17 Best Face Exfoliators in 2020 for Sensitive Skin

We know how tricky—and high-key scary—it can be to dabble with new skin-care products when you have sensitive skin. Avoiding skin flare-ups is essential, though that shouldn’t scare you away from using exfoliants (which get a bad rap for causing redness and burning) completely.

Exfoliators, both physical (think, facial scrubs or cleansing brushes) and chemical (typically alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic or lactic acid and beta-hydroxy acids like salicylic acid) play a key role in helping to slough away dirt and dead skin cells, and even out skin tone. They also make it easier for your products to penetrate the surface of your skin more effectively. You can basically consider exfoliation the gateway to softer, brighter skin overall, though dermatologists suggest easing into it if you have easily reactive skin, especially for touch-and-go conditions like eczema or rosacea.

“Both chemical and physical exfoliants can be used for those with sensitive skin, and moisturizing immediately afterwards can help with tolerability,” Shari Marchbein, M.D., assistant professor of clinical dermatology at NYU School of Medicine, tells SELF. 

Patricia Wexler, M.D., associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai hospital, and Marchbein, also note that when using a physical exfoliator, those with sensitive skin should look for gentle ones with super fine particles to avoid irritation. 

While many products are gentle enough to use with regularity, professionals recommend that those with sensitive skin scale back on how many times per week they exfoliate, or use lower strength acids. “Because people with sensitive skin are more prone to redness, burning, flaking, and irritation from these treatments, it’s important to use them less frequently and use lower strengths than someone with oily or combination skin may be able to use,” Dr. Marchbein says. “Over-exfoliating can result in red, flaky, irritated skin especially on the face.”

You could also work your way up in strength or frequency, to help your skin build up a tolerance. “Consider once weekly to twice weekly at first, working up to daily within a couple of weeks,” says  Melanie Palm, M.D., assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego. When it comes to the best method for exfoliating, she also suggests applying exfoliants to dry or slightly moist (but not wet) skin. 

On the hunt for your next sensitive skin-friendly scrub or face wash and not sure where to start? Read on for some of the most gentle and effective face exfoliators dermatologists swear by.

All products featured on SELF are independently selected by our editors. If you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson is a short story author, novelist, and award-winning poet. She has work appearing or forthcoming in over forty venues, including Black Static, Fireside, and Buzzy Mag. When she’s not frightening strangers with her writing, she’s most likely frightening her husband and their two mischievous cats.

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