Here’s How to Exfoliate If You Have Sensitive Skin

August 05, 2022
Mary Honkus
By: Mary Honkus | by L'Oréal
Derm DMs: Should I Exfoliate If I Have Sensitive Skin?

Exfoliation is an essential part of every skincare routine to slough away dead skin cells, clear out clogged pores and reveal a brighter, smoother complexion. But for those with sensitive skin, it can be difficult to find the right products and a technique that doesn’t result in dry patches and irritation. 


“Every skin type can benefit from an exfoliator, but understanding your skin type and not being too harsh or aggressive is key, especially if you have sensitive skin,” says Dr. Paul Jarrod Frank, a New York City-based board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and consultant. Ahead, he offers tips about how to choose an exfoliator for sensitive skin, how often you should use it and some of his favorite gentle exfoliators specifically formulated for sensitive skin

How to Exfoliate Sensitive Skin

There are two different types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliators utilize abrasive substances like sugar or salt particles to slough away dead skin, while chemical exfoliators contain beta-hydroxy-acids (BHAs) or alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs) that gently dissolve buildup to reveal a smoother, brighter complexion. When it comes to choosing which form of exfoliant to use on sensitive skin, Dr. Frank recommends the latter. “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,” he says. 

While chemical exfoliants are the way to go, you will still want to pay attention to the type and concentration of exfoliating ingredients that are in the product you choose — and consult with your dermatologist if you have questions, concerns, or need help choosing the right product. Dr. Frank recommends looking for products that contain lactic acid because it is one of the mildest forms of AHAs. “If you’re choosing a glycolic acid, opt for one in a lotion base,” he says. 

You don’t necessarily need to avoid any specific exfoliating acids, though — instead you should focus on the concentration of the acid. Dr. Frank suggests looking for products with a low percentage of acids (10% or lower, combining the percentage of all acids in the product). Be sure to avoid formulas with alcohol and fragrance, too, as both are known to irritate sensitive skin. Also keep in mind that chemical exfoliants can increase sun sensitivity, so be sure to use sunscreen and other sun protection after exfoliating. 

There’s no magic formula for how often you should exfoliate, but it’s smart to start with once a week if you have sensitive skin (and discontinue use and consult your dermatologist if you experience an unexpected or adverse reaction.) If your skin is tolerating the treatment and you feel like you’re not achieving the results you want, you can slowly increase frequency to two or three times a week. Before you exfoliate, be sure to fully cleanse your skin. “Only exfoliate over clean skin,” Dr. Frank urges. “This is for all skin types, but for sensitive skin, make sure you cleanse first, with tepid or room temperature water.” 

If you accidentally over-exfoliate, be sure to soothe the skin with a hydrating moisturizer and layer on the sunscreen, as over-exfoliation can make your complexion more susceptible to sun damage. You should also “give your skin a break from active ingredients for a week or so,” says Dr. Frank so your skin can fully heal. 

For those who are looking for gentle exfoliant options for their sensitive skin, Dr. Frank recommends the SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight because the unique formula gently exfoliates and promotes cell turnover while locking in hydration to keep your skin feeling comfortable. 

SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight

Design: Hannah Packer


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