4 Best Exfoliators for Oily Skin Types (Sebum Control)

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4 Best Exfoliators for Oily Skin Types (Sebum Control)
In a hurry? Here are our top picks:

BEST FOR SENSITIVE OILY SKIN

ZELEN Life Exfoliator

BEST FOR COMBINATION SKIN

belif Mild & Facial Scrub

BEST FOR ACNE-PRONE OILY SKIN

Murad Facial Skin Scrub

Exfoliating is a very important step in skin care routines for oily skin types.

The right exfoliation product used correctly can be very effective in controlling sebum production. The use of poorly formulated products however can make oily skin even worse.[1]

The best exfoliator for oily skin makes sure that it cleans the skin without dehydrating and irritating it.

The first action of a good exfoliator should be to remove both excess oil and dead skin. Then it should work to calm and soothe the fresh skin on the surface.

Cheap products typically can remove some skin and oil but don’t reduce overall oil production, or at worst encourage increased sebum production.

Getting sebum production under control is important not just to have a fresher and clean appearance. Keeping oil levels down is a great way to manage conditions like acne, rosacea, and seborrhoeic eczema.[2]

In this article, we have reviewed the best exfoliators for oily skin that meet the above criteria.

Quick summary

bb2-table__imageZELEN Life Exfoliator
  • A gentle yet powerful exfoliator, suitable for sensitive skin thanks to fine sugar powder
  • Handmade with organic 'oil-balancing' ingredients
  • Jojoba and sunflower boost moisture, regulate sebum and control blemishes
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bb2-table__imagebelif Mild & Facial Scrub
  • Superior mechanical exfoliator, can also be used as a cleanser
  • Retains moisture and keeps oil under control
  • Packed with botanical extracts
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bb2-table__imageMurad Facial Skin Scrub for Oily and Blemish-Prone Skin
  • Assists in reducing pore size
  • Uses stearic acid and jojoba beads, provides strong action to prevent breakouts
  • Calming, oil-regulating formula
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bb2-table__imageJack Black Face Buff Energizing Scrub
  • Contains mint, leaves facial skin feeling refreshed
  • Helps eliminate dead skin and renew cells
  • Loaded with vitamin C, an excellent antioxidant
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Before you buy: 4 Things to consider when purchasing an exfoliator for oily skin

1. Why should I exfoliate oily skin?

Excess skin oil may not look great, but it is looking after your skin’s long-term health that is more important. Leaving oily skin untreated and unexfoliated increases the likelihood of developing other skin conditions due to the chronic irritation and dead skin build-up that occurs.

As many with oily skin know, it is all too easy to break out into spots. This is because excess oil helps trap dead skin and bacteria, clogging pores and causing even further build-up of sebum.

These blocked pores then turn into comedones and potentially acne spots. This can then lead to scarring, dry skin, hyperpigmentation, and more. Exfoliation reduces the severity of these issues which over time calms the skin and brings it back to health.

2. Managing oily skin

80% of people with oily skin first experience the issue by their teen years. An increase in androgen hormones (male sex hormones that both men and women have) is the known culprit, hence why most notice excess oil after puberty.[3]

Many will first notice parts of their face becoming shinier, with the hair often becoming greasy. A common side effect of excess oil is having enlarged pore size as well.

The increase in lipids (fats from the skin) is unfortunately perfect food for Propionibacterium acnes and other potential infections.

To prevent skin issues like acne from taking hold, you need to be proactive in bringing down your oil levels.

3. Why do I have oily skin?

For a long time, oily skin was incorrectly associated with being unwashed or unclean.

Now we know that there is a much more complicated picture going on in the background. If you want to get the best results out of your exfoliator and skin care routine then try to avoid or minimize the factors listed below.[4]

Hyperseborrhea, or excess oil production, can be either a short or long-term issue. Luckily, there are many out there who think they have a persistent oil problem, but in fact, they have a short-term issue happening over and over again.[5]

Short term factors:

  • Heat

High external temperatures prompt the body to relax blood vessels near the surface of the skin. This in turn increases blood flow to the area which has the knock-on effect of increasing sebum production as well.

  • Hair treatments

Overuse of shampoos can cause the skin on the face and neck to lose vital minimum levels of natural oils as these chemicals run down during washing. The skin detects this and compensates by pushing out even more sebum.

  • Skin infections

These can happen in the scalp or face but any bacterial or fungal infection will irritate and inflame the skin, prompting a reactionary release of skin oils.

Long term factors:

  • Hormonal imbalances

Your endocrine system controls the release of hormones and other secretions central to healthy bodily functioning. Hormonal imbalances can alter internal glands which lead to increased sebum production. An obvious example of this would be puberty or during menopause for women.

  • High-fat diet

Consuming a high ratio of fats relative to the rest of your diet makes your body go into protection mode. To reduce the level of fats within the body glands move them to be excreted by sebaceous glands which increases the volume of sebum.

  • Digestive problems

Liver or intestinal problems can result in sebum that is chemically insufficient to protect the skin and hair. When the body detects this it again tries to compensate by expelling the sebum. Rather than fixing the issue, the skin is now fat deprived, so it then makes even more sebum to try and fix the new problem. In the end, a persistent skin oil problem develops.

  • Stress

Being stressed, whether running for the bus or feeling nervous at an interview or simply being overworked makes your body rely on its fight or flight nervous system. Called the sympathetic nervous system, once activated it increases blood flow around the body which has the knock-on effect of increasing sebum production as well.[6]

4. Mechanical vs. chemical exfoliation

Exfoliators really come in two flavors- mechanical and chemical. Many are familiar with mechanical exfoliators as they used to be our only option. Scrubs that contained big and rough particles to pull stubborn skin away are thankfully a thing of the past. Below we outline the more common types of exfoliators that you will likely come across.

Mechanical exfoliation:

  • Microbeads

These shouldn’t be in any product you buy these days but we list them here for completion. They are simply tiny plastic particles, typically less than 1mm in diameter.

Microbeads were once very popular in cosmetic products but are now banned in many countries. If you see any product with microbeads, do not buy it! Aside from microplastics found in the fish and sea, they are even being found in unborn fetuses in recent studies.

  • Granular materials

These are non-plastic, organic compounds which, can either be gentle or rough on your face. Charcoal or jojoba seeds are both good examples of natural physical exfoliants.

Some softer exfoliants like sugar, for example, are designed to dissolve with the addition of water.

Chemical exfoliation:

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids

These acids come from a variety of natural sources – lactic from milk, glycolic acid from sugar, and malic acid from fruit such as apples and rhubarb. These acids reduce the amount that older, top-level skin cells in the epidermis stick together and promote exfoliation of these cells.

Deeper into the skin, i.e. the dermis, alpha-hydroxy acids can help sun-damaged skin recover and increase collagen levels in tandem.

  • Beta Hydroxy Acids

Perhaps better known to beginners of chemical exfoliants, BHA is also known as salicylic acid.

The 4 best exfoliators for oily skin

1. ZELEN Life Exfoliator

ZELEN Life Exfoliator

Best features:

  • Soft, dissolving scrub
  • Calms even sensitive skin
  • Non-drying

The best exfoliator for:

Men and women with oily skin that returns no matter what they use. This natural and gentle exfoliator can be used on sensitive and reactive oily skin to bring it back under control.

Overview:

The ZELEN Life Exfoliator is an all-natural physical exfoliator that works wonders for any skin type. It has a sugar base that gently unclogs pores and lifts away dead skin before dissolving away.

The exfoliator continues to work on the skin, with a number of extracts helping reduce the fine lines and wrinkles caused by aging. For those with a history of skin conditions like acne, it calms the skin using organic Jojoba to reduce future oil production.

The scrub works to even out your complexion whilst also reducing the appearance of blemishes and scars over time.

Despite being gentle and non-greasy, this exfoliator retains moisture with the help of sunflower seed oil, which also brings down any skin redness from acne or other irritations.

The good:

  • Effective exfoliator without irritating sensitive skin
  • Natural extracts control oil levels
  • Maintains a good level of skin hydration

Things to think about:

  • Honey and vanilla fragranced

Bottom line:

If you are looking for a good exfoliator that won’t suddenly irritate or inflame your skin then look no further. This smooth and creamy exfoliator calms and soothes on an application before the sugar rolls away dirt and impurities. If you struggle to keep your oil levels under control with other products, the natural calming extracts in this scrub will reduce the unseen inflammation in your skin which is keeping sebum production high.

2. belif Mild & Facial Scrub

belif Mild & Facial Scrub

Best features:

  • 2-in-1 scrub and cleanser
  • Lemon balm
  • Retains moisture

The best exfoliator for:

Those who want their exfoliator packed full of botanical extracts

Overview:

The belif Mild & Facial scrub from Korea is a botanical twist on the exfoliator formula.

Rather than using physical granules or chemical exfoliants, this scrub contains microcrystalline cellulose. They may speak of it as ‘French Cotton Fibres’  on the packaging, but these strands make for a gentle exfoliating alternative.

Some find the exfoliating liquid too thin, and perhaps think it leans more on the side of a moisturizing agent than an exfoliator. For those with combination skin, this could be a blessing, keeping oil under control whilst giving much-needed hydration to drier areas.

Keep in mind that being gentle with your skin is more important than harsh scrubbing, even for those of us with a stubborn oil problem.

If you have very sensitive oily skin then this is a suitable exfoliator to try.

The good:

  • Mild scent
  • Unique mechanical exfoliator
  • Retains skin hydration

Things to think about:

  • For some with oily skin they may find that this scrub doesn’t go far enough in the exfoliating department

Bottom line:

If you have very sensitive problem skin you may have had bad experiences in the past with exfoliators. As this article has hopefully illustrated, however, ignoring the problem will not make things any better. This is where the belif Mild & Facial scrub comes in. True, you may find it too weak to properly exfoliate your skin, but you can be sure it won’t irritate it either.

3. Murad Facial Skin Scrub for Oily and Blemish-Prone Skin

Murad Facial Skin Scrub for Oily and Blemish-Prone Skin

Best features:

  • Utilizes Stearic acid
  • Uses jojoba beads for a mild mechanical exfoliating effect
  • Extracts to help tighten pores

The best exfoliator for:

Those with larger pores and acne issues who want to trial a dual-type exfoliator.

Overview:

The Murad Facial skin Scrub tackles problem, oily skin by using both an acid and a physical exfoliator.

Living with skin conditions like rosacea, eczema or acne know that it can be a struggle to find a product that tackles blemishes without disturbing or imbalance surrounding healthy skin.

While some with ‘normal’ oily skin don’t see too much benefit, many report that blemishes and spots have reduced, as has their pore size after using this product for a few weeks.

Some with sensitive skin find that this is too thick on application and can even be a bit too harsh without the addition of more water to the product. Many look to gentle exfoliators so that they can potentially be used multiple times a week – this is a more astringent moisturizer that we would recommend once to twice a week maximum.

The good:

  • Utilizes calming agents like Jojoba to bring down sebum levels
  • Actively reduces pore size

Things to think about:

  • Restricted really to skin that can withstand the more astringent element

Bottom line:

The Murad Facial Skin Scrub is a curious addition to our list. For some users, it is the balance of exfoliating and hydrating that is needed when dealing with more stubborn skin complaints. If you have darker or more sensitive skin then you will likely need to look elsewhere – the way this scrub is balanced will likely push your skin in the wrong direction.

4. Jack Black Face Buff Energizing Scrub

Jack Black Face Buff Energizing Scrub

Best features:

  • Contains mint to refresh the face
  • Vitamin C for added antioxidant protection
  • Allantoin promotes the removal of dead skin

The best exfoliator for:

Guys looking for their oily skin to have some added protection from the environment and pollutants

Overview:

Another scrub that also claims to be a 2-in-1 cleanser, the Jack Black Energizing Scrub is a pre-shave mechanical exfoliator.

Made with biodegradable granules, this scrub works to also lock in moisture to your facial hair – making for an easier and smoother shave. For those of us with oily skin, this is great news as we can continue to shave with peace of mind knowing that it won’t prompt an outbreak of oiliness.

They have added Licorice extract to help bolster the calming and soothing effect, with peppermint giving a menthol effect that draws heat away and refreshes the skin.

The company recommends that it can be used two to four times a week ‘based on your skin’s needs’. Obviously to get the intended benefit you will want to use this scrub before shaving so you can have the benefit of reducing post-shave irritation as well.

The good:

  • A strong, natural exfoliator that won’t push your skin over the edge
  • No longer contains microbeads

Things to think about:

  • Some report that the exfoliator was changed a couple of years ago to the more soft bamboo. This product was reviewed as-is. You will need to decide for yourself if the change is positive or negative compared to previous experience

Bottom line:

The Jack Black formula has now been updated in line with international regulations and they have made a great, natural scrub for your pre-shave routine. Vitamin C is great to have in any skin product, and including it in their scrub gives you another antioxidant boost throughout the day – great for skin in the long term. They go some way in ensuring that your skin remains irritation-free to maintain healthy levels of hydration and oil.


How we chose these products

Exfoliators for oily skin first need to be great at removing the skin, yet need to be gentle enough to not provoke more oil production.

Naturally, we have looked at products that focus on natural solutions to these problems, with some of our picks also including antioxidants to calm the skin over a longer period.

Oily skin can have fairly wide requirements when it comes to an exfoliator, hence we have included a range of different strengths and formulations to reflect this.

Some are more exfoliating while others have a softer exfoliating action and more hydrating components. Choosing the right exfoliator depends on knowing your skin type well.

Frequently asked questions

frequently asked questions 2-min

Mechanical vs. chemical exfoliators for sebum control

This is a bit of a trick question. The real question is how much wear and tear can your skin take before it starts to produce excess oil in self-defense?

The answer is not much!

Regardless of whether you are using a mechanical or chemical exfoliator, you want the process to be gentle to your skin. This means avoiding mechanical exfoliators with large or rough particles and ensuring the concentration of any acid exfoliants isn’t too strong.

Should I avoid chemical exfoliants?

Whilst for many this choice boils down to personal preference, there are a few groups who will want to definitely not include chemical exfoliants as part of their skincare routine.

Those with darker skin (specifically Fitzpatrick skin type IV-VI) should avoid chemical exfoliants, especially those at concentrations of 5% or higher. The acids can in fact worsen many skin conditions rather than providing benefits.

What are PHAs?

Alpha and Beta hydroxy acids are the most common form of chemical exfoliants, but there are also Polyhydroxy acids.

These molecules are actually chains of hydroxy acids – hence the ‘poly’ in the name. This chaining together means they are much larger than their alpha or beta relatives, which is both a benefit and a hindrance.

Their size means they cannot penetrate as deeply, meaning they are not quite as effective but they are also less irritating to the skin.

Which hydroxy acid is better for acne-prone skin?

Of the three, AHA, BHA, and PHAs, BHAs are commonly attributed to being better for oily skin. If you are looking for a chemical exfoliant then BHA (salicylic acid mainly, or malic acid) is going to be your best bet.[7]

BHAs are lipophilic, in other words, they are great and getting into the fats and oils of your skin. Once past the surface, they can get to work on the cells that make up your pores and skin, breaking apart the connections between them.

This promotes dead cells to fall away and for comedones (whiteheads and blackheads) to break up. New skin cells then come to the surface leaving you with a fresh complexion.

BHAs are also useful in that they can help retain moisture in the skin. However, as with most chemical exfoliants, you will want to moisturize afterward to ensure your fresh skin does not dehydrate.

Finally, if you have oily skin that is also sensitive, you may want to avoid AHA as it increases your sensitivity to UV damage.

Conclusion

Managing oily skin can seem complicated at first but it needn’t be. Our top picks are quite varied for this article and for good reason – oily skin needs careful management so picking the right exfoliator that won’t under or over-perform is vital.

Which of the four exfoliators in our list seems right for your skin? If you try and have success with any of our recommendations, let us know below including your skin type.

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References

  1. Kapuścińska A, Nowak I. Zastosowanie kwasów organicznych w terapii trądziku i przebarwień skóry [Use of organic acids in acne and skin discolorations therapy]. Postepy Hig Med Dosw (Online). 2015 Mar 22;69:374-83. Polish. doi: 10.5604/17322693.1145825. PMID: 25811473.
  2. Whiting DA. Acne. West J Med. 1979 Dec;131(6):551-7. PMID: 161830; PMCID: PMC1271924.
  3. Titus, Stephen, and Joshua Hodge. “Diagnosis and treatment of acne.” American family physician vol. 86,8 (2012): 734-40.
  4. Yosipovitch G, Tang M, Dawn AG, Chen M, Goh CL, Huak Y, Seng LF. Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents. Acta Derm Venereol. 2007;87(2):135-9. doi: 10.2340/00015555-0231. PMID: 17340019.
  5. Oge’, Linda K et al. “Acne Vulgaris: Diagnosis and Treatment.” American family physician vol. 100,8 (2019): 475-484.
  6. Kurokawa, Ichiro, and Keisuke Nakase. “Recent advances in understanding and managing acne.” F1000Research vol. 9 F1000 Faculty Rev-792. 29 Jul. 2020, doi:10.12688/f1000research.25588.1
  7. 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

About The Author

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Board-Certified Doctor and Educator

Bachelor of Medicine Bachelor of Surgery MBBS (Cardiff University)

London, United Kingdom

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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