Exfoliation became a regular step in a basic skincare routine. It’s one of the most effective ways to maintain smooth skin while minimizing common skin concerns like acne or dark spots. But for people with rosacea, it’s still somewhat of a struggle. We deal with red, sensitive, itchy skin. And because exfoliation has the potential for irritation, most people who have rosacea just skip the whole thing. Rest assured, exfoliation doesn’t have to be irritating. You can exfoliate even if you have rosacea. Whether you’re someone completely new to exfoliation or someone who’s a bit skincare savvy and just looking for a gentle, effective exfoliator for rosacea, I’ve got you. You’ll find here the best exfoliators for people with rosacea, what to keep in mind when choosing one, and how to properly exfoliate without any flare-ups.
In a hurry? Here’s my recommendation:
Youth To The People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant packs the gentlest exfoliants suitable for rosacea. Formulated into a skin-friendly base, it exfoliates without causing redness or irritation.
Exfoliation and Rosacea
The age-old question regarding exfoliation and rosacea is whether you should do it or not. But the better question is how to do it. Because yes, you should exfoliate even if you have rosacea.
Exfoliation is removing the layer of dead skin cells from the skin surface using chemical exfoliants or physical exfoliants. Regardless of your skin type, age, or your skin texture, exfoliation has universal benefits.
Exfoliation refines skin texture, unclogs pores, reduces acne and hyperpigmentation, and even minimizes fine lines and wrinkles by stimulating skin turnover. We all need one or some of these skin benefits even if we have rosacea.
As long as you pay attention to the products you use for exfoliation, you can absolutely exfoliate to address your skin concerns without aggravating rosacea. Here’s how to choose an exfoliator for your skin if you have rosacea.
What to Look For in an Exfoliator for Rosacea
There are two types of exfoliators for anyone looking to exfoliate: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliators are facial scrubs with granules. The potential skin irritation caused by skin rubbing with scrubs outweighs the potential benefits even for people with normal skin let alone rosacea skin. So skip scrubs and look for chemical exfoliants.
These are alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic, lactic, and mandelic. The last two are gentler on the skin and work better for people with rosacea. Glycolic acid is more potent and effective but in high concentrations, it’s irritating, especially if you have very sensitive skin.
There is beta hydroxy acid, namely salicylic acid. In lower concentrations, salicylic acid is incredibly helpful when you have acne rosacea because it’s anti-inflammatory for the skin.
And lastly, polyhydroxy acids like gluconolactone and lactobionic are gentle and provide very superficial exfoliation, which is preferable for rosacea. So look for these exfoliants in your products for maximum benefits with minimal irritation.
Remember that formulation is everything! So avoid highly fragranced products, alcohol, and astringents in your exfoliators.
Even the gentlest acid can irritate when it isn’t formulated right. On the flip side, even glycolic acid can work wonders for your skin when it’s formulated in a skin-friendly product.
You don’t have to resort to boring, super minimal exfoliators just because you have rosacea. You’ll see that there are feel-good, gentle, but still effective products you can enjoy.
To mitigate potential dryness or irritation, look for hydrating ingredients in your exfoliators like hyaluronic acid or oils. Also, look for soothing ingredients like aloe or green tea.
How I created This List & My Review Criteria
My rosacea is between type 1 and type 2. So I have consistent redness on my face but I also deal with red bumps and acne. I decide an exfoliator is rosacea safe if the product doesn’t cause any irritation or redness when I use it the way I’m supposed to. To see if there’s any wiggle room, I use the product more often than I should just to see how far I can take things before experiencing flare-ups. The ones with the most wiggle room are the ones you’ll see below. I mainly listed toners and serums as I think they’re better than daily exfoliating cleansers and masks. I also added product information regarding who and what it is best for. And lastly, I included what I think is the best way to use the product to ensure you don’t experience any flare-ups. You’ll also see my ratings for the overall experience with the product.
The Best Exfoliators For Rosacea
1. Youth To The People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant
Super gentle on the skin (see cons)
Leaves skin immediately plump and fresh
Rich in antioxidants
A gentle formula requires consistent use to give noticeable results
A bit expensive for a face toner
Ever since this came out, I’ve been addicted. This is a daily exfoliating toner and one of the gentlest exfoliators I’ve ever used on my rosacea skin. It’s made with mandelic acid, which is like the gentlest alpha hydroxy acid. It also contains salicylic acid, which is great for large pores, oil, and acne rosacea. And it contains gluconolactone, a polyhydroxy acid, for a very superficial exfoliation with added skin plumping benefits. I use this twice daily and there’s literally no burning, no redness, no irritation. It has a fresh, minty scent and leaves the skin absolutely glowing. And it packs several plant-derived antioxidants to improve your skin texture and tone. So overall, no matter your skin type or skin concerns, this is an amazing exfoliator for rosacea.
Key Ingredients: Mandelic acid, salicylic acid, gluconolactone, vitamin C, vitamin E, green tea
Skin Type: All
Size: 4 oz
Usage: Use once/twice daily on clean, dry skin. Apply with cotton pads.
2. Clinique Clarifying Lotion 3
Decongests and clears blackheads
Perfect for excess oil
Fragrance-free and no scent
OK, this is such a skin-friendly formula that this is actually the exfoliator I use when I’m using retinol! They have this toner for different skin types and this is for oily and combination skin types. So for those dealing with a combination skin type and looking to exfoliate without any flare-ups, you can try this salicylic acid toner. It leaves absolutely no residue on the skin and minimizes acne from congestion. It’s no-muss, no-fuss, fragrance-free, and perfectly suitable for daily use. The only potential problem, though I haven’t experienced it myself is that it contains alcohol. In face toners for oily skin, alcohol has a drying effect. It’s tolerable to a certain extent but it’s something to keep in mind in case you’re on the drier side. On the flip side, I think the presence of it is why it works so well for reducing oil.
Key Ingredients: Salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid
Skin Type: Oily, combination
Size: 13.5 oz
Usage: Use once a day on clean dry skin. Apply with cotton pads.
3. Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One AHA Lactic Acid Treatment
Gently exfoliates without visible peeling
Contains a soothing blend
Leaves skin unbothered and replenished
Great for textured skin and uneven skin tone
Not for rosacea sufferers looking for ‘minimal’ products
A high-end serum on the pricey side
Sunday Riley, though expensive and seems too complicated for people with rosacea, actually has incredibly gentle products made with active ingredients. In fact, their retinol products, especially retinol oil is one of my favorite retinol product for sensitive skin. This is their cult-favorite lactic acid serum. Because lactic acid works more superficially than glycolic acid, it’s much gentler on the skin and works slower, which is why you don’t experience any visible peeling. This particular face serum packs brightening licorice extract to help with dark spots and soothing aloe to mitigate irritation. Its lotion-like texture is also incredibly replenishing on the skin. So if you’re dealing with flaky skin, dullness, and uneven skin tone, you can comfortably exfoliate with this and enjoy radiant skin as an after-effect of the serum.
Key Ingredients: Lactic acid, licorice extract, squalane, aloe
Skin Type: All
Size: 1 oz
Usage: Use it a few times a week in your evening routine. Apply after cleansing and after your toners and water-based serums.
4. The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA
A super gentle exfoliant
Most affordable one of this round-up
No visible peeling or redness
Results take time to show
Lacks the ‘feel-good’ aspect
And speaking of serums, obviously, The Ordinary has a wide variety of options to choose from for people with rosacea. This is their mandelic acid treatment. You can also consider their 5% Lactic Acid Treatment but just to make it super gentle, I’m going to focus on this one. The face serum is made with an incredibly gentle alpha-hydroxy acid to target anything from acne to congested skin and from uneven skin tone to flaky skin. For those of you looking for something strictly for skin treatment purposes, this is as budget-friendly as it gets. On the flip side, if you’re like me and expect a certain level of feel-good aspect from your serum, this won’t give you that.
Key Ingredients: Mandelic acid, hyaluronic acid
Skin Type: All
Size: 1 oz
Usage: Use it a few times a week in your PM routine. Apply on clean, dry skin before creamy products.
5. Sephora Collection Targeted Pores Serum with BHA + PHA
Absolutely amazing for reducing acne
Has a calming effect
Layers well with other serums
Non-drying and fragrance-free
Contrary to the product claim, it is (freshly) scented
If you have acne from rosacea or just red bumps that look like acne, I swear you’ll love this. This is one of the most ridiculously effective face serums that work so much better than pricier options. Let me put it this way; this is what I put on my skin as a spot treatment when I’m dealing with period acne on my face or back acne caused by some hair product. And it obliterates that acne AND the redness around it the next day! Sephora says this is for pores but I use it for my acne. And judging from what it does to my acne, it would be reasonable to expect the same skin-clearing effect on large, congested pores too. It’s a combination of salicylic acid and gluconolactone. I haven’t experienced any skin dryness even when I use it twice a day!
Key Ingredients: Salicylic acid, gluconolactone
Skin Type: All, especially oily, acne-prone
Size: 1 oz
Usage: Use once/twice daily on clean dry skin. Or use it as a spot treatment for acne rosacea.
6. Pixi Glow Tonic
Instantly brightens skin
Minimizes pores and plumps skin
Has a refreshing, energizing effect
Increased circulation causes temporary redness
Again, something I managed to use twice a day without any problems! This is a glycolic acid toner made with a 5% concentration. Overall, it’s a bit more potent but still tolerable for skin types like mine with rosacea types 1 and 2. I use this when I really want to get rid of any visible skin flakes and when I’m about to do a whole skincare routine so I need maximum absorption. It leaves the skin absolutely glowing and leaves no sticky feeling afterward. It has amino acids to hydrate, aloe to soothe, and ginseng to energize. And it has a very faint citrus scent. Please note that when something “energizes” the skin, it means it boosts circulation and gives you rosy cheeks. For us people with rosacea, this isn’t preferable. But this effect of the toner is only temporary and things settle after you’re done with your skincare routine.
Key Ingredients: Glycolic acid, ginseng, aloe
Skin Type: All
Size: Various sizes
Usage: Use once every other day and apply with cotton pads.
7. Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
More potent, effective formula
Anti-aging night serum
Brightens, smooths, and clears skin
Tickles your instant gratification with its beautiful finish
Not suitable for everyday use when you have rosacea
Pricey for something you can’t use every day
Lastly, if you don’t have very sensitive skin and your skin is somewhat familiar with exfoliants, I can assure you there’s no reason to avoid using more potent formulations. I’m in my late 30s. Yes, rosacea really limits my choices when it comes to skincare. On the other hand, I have wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin texture that need addressing. These concerns require me to be a bit more proactive. So if you’re like me, you can try this well-formulated exfoliating serum for anti-aging without dealing with redness. This night serum has a total concentration of 12% and the exfoliants include glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and salicylic acid. And it has green tea, aloe, and marula oil for soothing antioxidant benefits too. It’s in gel form, it’s free of fragrance and scent, and when used properly, it’s the perfect recipe for brighter, healthier, glowing skin.
Key Ingredients: Glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, tartaric acid, aloe, green tea, raspberry extract, allantoin
Skin Type: Normal, dry, combination, oily
Size: 1 oz
Usage: Use it once a week or twice a week max. Use a pea-sized amount and apply it on clean, dry skin.
So these are the best exfoliators for people with rosacea that I swear by. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll see that you can improve your skin texture and tone with exfoliation without dealing with flare-ups. I’m hoping to update this list as I’m always experimenting with products. Now, knowing what to use is one thing but application is everything. Keep reading for some FAQs and to learn more about the right way to use exfoliators in your skincare routine for rosacea, things to do, and things to avoid.
Read Next: The Best Vitamin C Serums For Rosacea