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Which exfoliator is best for sensitive skin?

Exfoliating was once considered off-limits for those with sensitive skin. But now, there are many exfoliators on the market that accommodate sensitive skin’s unique needs. 

Exfoliators for sensitive skin feature gentle yet effective formulas that are less likely to strip or irritate skin. Many of them forgo harsh chemicals and exfoliants and instead stick to simple or plant-based ingredients. However, no matter how gentle exfoliators are for sensitive skin, they’re only effective when they’re part of a comprehensive skincare routine.

What you need to know about exfoliating sensitive skin

Benefits of exfoliating skin

Exfoliating skin does more than slough away dead, dry skin. It helps unclog pores so that skincare products, like moisturizer or acne-control products, can penetrate deeper to maximize results. Clean, open pores also give skin the opportunity to breathe and take in moisture. 

Another benefit of exfoliating is boosting circulation, which in turn gives skin a refreshed, healthy glow. It also stimulates collagen production and contributes to healthy cell turnover that gives skin a smooth, supple appearance. 

Face vs. body exfoliators

While face and body exfoliators share many of the same ingredients, they’re completely different products. Simply put, because face and body skin are so different, so too are their exfoliator formulas. 

Facial skin is more delicate, particularly around the eyes, nose and cheeks. As a result, face exfoliators, including those formulated for sensitive skin, are made with gentler ingredients. Many include skin-calming ingredients, like aloe, chamomile or shea butter.

The skin on your body is slightly more resilient. It’s common for body exfoliators to have more abrasive chemical and physical ingredients than face exfoliators. Take your elbows and knees, for example. These areas may have larger, thicker patches of dry skin that often require more intense exfoliation to smooth them over.

How often you should exfoliate

Individuals with normal, oily or even acne-prone skin types are recommended to exfoliate up to three times a week. However, Healthline indicates those with sensitive skin should limit exfoliation to once per week. Exfoliating more often may result in dryness, flakiness or redness.

Importance of moisturizer

When individuals with sensitive skin invite exfoliators into their skincare routines, it’s crucial to follow it with a suitable moisturizer. Not only will it further soften skin, it may help control redness and irritation depending on the formula.

Cetaphil Daily Oil-Free Hydrating Lotion

Cetaphil Daily Oil-Free Hydrating Lotion, for example, is designed for sensitive skin because it’s non-comedogenic and fragrance-free. The lightweight formula offers long-lasting hydration, and it wears well under makeup. 

Vanicream Moisturizing Lotion for Sensitive Skin

Vanicream Moisturizing Lotion for Sensitive Skin is known for its non-irritating formula. It’s free of dyes, fragrance, lanolin and parabens, plus it’s non-comedogenic. The lotion spreads easily and absorbs quickly. 

Types of exfoliators

Chemical exfoliators

Peter Thomas Roth Peptide 21 Amino Acid Exfoliating Peel Pads

Chemical exfoliators include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and retinoids. These chemicals all exfoliate by peeling or resurfacing skin; however, some are better suited for managing certain skin concerns.

  • AHAs, like glycolic and citric acid, are often recommended to manage mild hyperpigmentation and fine lines. 
  • BHAs, like salicylic acid, dig deep into pores to remove buildup. They’re considered ideal for those managing acne or redness. 
  • Retinoids, such as retinol and adapalene, are frequently used to minimize signs of aging and sun damage.

Physical exfoliators

Bare Botanics Body Scrub (Coconut Vanilla)

Physical exfoliators derive unique textures from mildly abrasive ingredients like salt, sugar or ground-up nuts. When you rub a physical exfoliator on skin, ideally in circular motions, it gently sloughs away dry, dead skin. 

Dual exfoliators

Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant

Dual exfoliators, such as Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant, are formulated with both chemical and physical exfoliants. 

Some people find dual exfoliators are more efficient at smoothing and refining since they target more than one layer of skin. However, others feel these types of exfoliators remain a bit too harsh for sensitive skin.

Exfoliating devices

C.S.M. Body Brush for Wet or Dry Brushing

There are several types of exfoliating devices on the market, ranging from dry brushes to exfoliating washcloths. Individuals with sensitive skin benefit from using some of these devices — but not all. Here are three sensitive-skin friendly options:

Daily Concepts Daily Lip Scrubber

A silicone lip scrubber, such as this one by Daily Concepts, offers gentle exfoliation through dense, flexible nubs. It’s considered one of the least abrasive ways to exfoliate lips. 

EZBASICS Sonic Facial Cleansing Brush made with Ultra Hygienic Soft Silicone

Sonic cleansing brushes, which also have flexible silicone nubs, exfoliate skin by vibrating across the surface of the face. They’re considered a softer approach to whole-face exfoliation.

Avilana Exfoliating Silicone Body Scrubber Easy to Clean

As far as the body is concerned, silicone exfoliating loofahs are ideal. They’re non-irritating and won’t strip skin as much as washcloths, body scrubbers and some bath poufs. 

How much does an exfoliator for sensitive skin cost?

Drugstore exfoliators and exfoliating devices cost $6 to $20. Those made by premium skincare brands, on the other hand, may cost anywhere from $30 to $300. 

Best exfoliators for sensitive skin

Clinique 7 Day Scrub Cream Rinse-Off Formula

Clinique 7 Day Scrub Cream Rinse-Off Formula

In addition to a soft, creamy consistency, this gentle physical exfoliation is vegan and free of alcohol, gluten, synthetic dyes, SLS and sulfates. It rinses off easily and leaves skin feeling soft and clean. 

Where to buy: Ulta, Sephora and Macy’s

Aveeno Positively Radiant Skin Brightening Daily Scrub

Aveeno Positively Radiant Skin Brightening Daily Scrub

This Aveeno formula is textured with naturally derived granules that buff away dry skin and remove impurities. It’s non-comedogenic and is infused with jojoba and castor oils to smooth skin. 

Where to buy: Amazon and Ulta

CeraVe SA Cream for Rough and Bumpy Skin

CeraVe SA Cream for Rough and Bumpy Skin

CeraVe’s salicylic acid exfoliator is effective at smoothing over rough-and-bumpy areas, including knees, elbows and heels. It attracts moisture with hyaluronic acid and soothes irritation and redness with niacinamide. 

Where to buy: Ulta

Philosophy Nature In A Jar Gentle Warming Exfoliator

Philosophy Nature In A Jar Gentle Warming Exfoliator

This warming exfoliator by Philosophy features naturally derived ingredients that nourish and revitalize skin after exfoliation. The self-warming formula is said to minimize the appearance of pores as well. 

Where to buy: Ulta and Macy’s

The Body Shop Almond Milk & Honey Gently Exfoliating Cream Scrub

The Body Shop Almond Milk & Honey Gently Exfoliating Cream Scrub

Made specially for sensitive skin, this luxurious exfoliating cream is hypoallergenic and fragrance-free. It has moisturizing, calming properties that soothe and soften skin longer after each use.

Where to buy: Ulta

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads

These convenient AHA exfoliating and toning pads are gentle, even on sensitive or delicate skin. The pads are infused with cucumber, Indian gooseberry and lemon peel to boost skin’s natural radiance. 

Where to buy: Ulta, Sephora and Macy’s


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Sian Babish writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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