Should You Cleanse or Exfoliate First?

Cleansing and exfoliating are often confused with one another, partly because they both remove dirt and debris from your skin. But cleansers and exfoliators are separate products that both need to be used in a full skincare routine. But should you cleanse or exfoliate first in an ideal skincare routine? Let’s dive into an examination of these products for a detailed answer. 

What Is Cleansing?

Before we answer the main question, let’s clear up a few definitions, especially since many people think that cleansing and exfoliating are essentially the same thing. In truth, both of these activities can clean your skin, but they do so in drastically different ways.

Cleansing specifically means thoroughly washing the skin on your face using a specialized product that can remove debris and oil from your skin’s pores. Skin cleanser (and especially facial cleanser) is formulated to be gentle enough on the more sensitive skin of your face while also lifting away sebum (a dirty and oily skin solution naturally secreted throughout the day), dirt and debris.

As a side note, a cleanser is much better for your face's skin compared to regular soap and water. Normal bar soap or body soap is often too alkaline and can strip away healthy moisturizing oils, causing negative health side effects.

A cleanser contains specialized ingredients that can remove pollutants and chemicals that your skin pores might pick up throughout the day. It does a much better job of digging relatively deep into your pores and cleaning them out. But it doesn’t do as much of a job at scooping away dead skin cells or physically scraping away harsher debris compared to an exfoliating product. We’ll get into that below.

One other benefit that cleansers can provide is as a makeup remover. Many top-tier cleansing products contain elements that make removing makeup remnants a lot easier. This is why we’d always recommend cleansers for women who wear any kind of makeup.

How Does It Benefit You?

Cleansing is beneficial because it helps remove surface-level dirt and debris and excessive skin oil. At the same time, a cleansing product can kill bacteria. This can have ancillary benefits, like reducing the amount of acne breakouts you suffer from. Many men and women have frequent acne specifically because their pores are clogged with bacteria and debris, which causes excessive face oil and pus formation.

Some of the best cleansing products are both purifying and foaming. Foaming cleansers, like this top choice from Suki Skincare, can purify your pores by lifting away dirt and debris and reducing toxic buildup. At the same time, it comes with several healthy ingredients to boost your skin’s vitality and nutritional level.

What’s Exfoliation?

Exfoliation is a related but distinct process – it scrubs away the topmost layer of your skin, along with any nearby or harder dirt and debris like blackheads. It’s used to get rid of dead cells that accumulate throughout the day or week.

Dead skin cells normally accrue over time, and in fact, perform a vital role in keeping your skin’s pores moisturized and protected. Hundreds of your skin’s cells die every single day. But while most of these will fall off naturally, some of them can get stuck in your pores and require physical removal. Otherwise, they could block your pores and make your skin dry or rough-looking.

Exfoliation scrapes away these dead skin cells and can bring younger and healthier skin cells to the forefront. This also results in your skin feeling softer and looking warmer or more colorful.

Furthermore, exfoliation can get rid of harder debris that a cleansing product may not be the best for. That’s because exfoliation products normally have “harsher” or tougher ingredients like salicylic or glycolic acid. Other exfoliating products may make use of physical ingredients, like jojoba beads or other compounds, to physically scrape away dead skin.

How Does It Benefit You?

As Suki Skincare explains, exfoliation allows your younger and healthier skin to become oxygenated as you remove the dead skin cells on top of them. In turn, this allows your skin to absorb the active ingredients in many other skincare products like serums, moisturizers, lotions, and other treatments.

Furthermore, exfoliation can improve your skin tone by removing blemishes and blurring wrinkle lines or fine lines. Your color will improve, as will your skin’s surface appearance. As mentioned, your skin will also feel a lot softer to the touch. All in all, exfoliation makes your skin appear younger and healthier.

Always think about an ideal cleanser for your skin type. Foaming cleansers are often a little gentler than physical cleansers, for instance, and can still promote radiant and smooth skin.

In summary:

  • cleansers are ideal for cleaning the top layer of your skin, primarily of dirt, debris, and skin oil
  • exfoliating products are used to clean away dead skin cells on the surface of your skin and get rid of some harder debris that digs into your pores

Which Should be First?

This is something of a tricky question. The truth is, you can use either a cleansing or exfoliating product first depending on your preferences. Neither one is necessarily better than the other for everyone. But some will be a better choice depending on your skin sensitivity and unique needs.

Cleanser Before Exfoliator

In most cases, it might be smarter to use a cleansing product before an exfoliating product. By doing this, you get rid of sweat, dirt, and some oil along with any makeup remnants from your skin at the beginning of your skincare routine. When you go to apply your exfoliating product, it can more thoroughly remove your dead skin cells and get rid of even deeper pore debris without having to go through a topmost layer of dirt and other gunk at the beginning.

This particular process also better prepares your skin for moisturizer, oil, or serum because your pores have been thoroughly excavated and cleansed of virtually every type of debris or contaminant. 

Exfoliator Before Cleanser

You can also use an exfoliating product before a cleansing product. By using a scrubbing product, you’ll get rid of dead skin cells and hard residue along with dirt and debris. If you follow up with a cleansing product, a cleanser should wash away any dead skin cells or particles that might remain on your skin but were loosened by the effects of the exfoliator.

This could result in an exceptionally clean face, particularly if you rinse your pores well with water.

Which Is Better?

Ultimately, using a cleanser before an exfoliator will likely be better for most people. This allows you to clean away more dirt and debris than the other method on average. However, be aware that it does come with a little more skin sensitivity.

That’s because your exfoliating product is able to more directly dig into your skin’s pores. If you already have sensitive skin, this might be a bit uncomfortable. In that case, using an exfoliator and then going with a cleanser is still a worthwhile process.

How to Use Cleanser

Thankfully, using cleansers and exfoliators is easy and both are similar to one another. Incorporating both into your skincare routine shouldn’t take much effort.

To use a cleansing product:

  • clean your face with lukewarm water to open up your pores and get rid of a surface level of dirt and sweat
  • put a few drops of the cleansing product onto your palm and rub your palms together
  • rub the product into your face for between 20 and 30 seconds
  • use gentle circular movements for the best results
  • use warm water to wash your face of the cleanser
  • either use an exfoliating product or pat dry your face

How to Use an Exfoliator

To use an exfoliating product:

  • wash your face with lukewarm water
  • place some of the exfoliating product onto your palms or take an exfoliating pad
  • rub the exfoliating product into your skin with some pressure. The exfoliator needs to go deep into your pores for maximum effect. Do this for around 20 seconds
  • gently wash your face with lukewarm water and pat dry
  • apply a moisturizer after using an exfoliator every time. Exfoliation can easily give you dry skin over time, but a moisturizer can help your skin cells retain the moisture they still have and prevent your skin from going dry or becoming itchy

What’s an Ideal Skincare Routine?

In an ideal skincare regimen, you would use both cleansers and exfoliators in conjunction with one another. A hypothetical routine goes something like this (with plenty of variation depending on your skin sensitivity and needs):

  • wash your face
  • use a gentle cleanser to get rid of a topmost layer of dirt and debris
  • use an exfoliating product to get rid of dead skin cells
  • use a moisturizer to protect your skin
  • use a serum to impart additional nutrients to your skin
  • use a balm or cream to soothe the skin if necessary 

However, keep in mind that you should only exfoliate around twice a week. This prevents you from rubbing your skin too much and turning it raw. It’s also frequent enough that your dead skin cells shouldn’t pile up too much to make your skin suffer.


Ultimately, cleansing and exfoliating are both critical parts of any holistic skincare routine. If you aren’t sure, you can always try out doing one of the other first and seeing what results. Remember, you can always switch things around in the above order if necessary. Both types of products are necessary for healthy and great looking skin!


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