Here’s the Right Way to Exfoliate Sensitive Skin, According to Two Aestheticians

The gentle giants of skincare.

By Caitlin Clark

No matter how well-versed you might be in retinol, bakuchiol, and vitamin C serums, there’s one skincare question that could daunt even the savviest beauty lover: How can I maximize skin cell turnover without irritating my sensitive skin? And what are the best exfoliators for sensitive skin?

We live in a time of over-exfoliation. There are so many great, accessible products with exfoliating ingredients (the most notable being AHAs, BHAs, PHAs, and retinoids) that are crucial to removing dead skin cells and encouraging cell turnover. But there are also many buyers who blindly follow instructions, and skincare products are not one-size-fits-all. Your skin type should always be a factor when tailoring your skincare routine, especially if it’s more reactive than most.

The good news is that sensitive, dry skin can still (and should!) get a little exfoliating love. “Exfoliation is important for all skin types, even reactive ones,” explains celebrity facialist, Candace Marino. “Exfoliation is the key to hydration, without exfoliating you cannot retain moisture or truly hydrate the skin.”

But nailing the right ingredients and frequency can be a little less clear. For anyone currently playing that guessing game, we tapped two pros—Marino (aka The LA Facialist) and aesthetician Kasey Boone of Glow Skincare LA—to zero in on the very best exfoliators for sensitive skin.

And let it be known, “gentle” doesn’t translate to “ineffective.” These hardworking formulas are here to back up our theory.

Feature image by Riley Reed.

Image by Belathée Photography

How do you exfoliate super sensitive skin?

Before we dive into the best exfoliators for sensitive skin, it’s important to know what makes our product recommendations work so well. You’ve probably guessed that harsh scrubs aren’t the move (experts almost always recommend chemical exfoliation over manual exfoliation), but what are the gentle heroes that can still get the job done?

PHAs (Polyhydroxy Acids)

A fruit acid, PHAs fall in the same category as AHAs and BHAs, but have a larger molecular structure, so they don’t penetrate quite as deeply. They also offer a bit more hydration. The most popular PHAs are gluconolactone, lactobionic acid, and galactose.

Lactic Acid

Lactic acid is one of the mildest AHAs, but like PHAs, it goes hard on moisture. “PHAs and lactic acid both help hydrate the skin, while also boosting cellular turnover,” Boone adds.

Fruit Enzymes

“Enzymes digest dead cells making them a gentle way to break down the layer of dead cellular debris that builds up, preventing product penetration,” Marino shares. “Unlike chemicals, they will not impact live cells.”

Marino recommends papain and bromelain enzymes.

best exfoliators for sensitive skin
Image by Michelle Nash

How often should you exfoliate sensitive, reactive, or fragile skin?

Everyone’s skin is unique, but a good rule of thumb for someone who identifies as having sensitive or more reactive skin is to exfoliate once or twice a week, according to Boone.

However, if your skin is truly inflamed or highly reactive, Marino recommends working your way up to gentle chemical formulas by using enzymes paired with products (including the DMK gel below) that can help strengthen and repair your skin barrier.

Image by Teal Thomsen

DMK Beta Gel Hydrating-Glucan Serum

“DMK beta gel is an amazing serum that will help to calm irritation, redness, and inflammation. It promotes a healing process in the skin that will visibly improve acne, rosacea, eczema, burns, cuts, scrapes, and more.” —  Candace Marino

The Best Exfoliators for Sensitive Skin

iS CLINICAL Warming Honey Cleanser, $48

“This is excellent for super reactive and fragile skin. This decadent treatment cleanser is made with raw honey, royal jelly, papaya enzymes, and propolis to cleanse and gently exfoliate the skin. It leaves the skin hydrated, protected, and nourished thanks to antioxidants.” —  Candace Marino

ACID GLOW Rapid Retexture Peel

“This beautiful at-home peel (with no downtime) is a must in my book for deep hydration and instant flush. If you have sensitive skin, use this only for two minutes!” — Kasey Boone

Jan Marini Skin Research Skin Zyme Mask

“For exfoliation, I like a gentle enzymatic mask. This is a papain mask (papaya) that works by eating away dead surface cells. This will not harm or sensitize already irritated skin, making it a great option post-treatment (laser or peel) to help speed up the downtime. It’s great three times a week to gently resurface the skin for a polished and radiant complexion.” —  Candace Marino

Olga Lorencin Skin Care Lactic Acid Hydrating Serum

“This gentle exfoliating and hydrating face serum takes lusterless skin and transforms it into a bright and glowing complexion. Lightweight and fast-absorbing, congestion quickly clears away as fresh, dewy skin emerges.” — Kasey Boone

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA 2% Exfoliating Serum

One of the best (and our very favorite) products from cult-favorite brand The Ordinary, this exfoliating serum offers an impressive amount of gentle lactic acid on a budget.

Kasey Boone X Cosmedix “Awaken” Mask

Awaken is a Replenishing Gel Mask with moisture-locking skincare ingredients that gently exfoliate dry skin and help protect your complexion against environmental stressors, like pollution, leaving skin feeling smoother and tighter-looking. — Kasey Boone

Lather Cactus Flower & Aloe Gentle Facial Scrub

Our Managing Editor Isabelle can’t recommend this scrub enough. “I only incorporate an exfoliating product into my routine once a week max, but even then, with sensitive skin, I’ve noticed that most products leave my skin red and irritated for days. This scrub is exactly as it says—super gentle while still offering an effective exfoliating treatment. Its aloe-based formula features prickly pear (one of the ingredients our summer beauty trends report said to look out for!) and is honestly out-of-this-world hydrating—something I never expected from an exfoliator.”