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What Are Exfoliating Serums (Plus, 5 Best Ones to Try)

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Skin care is not one size fits all—which is why we are all about a good facial serum to customize our regimens to get one step closer to clearer, more radiant-looking skin. “Serums are made up of smaller molecules that penetrate deep into the skin and supply a very high concentration of active ingredients,” notes Dr. Debra Jaliman, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City. Just like skin types, serums come in a few variations that deliver specific results such as hydration, brightening and anti-aging. One formula we’re turning our attention to that’s gaining a lot of popularity lately is the exfoliating serum.

What Is an Exfoliating Serum?

If you’ve ever looked at your complexion in the mirror and noticed a dull tinge, exfoliation can help lift the veil and reveal brighter, more glowy skin. But before you reach for a physical exfoliant such as sugar scrub, consider this: You can add a serum to your regimen with similar benefits.

“Exfoliating serums have blends of acids that work together to remove dead skin cells,” explains Dr. Jaliman. These serums work best on skin experiencing “dryness, hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles,” as the acids help slough off dead skin and tackle concerns having to do with discoloration—hello, sunspots!—and premature signs of aging. That said, some acids can also help banish acne, as they work to target impurities and debris that often clogs pores.

What Ingredients to Look For

When it comes to exfoliating serums, it’s all about the ingredients—specifically the acids, which are responsible for lifting away dead skin cells. Here are the ingredients you should consider when shopping for an exfoliating serum.

  • Glycolic Acid: A type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugarcane and is “good for hyperpigmentation,” notes Jaliman. Applying a serum formulated with this acid can help tone the skin and promote a more even-looking complexion.
  • L-ascorbic Acid: A pure form of vitamin C, according to Dr. Jaliman, known for its antioxidant properties and its ability to brighten and promote clarity.
  • Salicylic Acid: This beta hydroxy acid (BHA) “lessens the symptoms of acne,” says Dr. Jaliman. On top of that, it “encourages exfoliation, eases inflammation and unclogs pores,” she adds.
  • Citric Acid: Derived from citrus, this AHA “helps exfoliate,” notes Dr. Jaliman. On top of that, this can help calm inflamed skin.
  • Malic Acid: This fruit acid comes from apples and can also help slough off dead skin.
  • Lactic Acid: Another AHA that plumps the skin, making fine lines look less visible, says Dr. Jaliman. In addition, it also “exfoliates to reveal smoother and more glowing skin,” she adds.

Choosing the Right Formula for Your Skin Type

Here’s what you need to know when choosing the right exfoliating serums for normal, dry, oily, mature and sensitive skin types.

  • Normal, Dry and Mature Skin: “For this skin type, I would recommend an exfoliating serum with vitamins, antioxidants, hyaluronic acid, along with the acids,” suggests Dr. Jaliman.
  • Oily or Acne-Prone Skin: “If you have oily [or] acne-prone skin, salicylic acid is best,” says Dr. Jaliman.
  • Sensitive Skin: Just because you experience sensitivity doesn’t mean you can’t reap the benefits of exfoliating serums. Dr. Jaliman says to “avoid glycolic acid and BHAs,” as this can increase sensitivity. On the other hand, Dr. Jaliman recommends lactic acid as a “much gentler” alternative for this skin type.

Precautions to Note

For best results, apply your exfoliating serum after your cleanser and toner, says Dr. Jaliman. “You can then apply any other products that you use in your daily routines such as moisturizer, eye cream and sunscreen.”

Keep in mind that exfoliating products aren’t meant to be used every day. “If we use exfoliating products too often, [it] can cause skin irritations,” says Dr. Jaliman. “I would recommend using two to three times a week, depending on the type of acid. Some [acids] are much gentler and may be used more often,” she adds. Always check your product label first or consult your dermatologist.

Best Exfoliating Serums

Ready to reap the rewards of exfoliating serums? Here are our top picks below.

  1. SkinCeuticals Retexturing Activator
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    SkinCeuticals Retexturing Activator

    Per Dr. Jaliman’s suggestion, this oil-free serum from SkinCeuticals is an ideal formula for dry skin. Infused with hyaluronic acid and glycolic acid, the replenishing formula helps lift away dead skin cells and promote a more radiant-looking complexion.

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  2. Sunday Riley GOOD GENES All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment
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    Sunday Riley GOOD GENES All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment

    Treat your skin to a dose of lactic acid, licorice and lemongrass to brighten the complexion and slough off dry skin. This multipurpose treatment helps to fade away hyperpigmentation, unveiling a more even skin tone.

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  3. Eminence Organic Skin Care Mangosteen Daily Resurfacing Concentrate
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    Eminence Organic Skin Care Mangosteen Daily Resurfacing Concentrate

    Formulated to unveil a smoother-looking complexion, this resurfacing elixir features lactic acid along with the superfruit mangosteen to protect against environmental aggressors and minimize the look of pores.

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  4. First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab - Resurfacing Liquid 10% AHA
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    First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab - Resurfacing Liquid 10% AHA

    Made with a blend of AHAs—glycolic, lactic, tartaric and malic—plus vitamin C, this exfoliating serum helps create a barrier between your complexion and environmental aggressors, shielding it from pollution, UV rays and other elements that might lead to dryness, dullness and premature signs of aging.

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  5. Herbivore Botanicals Prism 12% AHA + 3% BHA Exfoliating Glow Serum
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    Herbivore Botanicals Prism 12% AHA + 3% BHA Exfoliating Glow Serum

    This exfoliating formula features an impressive blend of 100% natural fruit- and plant-based AHAs and willow bark BHA for the ultimate glow. With each application, the elixir helps ease dry skin, unclog pores and even out skin tone.

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Beauty Reporter

Jessie Quinn

Jessie Quinn is a writer and editor with work published in NYLON Magazine,,,, and more. She is a graduate of Academy of Art University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fashion Journalism. Originally from Los Angeles, she currently resides in Brooklyn—her home for the last five years. In Jessie’s free time, you can find her creating content for her beauty blog, Hair Skin Kale, testing out DIY beauty recipes, exploring her neighborhood, or binge-watching episodes of Friends. Her background in fashion has taught her that beautiful skin never goes out of style. Follow her on Instagram.