The Best Exfoliators for Sensitive Skin, According to a Board-Certified Dermatologist
The concept of exfoliation used to refer only to physical scrubs too harsh for people with sensitive or reactive skin. These days, there are plenty of gentler exfoliators for sensitive skin. While exfoliation is not needed daily, like a face wash or moisturizer, it is something that should be done regularly in one’s 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. Exfoliation wins all around.
There are two types of exfoliators: The aforementioned physical scrubs, which usually contain plant-based exfoliators like rice powder, sugar, or jojoba beads; and chemical exfoliators, which typically include AHAs and 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 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.
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. “I recommend using it at night, gradually increasing to a few times weekly as tolerated," she says. 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.
The Best Exfoliators for Sensitive Skin
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. That’s not all, 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.
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.”
“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.
This German-made skincare brand (which just made its way to the States) 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. And for best results, use it with the brand’s Collagen Serum—one of the things that makes QMS stand out is the fact that they use bovine collagen because it’s 97 percent identical to the human collagen structure. This means that our skin recognizes it, allowing it to be absorbed onto the skin for up to 72 hours.
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. 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, as well as lemon for toning.
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.
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. (Choose the lactic option if you have sensitive skin, per Dr. Liu’s ingredient recommendations.) It also contains brightening ingredients like licorice and lemongrass which can help with dark spots, as well as soothing prickly pear extract. One tip for sensitive skin friends: use it as a mask. Apply one to three pumps of Good Genes and leave on for 15 minutes. Afterwards, just rinse it off.
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, while the second step contains tiger grass to protect the skin barrier and colloidal oatmeal to reduce irritation while improving redness, dryness, and rough texture.
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.
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.
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.
When you add this popular tonic to your routine, you can expect brighter skin and smoother texture, and who doesn’t want that? 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.
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. Get this in your skincare stash ASAP.
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!).
This exfoliator is technically called an essence, but 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.
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