skin type or color, any exfoliator’s overly aggressive use is never a good idea. Exfoliating is only supposed to gently remove the top layer of dead and lifeless skin, giving a fresh and healthy appearance.

1. Exfoliate only when needed

Your skin, of course, does not regenerate itself instantly. After you have exfoliated your face well, you will have a fresh layer of skin for a number of days.

Don’t go ruining it by immediately exfoliating again.

While most exfoliation products might recommend exfoliating 3 times a week, you want to reduce this down to once every 7 to 10 days with black skin.

This will reduce the level of irritation your skin experiences and help smooth out hyperpigmentation in the long run.

Exfoliators should never be used to try and scrub away skin conditions like psoriasis or acne.

Your body will always try to protect itself from damage. Over-exfoliation means defense systems going into overdrive. Typically this means that the very thing you’re trying to treat or get rid of simply gets worse.

2. Gently does it

Dry skin can tend to be more noticeable on black skin as it washes out or greys your natural skin tone.

This can lead some people to scrub a bit too enthusiastically, eventually damaging and inflaming the skin. Over exfoliation also guarantees that the skin’s natural oil, sebum, is completely stripped away.

Although many suffer from oily skin, scrubbing isn’t as good an idea as it sounds.

After all, the human body is adaptable, and once it detects that there is no protective oil layer on the skin, it kicks your sebum glands into overdrive. This will leave you with a shiny, oily appearance, which many inevitably attempt to undo with even harsher scrubbing.

Unfortunately, this is a downward spiral that can create a wide variety of problems from dry skin, acne outbreaks, and, of course, oily skin.

Remember, when trying to treat an annoying skin condition by simply trying to clear away dead skin, don’t try and reach the goal in one sitting.

It is much better to gently exfoliate over a number of weeks until you reach the desired effect with minimal side effects.

3. No rough mechanical exfoliators

We will explain the difference between chemical and mechanical exfoliators further in the article but for now, avoid exfoliators with large, coarse particles such as salt grains, microbeads, or nut and nutshells.

If you are really looking for the best exfoliators for darker skin, however, we would go so far as to say that you should avoid almost all forms of physical exfoliator. Only the softest of exfoliators, such as sugar-rich, partially dissolves on use, can be considered safe to use.

4. No abrasive chemicals

In recent years there has been an increased uptake in chemical peels. This is likely in part because they can lift away a layer of dead skin without abrasive rubbing, therefore feeling very effective.

Many websites even recommend using apple cider vinegar or strong retinoids like tretinoin instead of visiting a qualified dermatologist.

Men and women with darker skin will want to avoid these ingredients like the plague. Not only will they leave your face feeling overly sensitive and inflamed, but they are also likely to leave you with uneven pigmentation.

The 5 best exfoliators for black skin

1. ZELEN Life Exfoliator

ZELEN Life Exfoliator Blog

Best features:

  • Supersoft sugar for gentle physical exfoliation
  • Chemical and synthetic free
  • Contains Jojoba for a great calming effect

The best exfoliator for:

Those suffering from sensitive and reactive skin.

Overview:

If you already have sensitive skin and have had a negative experience even with softer chemical peels like salicylic acid, then the ZELEN Life Exfoliator is worth trying.

It utilizes the most gentle of physical exfoliators and cleverly combines it with the multitalented Jojoba. Jojoba is a natural plant extract that does a great job of calming the skin, supporting its natural healing, and in turn controlling excess oil production.

These ingredients are suspended in hydrating Sunflower oil, Honey, and Shea butter. These ingredients hydrate and stabilize fresh skin once the dull, lifeless cells have been gently washed away.

The good:

  • A great all-round, all-natural physical exfoliator
  • Calming ingredients are essential for black skin sensitive to hyperpigmentation

Things to think about:

  • Physical exfoliators must still be used with caution to make sure you don’t overdo it

Bottom line:

Suppose you have previous experience with acids or simply find the idea of a peel too much. In that case, this supersoft physical exfoliator with great skin calming properties is your best bet.

2. Hey Honey, Come Clean Propolis & Minerals, Facial Scrub

Hey Honey Come Clean Propolis & Minerals Facial Scrub

Best features:

  • Mechanical exfoliator designed with sensitive skin in mind
  • Contains anti-oxidants reducing irritation and inflammation
  • Propolis can help fight acne

The best exfoliator for:

Anyone with stubborn combination of dry skin, excess oil, and blackheads that needs a gentle solution.

Overview:

Hey Honey unsurprisingly utilizes a lot of honey and related ingredients in their products: but it’s not just another fad. If you are interested in skin care, you likely already know that honey has been in use since antiquity to help speed up wound healing and prevent infections from taking hold.

This scrub contains the more modern solution: Propolis. This is actually a mix of honeybee honey, enzymes, and tree bud sap. Used by bees to prevent infection in the hive, the same principle applies to human skin care with antifungal, antiseptic and antimicrobial properties.

There is also evidence it helps with cell turnover and regeneration, which helps smooth out tone and pigmentation.

Then we come to perhaps the most important point for black skin. Unlike most mechanical exfoliators, the Dead SeaSalt contained in this scrub gently dissolves with use, turning into a smooth lotion that is absorbed by the skin.

If you feel the need for a more potent exfoliator but don’t want to irritate your skin in the process, give the Hey Honey scrub a try.

The good:

  • A holistic scrub that cares and protects with careful ingredient choice
  • Turns from scrub to lotion with massaging
  • Can be used over your whole body
  • Promotes even skin tone

Things to think about:

  • Despite the benefits, some comment on the high price point

Bottom line:

Hey Honey has created a great gentle exfoliator that is great for a wide variety of skin types. If you have darker skin prone to hyperpigmentation, excess oil, or acne, you should see what benefits this scrub has for you. It also contains a great anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory mix that would make a great addition to your daily skin care routine.

3. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid

 Best features:

  • Fast absorbing
  • Contains salicylic acid
  • Gentle enough to be used daily

The best exfoliator for:

Great both oily and combination skin types, evening out differences in hydration and leaving skin matte rather than shiny.

Overview:

This is the best selling product of the whole brand’s range. Not only utilizing the all-important salicylic acid, but they also include ingredients to calm the skin, mop up antioxidants and balance out the skin’s pH.

What’s great for black skin is that they have included Green tea extract, an excellent anti-irritant.

Users of the product find that it effectively brings down the appearance of blemishes and manages skin oil, to the point that acne outbreaks become much less of a problem.

Both men and women of color report that Paula’s Choice seems to have got the level of salicylic acid just right with no report of skin irritation or sensitivity.

The good:

  • Improves skin quality and health in several ways, eventually helping pigmented spots fade and smoothing out skin tone

Things to think about:

  • The occasional user reports tightness of the skin could perhaps be improved by reducing the amount of product used

Bottom line:

When it comes to finding a salicylic acid product that is kind to the wide range of darker skin, Paula’s choice seemed to have hit the nail on the head. Not satisfied with making a standard exfoliator, it is gentle enough to be used on a daily basis without fear of irritating or overpigmenting black skin.

4. OLEHENRIKSEN Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping Crème

Ole Henriksen Goodnight Glow Retin-ALT Sleeping CrèmeBest features:

  • Tried and tested brand
  • Contains bakuchiol, a natural form of retinol
  • A dependable, long term solution

The best exfoliator for:

Anyone looking to add retinol long-term to support skin cell turnover.

Overview:

After using an exfoliator once a week or so, you may decide to invest more in your skincare by adding retinol into the mix.

This cream is designed to be applied at bedtime, slowly promoting healthy skin growth at night while also improving other aspects of skin such as fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and more.

This product also contains Edelweiss stem cell flower extract, which helps improve skin elasticity and supports hydration. However, retinol products do take time to give a noticeable improvement, users of this night cream report that it works faster than most.

The good:

  • A gentle retinoid to subtly regenerate black skin over time

Things to think about:

  • Also contains glycolic and lactic acids to help even skin tone and smooth texture. Be aware that these types of acids can also increase your skin sensitivity to the sun and potentially to increased damage

Bottom line:

A great introduction to the world of retinoids and the benefits they can bring, this is a good night cream with a range of holistic ingredients to improve skin health and appearance quickly as possible.

5. Neutrogena Body Clear Body Scrub

Neutrogena Body Clear Body Scrub

Best features:

  • Oil-free
  • Contains salicylic acid
  • Non-comedogenic

The best exfoliator for:

Guys and girls with persistent acne.

Overview:

Neutrogena is a brand that has been around forever, so there plenty of experience in perfecting formulations for different skin types.

First things first, for black skin with persistent dry or irritated patches, it contains the all-important salicylic acid to help lift the dead and dried skin.

This exfoliator also happens to be oil-free and non-comedogenic, making it an excellent choice for anyone who wants to avoid anything which could increase the risk of an acne outbreak.

Keep in mind that this is a body scrub, not a facial exfoliator. Companies typically make facial scrubs with finer mechanical exfoliators (if any) and weaker concentrations of chemical peels.         

The good:

  • A simple and gentle exfoliator for anyone looking for smooth and clear skin. Managing to make it a non-oil based product was a great addition from Neutrogena. This can be useful in managing black skin, which is naturally slightly oiler

Things to think about:

  • It may be too harsh to use on your face

Bottom line:

A back to basics exfoliator which won’t irritate or dry out your skin.


How we chose these products

Skincare research can be convoluted at times, with all the fantastic research often clouded by user opinions and dermatologists’ favorites.

For this article, we went right back to the core biology of skin, looking at the most recent and detailed studies on the ethnic differences between skin.

Once the unique features of black skin had been isolated, we then contrasted these research findings with popular products promoted to a black audience, black-owned products, and suggestions promoted by dermatologists specializing in ethnic skin types.

Thankfully, there are many great dermatologists and scientists working to make skincare accessible and functional for everyone.

The products found in this article represent skincare solutions that aim to treat the black skin trifecta by reducing oiliness, reducing inflammation, and balancing skin pH.

Benefits of exfoliation

Benefits of exfoliation

Most people are aware that using an exfoliator gets rid of greyish, lifeless skin. But are there any other benefits to including exfoliation in your skincare routine?

Although having darker skin does mean your skin ages more slowly, there are still underlying changes which it is good to address at any age.

No matter your skin color, as we get older, our skin cell turnover rate slows down.[3]

What this means in practice is that fresh skin takes longer to be exposed on the surface. Unfortunately, this can lead to high rates of bacteria under the skin, reduced oxygenation, and an increased buildup of dead cells.

By keeping a gentle exfoliator in your skincare routine, you can restore some level of control to the cell turnover rate.

Smoothing out the skin isn’t just for appearances either. Fresh skin that can breathe easily is less likely to experience acne outbreaks, skin irritation, and of course, hyperpigmentation.[4]

This is why we recommend the use of weak retinoid-like retinol alongside a weekly exfoliator.

By lifting away dead skin, bacteria are deprived of their oxygen-depleted environment, which they usually live and multiply in. Less bacteria means less inflammation, which in turn reduces the risk of melanin-producing cells hyper pigmenting the skin in patches.

Ingredients for exfoliating black skin

While we may have outlined the best tips when looking for an exfoliator and provided you with our recommendations. You might be left wondering which one is for you.

We know that the results we are looking for in black skin are mainly: the lowest irritation possible while also taking into account potential excess oil production.[5]

For that reason, we really think that only gentle physical exfoliators and one specific type of chemical peel should be used, which is reflected in our top choices.

Salicylic acid

We suggest using special natural acids – namely hydroxy acids like salicylic acid.[6]

Salicylic acid is a type of chemical peel known as beta hydroxy acid. Although the word acid in the name may make it seem like a harsh ingredient, it is, in fact, safe to use on black skin.

These gentle chemical peels work by loosening and separating the top layer of skin away from the skin underneath.

This sheds away the skin and leaves you with a more even tone. Compared to other peels, which are more acidic in nature, salicylic acid is actually anti-inflammatory.

This is great news as it helps to soothe the new skin and minimize new hyperpigmentation from any pre-existing irritants.

Other acids for exfoliating black skin

Salicylic is a beta-hydroxy acid, but there is another group called alpha-hydroxy acids.

These are all organic acids that loosen the grip and bonds between skin cells. This then allows for the top layer of older skin to come away from the newer, fresher skin underneath.

Citric acid

Perhaps the most well-known of alpha-hydroxy acids, citric acid is, of course, derived from citrus fruits such as lemons and limes, amongst other sources. What’s impressive about citric acid is that it stimulates skin cells to produce hyaluronic acid. This acid ensures there is an adequate level of hydration locked into the skin.[7]

Lactic acid

You may have heard of this acid in reference to sport and exercise. Lactic acid builds up when your muscles exercise without enough oxygen and can lead to cramping. It is also found naturally in our skin, with lactic acid as a skincare ingredient being sourced from sour milk.

It has many useful qualities – aside from being a gentle exfoliator that doesn’t irritate black skin, it also helps the skin retain moisture and even out hyperpigmentation. An extra benefit is that Lactic acid can inhibit melanomas’ growth- an aggressive type of skin cancer.[8]

Alternative ingredients for black skin

Although not an exfoliator in the strictest sense, Retinol is another compound that promotes new, fresh skin cells to come to the surface. It does this by increasing the rate of skin cell turnover.

By increasing the rate of new cell growth, there is less concentration of irritation and damage, which gives a smoother and healthier skin appearance.[9]

Retinol is commonly found in anti-aging serums and products as it has a wide range of positive effects on the skin. It is included here for completeness, but as we said, it is not strictly an exfoliator.

Why?

Exfoliators remove dead skin during and shortly after their use, i.e., in a few minutes or less. However, retinol can take up to half a year of consistent daily use to take full effect. A useful addition for many skincare reasons, but it won’t be replacing your weekly exfoliator any time soon.

Frequently asked questions

frequently-asked-questions-3

1. Do exfoliators lighten dark skin?

No, exfoliators are not skin lighteners, bleachers, or anything else related. They do not pull melanin from the skin and make your tone unnaturally light.

However, they do reduce the level of hyperpigmentation, which is a darker shade than your normal skin tone.

2. Can’t I just have a clinic-based chemical peel/laser resurfacing/ microdermabrasion?

Again, no. These are not a good idea for black skin. These are fairly abrasive and strong treatments and should be reserved for those who have them medically recommended by a dermatologist.

For black skin, there is a high risk of irritation and hyperpigmentation after using these interventions.

Conclusion

We hope this article gives some insight into the incredible array of products that are becoming available for black skin.

As you might have noticed from this list, you don’t need to rely on products marketed to black-only audiences to see great results. A good example of this would be Paula’s Choice exfoliant, which has seen great popularity without being marketed to any skin color or group.

We appreciate there is a confusing mix of information out there in the skincare world. If you have any questions or comments, leave them below, and we’ll get back to you as fast as we can.

If you like science-backed skincare, make sure to sign up for the ZELEN Life newsletter. We send out great subscriber-only content that you won’t find anywhere else.


References

  1. Wesley NO, Maibach HI. Racial (ethnic) differences in skin properties: the objective data. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2003;4(12):843-60. doi: 10.2165/00128071-200304120-00004. PMID: 14640777.
  2. Deng, Lian, and Shuhua Xu. “Adaptation of human skin color in various populations.” Hereditas vol. 155 1. 15 Jun. 2017, doi:10.1186/s41065-017-0036-2
  3. Eckhart, Leopold et al. “Autophagic Control of Skin Aging.” Frontiers in cell and developmental biology vol. 7 143. 30 Jul. 2019, doi:10.3389/fcell.2019.00143
  4. França, Katlein, and Jonette Keri. “Psychosocial impact of acne and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.” Anais brasileiros de dermatologia vol. 92,4 (2017): 505-509. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.20175645
  5. Rawlings, A V. “Ethnic skin types: are there differences in skin structure and function?.” International journal of cosmetic science vol. 28,2 (2006): 79-93. doi:10.1111/j.1467-2494.2006.00302.x
  6. Tang, Sheau-Chung, and Jen-Hung Yang. “Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin.” Molecules (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 23,4 863. 10 Apr. 2018, doi:10.3390/molecules23040863
  7. Baumann, Leslie S et al. “Comparison of clindamycin 1% and benzoyl peroxide 5% gel to a novel composition containing salicylic acid, capryloyl salicylic acid, HEPES, glycolic acid, citric acid, and dioic acid in the treatment of acne vulgaris.” Journal of drugs in dermatology: JDD vol. 12,3 (2013): 266-9.
  8. Huang, Huey-Chun et al. “Lactic Acid Bacteria and Lactic Acid for Skin Health and Melanogenesis Inhibition.” Current pharmaceutical biotechnology vol. 21,7 (2020): 566-577. doi:10.2174/1389201021666200109104701
  9. Dhaliwal, S et al. “Prospective, randomized, double-blind assessment of topical bakuchiol and retinol for facial photoaging.” The British journal of dermatology vol. 180,2 (2019): 289-296. doi:10.1111/bjd.16918

About The Author

Dr. Shane McKeown MBBS
Dr. Shane McKeown MBBS

Board-Certified Doctor and Educator

Dr. McKeown is a UK based NHS clinician with over 10 years experience in both hospital medicine and surgery. After an initial career in maxillofacial surgery his focus now lies in elderly care and rehabilitation medicine. A board member for Wadham College of Science, Dr. McKeown is passionate about widening access to both education and healthcare around the world and as a result, outside of his clinical work he spends much of his time either teaching or providing medical consultancy to healthcare startups. Commercially, his interests lie in helping research and promote novel, evidence-based medicines originating from natural sources and processes.

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