How to Exfoliate Sensitive Skin Without Irritating It

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How to Exfoliate Sensitive Skin

Everybody agrees on the importance of exfoliation. But nobody seems to address the red, flaky elephant in the room. How are you supposed to exfoliate sensitive skin? And should you even? First of all, yes you should. The ancient fear around exfoliating sensitive skin goes back to the fact that people would use hard seashells or other abrasive particles. But exfoliation got a huge makeover and people rarely rely on those things to get rid of dead skin cells. But if you have no idea where to start, I’ve got you. Here you’ll learn how to exfoliate sensitive skin on the face and what to use in the process.

To help you better understand the big deal with exfoliation and sensitive skin, I’ll go over the very basics first. Exfoliation means removing the dead skin cells from the surface of the skin (1).

Those dead skin cells are constantly being replaced by new, healthier cells. This is what’s called a cell turnover cycle. But as you age, those dead skin cells tend to take longer to shed off on their own. And they can cause congestion, flakiness, and dullness.

That’s why we exfoliate. When done in moderation, exfoliation has a lot of benefits like smoothing fine lines, clearing up the skin, improving the look of pores, and reducing dark spots.

So far so good. But exfoliation does have certain drawbacks even for normal skin. And it requires more caution when you have sensitive skin.

Why Does Exfoliation Irritate Sensitive Skin

The reason why exfoliation is a challenge for people with sensitive skin is two-fold. First, the very nature of the process causes irritation and redness.

Because you’re removing the top layer of the skin and exposing the layers beneath. As a result, the skin on your face becomes more vulnerable and sensitive.

And second, the exfoliators we use also have their own effects. For example, common chemical exfoliants like glycolic acid usually require a low pH level to exfoliate, which causes irritation for people with sensitive skin (2).

As you can see, it is a challenge. But like with anything in skincare, there are workarounds. I’ve mapped out below the best way to exfoliate sensitive skin and what to do/avoid in the process.

How to Exfoliate Sensitive Skin

1. Do not use physical exfoliants.

Physical exfoliation refers to sugar scrubs, cleansers with microbeads, exfoliating towels, loofahs -anything that requires you to apply manual pressure against the skin.

This can be irritating even for normal skin. When your skin is sensitive, you should avoid all of these. Because it’s almost impossible to manage the level of penetration or equal distribution of the scrub.

Harsh beads can cause micro-tears in the skin, which can lead to further sensitivity, inflammation, and even acne. So, physical exfoliation is out.

I have rosacea. And even rubbing my cheeks with my fingers for 5 seconds causes flare-ups that linger. I can’t imagine bringing a harsh physical scrub close to my face.

2. Use chemical exfoliants.

Chemical exfoliation is the best way to exfoliate sensitive skin. Chemical exfoliation refers to dissolving the glue that holds dead skin cells together by using acids.

Before we get into the specifics of these acids, don’t be intimidated by the word acid. These acids are usually derived from fruits or milk, or other non-scary sources.

Unlike physical exfoliants, chemical exfoliants react with your skin and lift away the top layer of the skin. Chemical exfoliants, when you know what you’re doing, are safe even if you have sensitive skin.

3. Pick the right acid.

We’ve established that you should avoid physical/mechanical exfoliants and go for chemical exfoliants to exfoliate sensitive skin. But your choice of chemical exfoliant is extremely important. There are 3 types of chemical exfoliants (3).

The first one is alpha-hydroxy acids, which mainly consist of glycolic, lactic, mandelic, malic, and tartaric acids. The second one is beta hydroxy acids, which mainly consist of salicylic acid.

These two families of acids are considered to be the gold standard for exfoliation. Though it all depends on your product’s formulation, you can always try any of these acids in very low concentrations.

But some of these acids are way gentler than the rest by nature. Lactic acid, in particular, stands on that sweet spot where it’s gentle enough for sensitive skin but still works great as an exfoliant.

It’s also hydrating for the skin. But it still requires caution, which brings us to our next point and the third type of exfoliants.

4. Use polyhydroxy acids.

The best acids to exfoliate sensitive skin are polyhydroxy acids, which are gluconolactone, lactobionic acid, and maltobionic acid (4). You can read our full guide on polyhydroxy acids. But here’s the gist.

They have big molecules, so they can’t penetrate the skin as much. They only work on the top layer of the skin and do not cause redness, itching, burning, or sensitivity like others do. Also, they work as humectants to hydrate the skin.

And they have antioxidant properties that can provide free radical protection for the skin. Because of their gentle nature, polyhydroxy acids are the best ones to exfoliate sensitive skin.

5. Try enzyme peels.

If you’re not into acids for some reason, then meet enzyme peels. Enzymes are naturally derived from fruits like papaya and pineapple. Much like chemical exfoliants, they break down the bond between dead skin cells and cut them loose.

That’s how they exfoliate the skin. They also come in serums, masks, and other forms. If you’re dealing with congested skin, breakouts, flakiness, enzyme exfoliants can be a great alternative to chemical exfoliants for people with rosacea, or sensitive, irritated skin.

6. Isolate exfoliation.

Exfoliation can come in different forms. There are exfoliating cleansers, toners, pads, lotions, and peels. Some of these products are targeted treatments that are to be done a few times a week.

But cleansers, for example, are to be used daily. Even though cleansers can be gentler than treatment peels, they can still be too much for sensitive skin.

When you buy a cleanser, you’re going to want to use it every day to wash your face and remove makeup. But there’s a chance your skin might get irritated.

In that case, you’re going to have to use it once a week and have to buy a new cleanser. Instead of wasting money and time on trial and error, get proper treatment in the form of a liquid peel, or even a toner.

Even though squeezing exfoliation into your daily routine is practical, there’s no point in forcing it on your sensitive skin.

The Best Exfoliators For Sensitive Skin

From liquid peels to exfoliating toners, below are the best face exfoliators for sensitive skin.

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA - Best Exfoliators For Sensitive Skin - how to exfoliate sensitive skin

We’ve mentioned that lactic acid is the gentlest member of the alpha-hydroxy acids family. Because of its hydrating benefits, it’s exceptionally helpful for exfoliating dry, dehydrated, and sensitive skin. It resurfaces the skin, gets rid of dead skin cells, and removes surface dark spots. The peel comes with hyaluronic acid to amplify the hydrating effects and plump the skin.

The Inkey List Polyhydroxy Acid (PHA) Gentle Exfoliating Toner

The Inkey List Polyhydroxy Acid (PHA) Gentle Exfoliating Toner

This is a daily face toner formulated with 3% PHA, gluconolactone, and 3% niacinamide. The addition of niacinamide is helpful for oily skin to reduce acne and for sensitive skin to reduce redness and irritation. The gentle exfoliating toner also has soothing aloe. The formula is super affordable, cruelty-free, fragrance-free, and one of the best exfoliators for sensitive skin.

Neostrata Bionic Face Serum

Neostrata Bionic Face Serum

If you have sensitive skin as well as fine lines and sun damage, this exfoliant is going to help a lot! It’s formulated with 10% PHA, namely lactobionic acid, to remove dead skin cells while plumping the skin and smoothing out fine lines. The addition of vitamins C, E, and A neutralizes free radicals and fights sun damage. It’s the perfect formula to exfoliate sensitive skin while increasing hydration.

Renee Rouleau Dual Enzyme Softening Peel

Renee Rouleau Dual Enzyme Softening Peel - Best Exfoliators For Sensitive Skin

In the light of what we’ve been talking about, this one is the gentlest in terms of both the formulation and the product. It’s formulated with enzymes and it’s a wash-off face mask. Utilizing papaya and pineapple enzymes, the exfoliating mask breaks down dead skin cells to reveal smoother and brighter skin. Plus, it has vitamin E as well as multi-tasker niacinamide to help with redness, discolorations, and dryness.

Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment

Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment - Best Exfoliators For Sensitive Skin - how to exfoliate sensitive skin

Last but never least, feast your eyes on this lactic acid treatment. This is an effective exfoliator to help sensitive skin with a multitude of concerns. From fine lines to enlarged pores and from dullness to hyperpigmentation, exfoliate away. Besides smoothing the skin with lactic acid, the serum also increases radiance with licorice extract and reduces inflammation with prickly pear.

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads - how to exfoliate sensitive skin

FAB has some of the best products for people with sensitive skin. And these exfoliating pads are no exception. The peel pads contain lactic and glycolic acids to exfoliate the skin. And to avoid irritation, the fragrance-free pads are soaked in anti-inflammatories like green tea and feverfew extract. You can safely exfoliate your face without worrying about redness or irritation.

Youth To The People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant

Youth To The People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant - how to exfoliate sensitive skin

Mandelic acid is another gentle alpha-hydroxy acid. It’s even gentler than lactic acid. This relatively new launch from the brand is a non-irritating exfoliator made with 3% mandelic acid. But it also has 2% salicylic acid, which makes it even better for people with oily and acne-prone skin. And lastly, it has 1% PHA, gluconolactone, for superficial exfoliation with skin-plumping benefits.

How To Choose an Exfoliator For Sensitive Skin

If you haven’t found what you’re looking for here, here’s how to choose an exfoliator if you have sensitive skin.

As a general rule of thumb, people with sensitive skin should go for fragrance-free products. And it’s the same with exfoliators. Try to avoid exfoliators that contain fragrances or essential oils, which tend to be fragrant.

Additionally, look for soothing and anti-inflammatory ingredients like green tea, aloe, or oatmeal in your exfoliator. This may sound trivial, but trust me! They make all the difference. They mitigate potential irritation significantly and also prevent redness.

I’d like to chime in here and add my two cents too. I have rosacea, which makes my skin very sensitive. And I’ve been writing about skincare for years. Though I base all my articles on science and dermatology, I feel like some things need to change.

Skincare has come a long way. There are amazing exfoliators that make irritation a thing of the past. And saying that glycolic acid is an absolute no for people with sensitive skin seems irrelevant to me at this point.

I’m not saying that you should go for it because sensitivity is very subjective. But I’m saying that I have used and I am using glycolic acid on my sensitive skin and my skin is fine! My point is, tread lightly but keep an open mind.

How To Use an Exfoliator When You Have Sensitive Skin

Whether it’s a serum or a toner, use your exfoliator on clean, dry skin. Dry skin is less prone to irritation than damp skin.

The amount of product you should apply depends on the formulation. But for exfoliators, it’s best to use only a pea-sized amount to avoid irritation.

After you use your exfoliator, make sure you follow up with a good, replenishing moisturizer. Dryness won’t help your sensitivity. And most importantly, whichever acid you use, always wear sunscreen to avoid getting a sunburn.

How Often Should You Exfoliate Sensitive Skin

Normally, moderate exfoliation is no trouble for your skin. Normal skin can afford to lose those skin cells and can easily replace those with new ones.

But when you over-exfoliate by doing it too frequently or using very harsh products, you aggressively remove the top layer of the skin.

This ends up damaging your skin barrier. Your skin becomes super sensitive, red, and inflamed while working to replace those cells.

As you can see, sensitivity is in the cards even for normal skin. And when you already have sensitive skin for starters or even rosacea, you need utmost caution.

So if you have sensitive skin, exfoliate your skin once a week. Once your skin gets used to the ingredients, you can try exfoliating two times a week depending on your skin’s needs. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a serum or a mask, start slow.

So this is how you properly exfoliate sensitive skin and the best exfoliators to use. To reiterate, avoid physical exfoliants and go for chemical exfoliants like lactic acid or any of the polyhydroxy acids or an enzyme peel. Find the right product, a serum, toner, or mask, and use it once a week at first until you build a tolerance. As long as you’re gentle with your skin and you pay attention to how it responds to your products, you can safely exfoliate even if you have sensitive skin or rosacea.

Read Next: The Best Face Masks For Rosacea

References:

  1. Draelos, Z. D. (2015). Chapter 59: Antiaging regimens [E-book]. In Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures (2nd ed., p. 480). Wiley-Blackwell. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118655566
  2. Baran, R., & Maibach, H. I. (2017). Exfoliants [E-book]. In Textbook of Cosmetic Dermatology (p. 178). Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.1201/9781315160504
  3. Kornhauser, A., Coelho, S. G., & Hearing, V. J. (2010). Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology3, 135–142. https://doi.org/10.2147/CCID.S9042
  4. Grimes, P. E., Green, B. A., Wildnauer, R. H., & Edison, B. L. (2004). The use of polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) in photoaged skinCutis73(2 Suppl), 3–13.

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