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How to find the best face scrub for sensitive skin?

Everyone’s skin is different, but these are a few tips you should keep in mind.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 24, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
Cheerful Woman Scrubbing Face
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 24, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

There’s no one-size-fits-all in skincare. What works for one person may not necessarily have the same results for someone else. But it’s only natural to want the best! Luckily our team of licensed dermatology providers are regularly reviewing and assessing products on the market and are happy to offer a few recommendations! So here, you’ll find the products that hold up to our rigorous standards.

Traditional face scrubs often pose a problem: They can be too harsh, leading to undesirable results such as irritation and redness. The good news is there are better exfoliation options available for you if you have sensitive skin. 

Here, we’ll explain why exfoliation can be a helpful step in a skincare routine, the pros and cons of physical exfoliation techniques, and alternatives like chemical exfoliants that are typically gentler on sensitive skin. We’ll also provide tips on choosing a face scrub that’s suitable for sensitive skin. 

What do face scrubs do?

Face scrubs are one product you can use for physical exfoliation. They work by removing dead skin cells on the surface of your skin, contributing to a brighter complexion. This process can be done through cleansing scrubs, mechanical facial brushes, sonicating devices, and micro-exfoliating rollers. 

With that said, physical exfoliation has its drawbacks. The very nature of these techniques can temporarily disrupt your skin’s protective barrier. This disruption may lead to increased water loss from your skin, which is why it’s so important to hydrate your skin post-exfoliation.¹

Why does my skin need to be exfoliated? 

Generally speaking, exfoliation helps keep your complexion bright, smooth, and fresh. The outermost layer of your skin, the stratum corneum, frequently accumulates dead skin cells. Over time, this build-up can result in a rough and uneven complexion. Exfoliation assists in removing these dead cells and revealing a polished, smoother skin surface.²

Exfoliation isn’t limited to physical methods, such as scrubs or brushes; chemical exfoliation is another option. Chemical exfoliants like glycolic, lactic, and malic acids, as well as salicylic acid,³ help to dissolve the bonds that hold your dead skin cells together. This helps make it easier to wash these cells away, further promoting skin smoothness.

Despite the immediate effects of physical exfoliation, such as brighter and smoother skin, remember that it can temporarily disrupt the skin barrier and lead to increased water loss.⁴ So if you have sensitive or easily irritated skin, gentler methods of exfoliation are often recommended.

What is the best way to exfoliate my sensitive skin? 

If you have sensitive skin, the wrong choice in exfoliator can irritate your skin, while the right one can give you a smooth and glowing complexion. Chemical exfoliators, specifically mandelic acid and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) are usually a safer bet for sensitive skin, offering a gentler alternative to abrasive physical exfoliators.

Mandelic acid: Mandelic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) recognized for its gentle exfoliating properties, making it less likely to irritate. This makes it a particularly good choice for sensitive skin.⁵

Polyhydroxy acids: Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) are a newer generation of exfoliating acids. They provide similar benefits to AHAs without causing sensory irritation responses, making them well-suited to sensitive skin types, including clinically sensitive conditions like rosacea and atopic dermatitis. Besides exfoliation, PHAs also offer skin smoothing and anti-aging effects. One additional advantage of PHAs is their humectant and moisturizing properties, which help maintain the skin’s hydration levels.⁶

Remember, no matter the type of exfoliation you choose, it’s best to listen to your skin and not overdo it. Exfoliation should be a helpful step in your skincare routine, not a harmful one. So, always opt for gentle, practical methods and keep your skin’s health your top priority.

Selecting a face scrub for my sensitive skin 

Navigating the world of physical exfoliation doesn’t have to be tricky, especially with sensitive skin—here are some tips to help you on your way.

Opt for a scrub with a minimal ingredient list to decrease the likelihood of an adverse reaction. Fewer ingredients usually mean fewer potential irritants. Also, try to choose a scrub without added fragrances. Fragrances can sometimes trigger irritation especially in sensitive skin.⁷

Another important tip is to choose products specifically designed for sensitive skin. These are typically formulated to be gentler and less likely to irritate. As for texture, steer clear of scrubs with larger, more abrasive beads. Instead, look for a scrub that uses fine particles or mild exfoliants, as these are generally less harsh and more suited to sensitive skin.

An alternative to traditional scrubs is the konjac sponge. This natural, biodegradable sponge offers a softer form of physical exfoliation and can be used 2-3 times a week with plain water or your regular cleanser. The sponge’s gentleness depends on the pressure applied, so remember to be gentle with your skin. Regular cleaning and timely sponge replacement also ensure it stays effective and hygienic. Remember to always test new products on a small patch of skin before completing the application and, when in doubt, seek professional advice.

Four face scrubs for sensitive skin 

To make your journey of finding a good scrub easier, we’ve researched and compiled a list of face scrubs designed to cater to the delicate nature of sensitive skin.

First, we have The UnScrub by Paula’s Choice. This environmentally friendly product contains biodegradable jojoba beads that gently scrub your sensitive skin without damaging your skin barrier, helping to give your face a refreshing look.

Next is the Burt's Bees Sensitive Solutions Gentle Face Scrub. This fragrance free face scrub soothes your face with aloe vera, removing dirt and oil without irritation.

Skinceuticals Micro-Exfoliating Scrub is another favorite of ours. Suitable for all skin types, the combo of hydrated silica, glycerin, and aloe extract micro-exfoliates while hydrating and softening the skin.

Last but not least is Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant Exfoliator. Containing rice-based powder armed with alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), this scrub helps to even out your skin tone, uncovering brighter and smoother skin.

While many people may benefit from these products, as each person’s skin is unique, what works wonders for one may not work for another. Always read product labels thoroughly, conduct patch tests, and touch base with your dermatology provider if you have any concerns.

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FAQs

Which scrub is best for a sensitive face?

For sensitive skin, choose a face scrub that has minimal ingredients, is fragrance-free, and designed specifically for sensitive skin to minimize irritation.⁸ Use it sparingly, not daily, and ensure it contains fine particles or mild exfoliants to prevent harsh abrasion. Also, consider alternative and gentler forms of exfoliation, such as chemical exfoliation with mandelic acid or polyhydroxy acids (PHAs).

Is facial scrub good for sensitive skin?

Facial scrubs can benefit sensitive skin when you choose products specifically formulated for this skin type. Look for scrubs with a minimal ingredient list and no fragrance to minimize the risk of irritation. It’s always a good idea to consult a dermatology provider who can offer personalized recommendations based on your specific skincare concerns and sensitivities.

Should I exfoliate if I have very sensitive skin?

Exfoliation is a helpful skincare practice, even for those with sensitive skin. By removing dead skin cells, exfoliation can promote a healthier, more radiant complexion. However, it’s important to approach exfoliation cautiously and choose gentle methods suitable for sensitive skin. Chemical exfoliation options like mandelic acid and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) are known to be milder and less likely to irritate compared to abrasive physical exfoliators. Consulting with a dermatology provider can provide valuable guidance on the best exfoliation approach for your skin type.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework, so you don’t have to:

  1. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp:The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. (2016, December 14).

  2. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp:The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid.

  3. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp:The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid.

  4. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp:The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid.

  5. Rodan, K., et al. Skincare Bootcamp:The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. Ibid.

  6. Grimes, P.E., et al. The use of polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) in photoaged skin. Cutis. (February 2004).

  7. Duarte, I., et al. Sensitive skin: review of an ascending concept. An Bras Dermatol. (July 2017).

  8. Duarte, I., et al. Sensitive skin: review of an ascending concept. An Bras Dermatol. Ibid.

Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.

*Subject to consultation. Subscription required. Results may vary. 

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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