The concept of exfoliation used to refer only to physical scrubs too harsh for people with sensitive or reactive skin. But, these days, there are plenty of gentler exfoliators for sensitive skin. Read on for a dermatologist’s tips on how to exfoliate safely and effectively, as well as 15 softer exfoliants to try.
Best exfoliators for sensitive skin at a glance
- Best exfoliator for clogged pores: The INKEY List, PHA Toner, $13
- Best overnight exfoliator: Peach & Lily, Power Cocktail Lactic Acid Repair Serum, $51
- Best exfoliator for dry skin: CeraVe, Skin Renewing Nightly Glycolic Treatment, $30
- Best exfoliator for combination skin: Murad, Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel, $79
- Best exfoliator for acne: Kinship, Insta Swipe Lemon Honey AHA Exfoliating Pads, $26
- Best lactic acid exfoliator: Sunday Riley, Good Genes All-In-One AHA Lactic Acid Treatment, $85
- Best exfoliator pads: Dr. Dennis Gross, Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel for Sensitive Skin, $92
- Best splurge exfoliator: QMS, Active Exfoliant 7% Sensitive Resurfacing Fluid, $110
- Best spray exfoliator: Cosrx, AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner, $20
- Best exfoliator with PHA: Shani Darden, Skin Care Lactic Acid AHA Exfoliating Serum, $88
- Best value exfoliator: Pixi Skintreats, Glow Tonic Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Toner, $15
- Best exfoliator for oily skin: REN Clean Skincare, Ready Steady Glow AHA Lotion Tonic, $40
- Best-rated exfoliator: Kate Somerville, ExfoliKate Intensive Pore Exfoliating Treatment, $78
- Best exfoliator with niacinamide: Summer Fridays, Soft Reset AHA Exfoliating Solution, $58
- Best exfoliator for wrinkles: Alpha-H, Generation Glow Daily Resurfacing Essence, $75
- Jenny Liu, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at University of Minnesota Medical School
Should you exfoliate if you have sensitive skin?
Yes! While exfoliation is not needed daily, like a face wash or moisturizer, it is something that should be a regular part of your skin-care routine. After all, it gets rid of dead skin, which results in a myriad of benefits, like evening out skin tone, improving texture, unclogging pores, preventing acne as well as fine lines and wrinkles, and allowing your other skincare products to be absorbed better, which in turn, helps makeup to go on smoother. And the benefits don’t stop at your face—your whole body can benefit from exfoliation, especially in the winter months.
What exfoliation is best for sensitive skin?
First, let’s review the two types of exfoliators you can use at home. The first are physical scrubs, which usually contain plant-based exfoliators like rice powder, sugar, or jojoba beads. These products are what give exfoliation a bad rap, as they’re tough on your skin’s exterior and can often be overused.
The second are chemical exfoliators, which typically include alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). When it comes to sensitive skin, Jenny Liu, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Minneapolis, says chemical exfoliators are your best bet. As far as specific ingredients to look for, Dr. Liu says polyhydroxy acid (PHA) and lactic acid are best, while you may want to avoid glycolic acid. “It's mostly the frequency of use and formulation that matters more than ingredients, but in general, sensitive skin may find glycolic acid to be more irritating,” she says, but points out that is more a recommendation than a true rule of thumb.
How many times a week should I exfoliate my sensitive skin?
If you have sensitive or reactive skin but want to try out an exfoliator for all of its benefits, Dr. Liu says it’s best to start off slowly, one to two times a week. “I recommend using it at night, gradually increasing to a few times weekly as tolerated," she says. In general, exfoliators should not be used daily, and you should also consider removing other actives when starting a new exfoliant.
Ahead, the best exfoliators for sensitive skin that work for any type of budget, including some of Dr. Liu’s favorite picks.
15 of the best exfoliators for sensitive skin
Key ingredients: 3% PHA, 3% niacinamide, aloe leaf juice
Dr. Liu loves this toner, which contains three percent PHA. “PHA, as mentioned earlier, is a gentle exfoliant for sensitive skin,” she says. The PHA does all the dirty work, like getting rid of dead skin cells so cell turnover is increased, which then allows benefits like improved skin texture, as well as other skincare products to be absorbed a lot better. It also contains niacinamide, which is an ingredient that is everywhere lately, and for good reason—it helps reduce the appearance of pores, control oil, lessen redness, and fight acne.
Size: 3.4 oz
How to use: Morning or night, apply to a cotton pad and sweep across the face and neck. It does not need to be rinsed off.
- Contains nourishing aloe vera
- PHA clears pores, while niacinamide helps reduce their appearance
- Not for those sensitive to niacinamide
Key ingredients: Hyaluronic acid, ginkgo biloba, red algae, ceramides
According to Dr. Liu, this is “another more gentle serum that can be used as an overnight treatment.” A powerful combination of 10 percent lactic acid (another suggested ingredient from Dr. Liu for sensitive skin peeps) and 12 active natural extracts, including red algae, black ginseng, and ginkgo biloba, as well as ceramides, a botanical ferment complex, and a hyaluronic acid complex. All of these ingredients help resurface the skin, fade dark spots, improve wrinkles, and fine lines, promote firmness, and nourish and protect the skin barrier. No wonder it’s called a “power cocktail.”
Size: 1 oz
How to use: Apply to skin after cleansing and toning, either morning or night, and follow up with moisturizer.
- Generous dose of lactic acid for resurfacing
- Fragrance-free, non-comedogenic formula
- Higher price per ounce
Key ingredients: Lactic & glycolic acids, licorice root extract, hyaluronic acid
“This is a glycolic-lactic blend but in a more gentle creamy formulation,” says Dr. Liu. She still recommends only using it two to three times weekly. The five percent AHA blend can help speed up skin cell renewal and get rid of dead skin cells without damaging the skin. Over time, expect a glowy, more radiant complexion, as well as the visible reduction of wrinkles, fine lines, big pores, and dark spots. The treatment also has nourishing and protective ceramides like hyaluronic acid and licorice root extract, so it’s a good one to keep in your bathroom cabinet.
Size: 1 oz
How to use: Before bedtime, apply to the face after cleansing. Follow with a moisturizer.
- Highly rated by folks with dry, sensitive skin
- Formula includes multiple beneficial ceramides and acids
- Some customers mention not liking the consistency or smell
Key ingredients: AHAs, BHAs, TXAs, holy basil
This peel actually does double the work of other exfoliants, as it works in two phases. The first uses an impressive combination of AHAs, BHAs, and TXAs for resurfacing the skin, resulting in a brighter and smoother complexion, unclogged pores, and a more even tone. The second phase consists of holy basil, an antioxidant-rich and adaptogenic herb, that can help calm the skin and fight against oxidative stress.
Size: 3.3 oz
How to use: After cleansing your face at night, use a cotton pad to sweep this peel over your face, neck and chest. Do not rinse. Follow with your serum and moisturizer and be sure to wear SPF the next day.
- Highly rated by folks with combination skin
- Contains adaptogenic holy basil
- Several customers complain about the smell
- Some people report breakouts
Key ingredients: Glycolic acid, Kinbiome probiotics, manuka honey, lemon
This is another exfoliator that uses glycolic acid, but it’s gentle enough on skin to unclog pores and reduce the look of breakouts without being too harsh on the skin. It’s a great choice for sensitive skin types that are also prone to zits, plus, it comes in handy exfoliating pads that are compostable. Other key ingredients include Kinbiome, the brand’s signature plant-based probiotic that helps with glow and protects the skin barrier, manuka honey, which is a great antioxidant that fights against inflammation, and lemon for toning.
Size: 45 pads
How to use: After cleansing, swipe a pad over the face and do not rinse. Avoid the eye area and any broken skin. Start 3 times weekly and increase frequency gradually.
- Highly rated by folks with acne
- Pads are compostable
- Packaging is made with recycled materials
- Pads are on the smaller side
Key ingredients: Lactic acid, lemongrass, licorice, prickly pear extract
The beloved, award-winning Good Genes treatment comes in two forms: glycolic acid and lactic acid. Because lactic acid is a larger molecule than glycolic acid, it won’t sink into the skin as deeply, so it ends up being more gentle—that’s why we’ve chosen the lactic option, per Dr. Liu’s ingredient recommendations for sensitive skin. The formula also contains brightening ingredients like licorice and lemongrass which can help with dark spots, as well as soothing prickly pear extract.
Size: 1 oz
How to use: For sensitive-skin friends, we recommend using it as a mask. Apply one to three pumps of Good Genes and leave on for 15 minutes. Afterwards, rinse it off.
- Several size options available
- Soothing prickly pear extract
- Licorice and lemongrass for brightening
- Some customers say it has a strong smell
Key ingredients: Lactic acid, malic acid, hyaluronic acid, colloidal oatmeal
Just because you have sensitive skin doesn’t mean you can’t use Dr. Dennis Gross’ iconic peel pads! This popular, two-step, exfoliating peel comes in a specially formulated option that won’t irritate the skin. The first step contains three Alpha Beta acids that remove dead skin cells, along with calming chamomile. The second step contains tiger grass to protect the skin barrier and colloidal oatmeal to reduce irritation while improving redness, dryness, and rough texture.
Size: 30 treatments
How to use: After cleansing, massage Step 1 peel pad into face and neck until pad is dry. Wait 2 minutes, then repeat with Step 2 peel pad. Do not rinse.
- Formulated for sensitive skin
- Mini 5-treatment size available
- Two-step process exfoliates and protects skin barrier
- Pads aren’t compostable
- May still be too intense for some skin types
Key ingredients: AHA, glycolic acid, lactic acid, chamomile, willow bark extract
This German-made skincare brand is known for its scientifically powered ingredients, like this exfoliating fluid, which is made with 7 percent AHAs and a pH of 3.5. This one also contains both lactic and glycolic acid, but at a lower percent (the regular Resurfacing Fluid contains 11 percent). Expect your skin to be brighter and smoother after using this gentle peel.
For best results, use it with the brand’s Collagen Serum ($125). One of the things that makes QMS stand out is the fact that they use bovine collagen, which is 97 percent identical to human collagen structure. This means that our skin recognizes it, allowing it to be absorbed onto the skin for up to 72 hours.
Size: 1 oz
How to use: Smooth over the face and neck after cleansing, 2-3 times a week. Leave for 10-15 minutes, then rinse.
- Formulated for sensitive skin
- Includes soothing chamomile and willow bark extract
- Priciest pick on this list
- Includes added fragrances
Key ingredients: Glycolic acid, betaine salicylate, white willow bark, apple water
This toner does so much for your skin—aside from lifting away dead skin cells, it will help bring life to your complexion, improving dullness while evening tone, thanks to the 10 percent of skin nutrients like apple water and white willow bark extracts. Meanwhile, BHAs reduce blackheads and whiteheads for clearer-looking skin. It’s also easy to use. Simply spray the toner onto a cotton pad and sweep it all over your face after using your cleanser.
Size: 5 oz
How to use: After washing your face, spray the toner onto a cotton pad. Gently sweep the damp cotton pad all over the face, then follow with a moisturizer. Some customers say you can spray it directly on your face and pat with your fingertips.
- Good value for size
- Spray bottle for easy application
- Some customers say it was too gentle for their needs
Key ingredients: Lactic acid, gluconolactone, aloe, hyaluronic acid, green tea
Since Dr. Liu suggests lactic acid and PHA for sensitive skin, this serum is an awesome choice to add into your routine. It contains 9 percent lactic acid to exfoliate the skin, buffing away dead skin cells in order to bring out a brighter, glowy, and more even complexion. The presence of gluconolactone (PHA) then does its own job, exfoliating the skin to help with tone and improve the appearance of breakouts. A combination of aloe, hyaluronic acid, and green tea are the cherry on top, soothing the skin and keeping it hydrated.
Size: 1 oz
How to use: In the evening, smooth one to two pumps onto clean skin. Wait 5 minutes before applying moisturizer and avoid combining with retinol.
- Includes sensitive-friendly lactic acid and gluconolactone
- Cannot combine with retinol
Key ingredients: Glycolic acid, aloe vera, ginseng, witch hazel
Another popular exfoliator, this toner also contains glycolic acid, but still has a lot of fans in the sensitive-skin crowd. While the glycolic exfoliates the skin, ginseng helps energize and improve circulation, helping to bring life to a dull complexion. It also contains aloe vera to help hydrate and soothe the skin.
Size: 3.4 oz
How to use: Either morning or night, saturate a cotton pad with the tonic and sweep across face and neck after cleansing, avoiding eye area.
- Budget-friendly pick
- Includes soothing aloe vera
- Can be tricky to find in stores
Key ingredients: Lactic acid, salicin, citrus fruit oils
When you add this popular tonic to your routine, you can expect brighter skin and smoother texture. It’s all thanks to lactic acid, which is gentle enough on sensitive skin but strong enough to do the work needed for a more energized complexion. Salicin, a BHA, is also a key ingredient, and is known to help with acne, regulating oil production, and clearing out pores.
Size: 8 oz
How to use: In the evening, apply to freshly cleansed skin, avoiding the eye area. Folks with extra sensitive skin: dampen the cotton pad with water to dilute the formula while your skin becomes accustomed to it.
- Several size options available
- Salicin works to regulate oil production and acne
- Includes added fragrance
Key ingredients: Lactic acid, salicylic acid, fruit acid enzymes, aloe vera, vitamin E
ExfoliKate is a longtime favorite of skin care fans thanks to its exfoliating capabilities. A powerful and impressive ingredient features fruit acid enzymes made up of papaya, pumpkin, and pineapple, which all do their own exfoliating while keeping things hydrated. Then, you get the chemical exfoliation benefits thanks to lactic acid and salicylic acid. To ensure skin stays soft, nourished, and protected, you have aloe vera, vitamin E, and honey.
Size: 2 oz
How to use: Use once or twice a week, morning or night. Apply to wet face after cleansing, massaging in a circular motion for 30 seconds. Leave on for up to 2 minutes, then rinse and gently pat dry.
- Highly rated by customers with sensitive skin
- Formula includes fruit acid enzymes for exfoliation and hydration
- Pricey pick
Key ingredients: Lactic acid, niacinamide, glycolic acid, turmeric root extract
This overnight three-in-one treatment is packed with power—it contains 16 percent AHAs (lactic acid and glycolic acid) to get rid of dead skin cells in order to reveal brighter skin. It also has that buzzy ingredient niacinamide, which helps refine texture and reduce the appearance of pores. Summer Fridays does suggest easing into the product if you have sensitive skin, so make sure you do a patch test behind the ear before incorporating it regularly. Also, keep in mind that slight tingling is normal (as with most acids!).
Size: 3.4 oz
How to use: After cleansing, saturate a cotton pad with Soft Reset and sweep over face and neck (avoiding the eye area). Once fully absorbed, follow with a moisturizer.
- Niacinamide helps with texture and visibility of pores
- Includes anti-inflammatory turmeric root extract
- Glycolic acid may be too intense for some skin types
Key ingredients: Lactic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, postbiotic botanical blend
This exfoliator is technically called an essence, but it still does all of the work needed for a brighter and more even complexion. It contains a 5 percent AHA combo that includes lactic, citric, tartaric and malic acid—these all help to bring luminousness to skin while improving texture and tone. It also helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles as well as pigmentation, and contains a proprietary Australian Postbiotic botanical blend to help support a healthy skin barrier. Even better? It’s actually formulated with sensitive skin types in mind.
Size: 3.4 oz
How to use: After cleansing, gently press essence into your face. Follow with moisturizer (and SPF for daytime use).
- AHA combo combats fine lines and wrinkles
- Gentle postbiotic blend helps protect skin barrier
- Can be tricky to find in stores
Frequently asked questions
Which exfoliator do dermatologists recommend?
Especially if you’re someone with sensitive skin, dermatologists recommend using a chemical exfoliant. Dr. Liu recommends formulas with lactic acid or PHA for those who want to take a gentler approach to exfoliation.
What is a good natural face exfoliator for sensitive skin?
Physical exfoliants can be harsher than chemical exfoliants for folks with sensitive skin. Still, if you prefer a physical exfoliant, opt for a product that uses natural ingredients like jojoba beads, sugar crystals, or ground-up walnut shells. And always (always) moisturize afterward!
What is the gentlest way to exfoliate?
Contrary to popular belief, dermatologists suggest that some chemical exfoliants can be gentler on the skin than physical scrubs. Of course, this is only true if you’re opting for a product that is geared toward sensitive skin types, made with softer chemicals like lactic acid and PHA (like the picks on this list). If you’re trying a new exfoliator, always test it out on the skin behind your ear and only exfoliate once or twice a week to start.
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