Beauty Without Pain: Exfoliation for Sensitive Skin


  • Like all skin types, sensitive skin benefits from exfoliation. 

  • Exfoliators for sensitive body skin are available in chemical and mechanical formulas. 

  • Natural exfoliators reduce the chance of irritation by harsher products. 

  • Sensitive exfoliators for rosacea are safe and effective. 

Exfoliating is essential in any skincare routine, as it helps remove dead skin cells and unclog pores, leaving the skin feeling refreshed. However, finding the right exfoliator is challenging for those with sensitive skin. Many exfoliators on the market are harsh and irritate sensitive skin, leaving it red, dry, and uncomfortable.  

The key to finding the best exfoliator for sensitive skin is to look for products that are gentle and non-abrasive. Sensitive skin needs ingredients that leave behind something soothing and comfortable, not red, tender or scratched areas. With so many options on the market, which ones are best for sensitive skin?  

Should You Use an Exfoliator If You Have Sensitive Skin?


Everyone, including folks with sensitive skin, should exfoliate. Exfoliating is an essential step in any skincare routine, but it's difficult for those with sensitive skin. Chemical exfoliants, such as lactic acid and salicylic acid, are an excellent option for sensitive skin and gentle physical exfoliants. 

An exfoliator is vital for healthy skin if you find a product to suit your sensitivity. Reducing irritation while removing the layer of skin that builds up over time is the desired result of using an exfoliation skincare product. Unfortunately, many exfoliants have a bad reputation for being both painful and causing additional skin stress, which is why some avoid these products altogether. 

What Kind of Exfoliator is Good for Reactive Skin Types? 

Look for ingredients that soothe, calm, and reduce inflammation that often accompanies more abrasive skincare techniques. Avoid scrubs with sharp pieces or rough bits that cut into the skin, creating scratches or scarring.  

Chemical or Physical Exfoliators 

Two types of exfoliators are chemical and mechanical. Both work to do the job of sloughing away dead skin cells that create a dull film over the surface. It is a preference for which method best suits your skin care needs.  

Chemical exfoliants dissolve on their own. Mechanical options involve a little more effort to rub away dry skin. Either option reaches the skin cells under the surface and enhances the complexion's glow and texture. 

Chemical Exfoliants


Chemical exfoliants, such as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), are a great option for sensitive skin as they work by dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells rather than physically scrubbing them away.

Dr. Frank, a New York-based dermatologist recommends using chemical exfoliants for sensitive skin. “It is better to use a gentle chemical exfoliator as physical exfoliants can be too abrasive and tend to cause redness and irritation for those with sensitive skin.”

Lactic acid, salicylic acid, and polyhydroxy acids (PHA) are examples of gentle chemical exfoliators that are excellent for delicate skin types.

AHAs and BHAs 

AHAs and BHAs have been around for quite a while and yield excellent results as exfoliating ingredients. Those with skin prone to irritation must carefully select from the endless selection of over-the-counter skincare. 

An excellent chemical exfoliant product for sensitive skin with AHAs is the Superkind Fragrance-Free Radiance Mask by Tata Harper. This mask has a self-neutralizing AHA blend and sugar prebiotics that protect the skin's microbiome. This mask removes layers of dull skin to smooth texture and add moisture to your face.

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Tata Harper's line Superkind places reactive skin at the forefront of its development, which makes it ideal for skin needing some TLC. This product is available at Sephora.  

Lactic Acid


One popular chemical exfoliant for sensitive skin is lactic acid. Lactic acid is an AHA derived from milk and known for its gentle exfoliating properties. It helps to loosen and remove dead skin cells while hydrating and brightening the skin. Lactic acid has many benefits, including increased moisturization and cellular turnover, resulting in fresher and smoother-looking skin. 

Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel Pads for Sensitive Skin by Dr. Dennis Gross is a great exfoliator with lactic acid.

Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel Pads
$92.00 ($3.07 / Count)

by Dr. Dennis Gross

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11/29/2023 12:34 am GMT

This single-use, two-step wipe incorporates both lactic and malic acids, both AHAS, to exfoliate skin effectively and gently. Moisturizing hyaluronic acid smooths out the texture of combination, normal, and dry skin types. Including colloidal oatmeal in this treatment is another example of oats as a balancing and calming agent. 

Salicylic Acid


Another chemical exfoliant that is suitable for sensitive skin is salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is a BHA derived from willow bark and is known for its ability to penetrate deep into the pores to remove impurities and unclog them. It also has anti-inflammatory properties that calm irritated skin. 

CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser is an excellent choice for sensitive skin as it is non-irritating and formulated with ceramides to help restore the skin's natural barrier. 

Renewing SA Cleanser
$11.71 ($1.46 / Ounce)

by CeraVe 

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11/29/2023 12:29 am GMT

CeraVe is known as a dermatologist-tested and recommended skincare and body care line, making it suitable for skin that typically would not be an ideal candidate for exfoliants, such as rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. 


Other chemical exfoliants suitable for delicate or reactive skin are Polyhydroxy acids (PHA). Polyhydroxy acids are a new exfoliant that is gaining popularity as a gentle and effective option for sensitive skin. Like AHAs and BHAs, PHAs work by dissolving bonds between dead skin cells but have a larger molecular structure. This makes them less likely to penetrate deep beneath the skin's surface and cause irritation, redness, and abrasions. 

Try Aveeno Calm + Restore Nourishing PHA Facial Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin for a chemical exfoliant that soothes dull skin by removing dead skin cells.

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This product offers a gentle formula to remedy the discomfort of potential burning and stinging of using such exfoliating facial treatments. It is formulated without many of the ingredients that contribute to allergies and other issues such as alcohol, dyes, fragrance, sulfates, phthalates, and parabens. 

Adding oat oil to this formula as a primary ingredient is a bonus: an added soothing and delicate touch for dry skin, reinforcing the skin's moisture barrier. 

Physical Exfoliants


Gentle physical exfoliants are good options for highly irritable skin. These exfoliants typically use small particles, such as sugar or bamboo, to gently remove dead skin cells. These are less likely to irritate harsher physical exfoliants, such as apricot kernels or walnut shells. Fresh Strawberry Sugar Face Wash is one example of a gentle physical exfoliant.

Strawberry Sugar Face Wash
$56.50 ($13.45 / Ounce)

by Fresh 

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11/29/2023 12:13 am GMT

This product uses strawberry seed extract, sugar crystals, and other natural ingredients to provide a comfortable cleansing and exfoliating experience. There is no abrasive feeling to the tiny particles that rub away the grime and excess dead skin. 

Plus, the delightful scent of strawberries is a surprise – a refreshing touch that makes you look forward to daily use. Find this product at Sephora. 

In addition to looking for gentle exfoliants, it's essential to pay attention to the other ingredients in the product. For example, avoid exfoliants that contain fragrances, essential oils, or alcohol, as these are irritating to sensitive skin. Instead, look for exfoliants that contain soothing ingredients, such as aloe vera or chamomile, to help calm and soothe the skin. 

How Do You Exfoliate Super Sensitive Skin? 

When using an exfoliator for irritated, sensitized skin, it’s important to start slowly and gradually increase the frequency of use. Begin using the exfoliator once a week and see how your skin reacts. If your skin tolerates this amount, gradually increase the frequency to twice a week, and so on. Use a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer after exfoliating to help hydrate and soothe the skin. 

What About Retinols and Sensitive Skin?


Retinols are well known for both excellent exfoliation and the predisposition to sensitivity by users. However, it is a challenge to locate retinol products for sensitive skin. There must be enough active ingredients to remove damaged, dull, and dry surface skin and reveal new skin in the morning. Also, finding retinol without a prescription that performs beyond expectations is important for new and experienced users of this skincare product. 

Retinol Reform Treatment Serum by Shani Darden is a go-to product touted by celebs and regular folks with sensitive skin. This dermatologist-developed skincare line has quickly become a favorite for sensitive skin users and those seeking scientific approaches to skin. You can find it at Sephora, among other retailers. 

Retinol Reform Treatment Serum

by Shani Darden

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11/29/2023 12:18 am GMT

Encapsulated retinol delivers the one-two punch against fine lines and wrinkles. In addition, AHAs improve texture and even out complexion. Apple fruit extract is an antioxidant that protects the health and vitality of the skin as it protects from the effects of pollutants and environmental factors. 

Soothe & Pamper Your Sensitive Skin

Sensitive skin can enjoy the same benefits from exfoliants as less delicate skin. The key is to find the best formula for glowing results that show off beautiful, healthy skin with ingredients tailored to your skin type.

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