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Skincare 101: How to choose an exfoliator for sensitive skin

Learn what they do and which type is best for sensitive skin.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 28, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
Smiling Woman Exfoliating with Brush
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Aug 28, 2023 • 8 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
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.

Sensitive skin requires special attention and a gentle touch—especially when it comes to exfoliation. However, with so many exfoliating products to choose from, finding the perfect one for your delicate skin can be a daunting prospect.

So, we took things into our own hands and asked Curology’s team of licensed dermatologists to share their expertise! Here, they explain some of the top considerations you should keep in mind and the best ingredients to look out for when choosing an exfoliator for your sensitive skin.

The different types of exfoliation

When it comes to exfoliation, there are two main types: physical and chemical. Each type offers unique benefits and considerations for sensitive skin. 

Chemical exfoliants

Chemical exfoliants work by dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be easily shed. They’re typically available in alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), such as glycolic, lactic, and malic acid, or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), such as salicylic acid. AHAs are water-soluble, while BHAs are oil-soluble so may be able to penetrate deeper into your pores. AHAs, such as glycolic and lactic acids, are often used for chemical exfoliation. They help reduce the appearance of fine lines, promote a more even skin tone, and assist in collagen formation. BHAs, like salicylic acid, are especially beneficial for those with acne-prone or oily skin, as they can penetrate and unclog pores and reduce inflammation.¹

It’s important to start with lower concentrations (below 10-15% for AHAs and 2% for BHAs) for safe at-home exfoliation when using chemical exfoliants. Higher concentrations and prolonged use can increase the risk of skin irritation.Newer exfoliating ingredients, such as polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) like lactobionic acid and gluconolactone, offer a milder option for sensitive skin. PHAs are known for their gentle exfoliating properties, making them a suitable choice for sensitive skin.²

Physical exfoliation

Physical exfoliation involves manually removing dead skin cells through friction. This can be done using topical cleansing scrubs, mechanical facial brushes, sonicating devices, or micro-exfoliating rollers. These methods physically slough off the outermost layer of skin cells, revealing a fresh complexion underneath.

While physical exfoliation can help maintain skin radiance, it’s essential to approach it with caution, particularly if you have sensitive skin; choose gentle exfoliation tools and techniques to avoid excessive irritation or damage to your skin barrier.

Keep in mind that physical exfoliation may temporarily disrupt your skin barrier, leading to increased water loss.³ So, be sure to maintain proper hydration and moisturizing after exfoliation to replenish your skin’s moisture balance.

While physical exfoliation can be beneficial for regular maintenance, more intensive exfoliation treatments require professional assistance to ensure optimal results.

Understanding your skin’s needs, speaking with a dermatology provider, and carefully experimenting with different methods will help you discover the best exfoliation approach for your sensitive skin.

Why does my skin need exfoliation?

Exfoliation is an effective way to help remove dead skin cell buildup on the surface of your skin. These dead cells can make your skin look dull, rough, and uneven. Chemical exfoliants, like AHAs (glycolic, lactic, and malic acids) and BHAs (salicylic acid), dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells, making them easier to remove. Physical exfoliation leads to immediate removal of dead skin cells, but it’s important to be gentle and not overdo it, especially if you have sensitive skin.⁴ By removing dead skin cells, exfoliation improves your skin’s overall appearance and texture, leaving it looking smoother and more radiant.

The best exfoliators for sensitive skin 

If you have sensitive skin, mandelic acid and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) are great options for exfoliation. Mandelic acid provides gentle exfoliation,⁵ and PHAs like lactobionic acid and gluconolactone are milder yet effective alternatives. These ingredients can help remove dead skin cells without causing excessive irritation or sensitivity.

Let’s take a closer look at how they work:

Mandelic acid

As an AHA, mandelic acid is used for chemical peeling. Its unique properties make it suitable for various skin concerns. It effectively treats acne, hyperpigmentation, and signs of aging. Considered the safest AHA, it can be used in higher concentrations for all skin types.⁶

Mandelic acid acts as a gentle exfoliant. Its larger molecular size allows for slower penetration, resulting in softer absorption and reduced irritation.⁷ This AHA can be easily absorbed into the dermis, where it can promote collagen synthesis. It also possesses antibacterial effects, making it beneficial for reducing acne and inflammation. Overall, mandelic acid is a suitable option for sensitive skin, including conditions like rosacea and melasma.⁸

PHAs

Polyhydroxy acids are a new generation of exfoliating acids that offer similar benefits to AHAs but with a reduced risk of irritation. PHAs are suitable for clinically sensitive skin conditions like rosacea and atopic dermatitis. They provide exfoliation, skin-smoothing, and anti-aging effects while offering moisturizing properties. PHAs enhance skin barrier function and possess antioxidant properties. Examples of PHAs include gluconolactone and lactobionic acid, which can be used in combination with other products or procedures with the advice of a dermatology provider. Studies have shown the compatibility of PHAs with different ethnicities and their effectiveness in treating acne and slowing down the signs of aging.⁹

Choosing the right exfoliator for your sensitive skin

When choosing an exfoliator for sensitive skin, several factors should be considered. First, opt for exfoliators with minimal ingredients and no added fragrance to reduce the risk of irritants. Look for products specifically formulated for sensitive skin, as they are designed to be gentle and soothing. Conducting a patch test before using a new exfoliator is also crucial to identify any potential sensitivities.

Also, as sensitive skin can react to UV radiation, it’s important to regularly apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high SPF, even on cloudy days. Since UV radiation can trigger skin sensitivity, a sunscreen specifically formulated for sensitive skin is recommended.¹⁰ Look for gentle physical blockers like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in the sunscreen.

If you’re uncertain about selecting the right exfoliator, consult a dermatology provider who can provide personalized recommendations based on your skin type and needs. Remember to listen to your skin’s reactions and adjust your routine accordingly to maintain the health and well-being of your sensitive skin.

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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.

FAQs

What exfoliation is best for sensitive skin?

Chemical exfoliators like mandelic acid and PHAs (polyhydroxy acids) are often recommended for those with sensitive skin. Mandelic acid is a gentle AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid) that provides effective exfoliation without causing excessive irritation. PHAs, such as lactobionic acid and gluconolactone, are newer exfoliating ingredients known for their mild yet effective properties. They are well-tolerated by sensitive skin and offer exfoliation, smoothing, and anti-aging benefits. These chemical exfoliants dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells, revealing a smoother and brighter complexion.

Should I exfoliate if I have sensitive skin?

Yes, you can exfoliate if you have sensitive skin. Still, it’s important to choose gentle exfoliators and be mindful of your skin’s reactions. Chemical exfoliators like mandelic acid and PHAs are suitable for sensitive skin as they provide effective exfoliation without causing excessive irritation. Remember to follow the instructions for use, start with lower concentrations, and gradually increase the frequency if tolerated well. Always listen to your skin and adjust the frequency and intensity of exfoliation based on its sensitivity.

• • •

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

  1. Moghimipour, E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. (2012, January 4).

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

  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. Gentili, G.,et al. Efficacy and safety of a new peeling formulated with a pool of PHAs for the treatment of all skin types, even sensitive. J Cosmet Dermatol. (February 2023).

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

  8. Gentili, G.,et al. Efficacy and safety of a new peeling formulated with a pool of PHAs for the treatment of all skin types, even sensitive. J Cosmet Dermatol. (February 2023).

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

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

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. 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 thoughts on sun protection: *Sunscreen is only one part of UV protection—cute sun hats and shades are also recommended.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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