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Which exfoliators are best for sensitive skin?

Exfoliating was once considered off-limits for those with sensitive skin. But now, there are many exfoliators 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 forgo harsh chemicals and exfoliants and stick to simple or plant-based ingredients. However, no matter how gentle exfoliators are, they’re only effective when they’re part of a comprehensive skin care 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 skin care products, such as 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 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 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 components, such as 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 require more intense exfoliation to smooth them over.

How often you should exfoliate

People with normal, oily or even acne-prone skin types are recommended to exfoliate up to three times a week. However, 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 people with sensitive skin invite exfoliators into their skin care routines, it’s crucial to follow it with a suitable moisturizer. Not only will this further soften skin, it may help control redness and irritation.

Cetaphil Daily Oil-Free Hydrating Lotion

Cetaphil Daily Oil-Free Hydrating Lotion, for example, is designed for sensitive skin because it’s fragrance-free and non-comedogenic, so it won’t clog pores. 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, beta hydroxy acids and retinoids. These chemicals all exfoliate by peeling or resurfacing skin; however, some are better suited for managing certain skin concerns.

  • AHAs, including glycolic and citric acid, are often recommended to manage mild hyperpigmentation and fine lines. 
  • BHAs, such as 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 their textures from mildly abrasive ingredients including salt, sugar and 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 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, ranging from dry brushes to exfoliating washcloths. Those 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

  • Silicone exfoliating loofahs are ideal as far as the body is concerned. 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-$20. Those made by premium skin care brands may cost anywhere from $30-$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 exfoliant is vegan and free of alcohol, gluten, synthetic dyes, sodium laureth sulfate and other sulfates. It rinses off easily and leaves skin feeling soft and clean. 

Where to buy: Ulta Beauty, Sephora, Kohl’s, Target and Amazon 

Aveeno Positively Radiant Skin Brightening Daily Scrub

Aveeno Positively Radiant Skin Brightening Daily Scrub

This 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, Target and Ulta Beauty

CeraVe SA Cream for Rough and Bumpy Skin

CeraVe SA Cream for Rough and Bumpy Skin

This 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 Beauty, Amazon and Target

Philosophy Nature In A Jar Gentle Warming Exfoliator

Philosophy Nature In A Jar Gentle Warming Exfoliator

This warming exfoliator 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: Amazon 

Best Paulas Choice SKIN PERFECTING 8 AHA Gel Exfoliant

Paula’s Choice SKIN PERFECTING 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant

This exfoliator improves the texture and appearance of skin with the power of glycolic acid. The non-abrasive formula is made with chamomile, green tea, aloe and hyaluronic acid that protect and hydrate skin. The gel formula is easy to apply. 

Where to buy: Amazon and Sephora

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 Beauty, AmazonSephora and Kohl’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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