Our skin naturally exfoliates itself by shedding off dead skin cells every month. However, as we grow older the process of renewal takes longer. That is why it is recommended to exfoliate your face every week. But what if you have sensitive skin? You’d need an exfoliator that’s geared for sensitive skin.
If you don’t know where to start, that is where we come in. This article will help you by providing the 10 best exfoliators for sensitive skin. We also tapped dermatologist Dr. Katrina Habaluyas to answer some FAQs and give comments on our researched buying guide. Ready? Scroll down!
Dr. Katrina Habaluyas Luz is the face behind Ask Your Derma. She is a board-certified dermatologist in Metro Manila. She is also an educator and digital creator on all things skin, hair, and nails. She is a Diplomate of the Philippine Dermatological Society and offers online video consultations. You can also catch her on her Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube channel.
Our recommendation articles are carefully researched and crafted by the mybest Philippines team of writers and editors. To stay true to our company’s mission and vision to help users’ selection process easier, we also collaborate with experts from various fields to ensure that our content stays factual and useful.
Experts featured in this article only reviewed the content of our buying guide. They had no part in the selection or ranking of products or services listed.
The products and services listed are ranked independently by the editorial team based on the points mentioned in our thoroughly researched buying guide (as of 01-16-2023).
Here are some key points to consider:
For more detailed information, read through our buying guide below.
If we’re being technical, sensitive skin isn’t really a skin type but a skin condition. That is why you can have skin that is both sensitive and oily, sensitive and dry, and combination-sensitive skin. Read on below to know which ingredients are suited for your particular sensitive skin type.
Oily skin is often prone to break-outs and can easily develop inflammation that looks like reddish bumps that flare up when it comes in contact with irritants. BHAs or beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid, beta-hydroxybutyric, tropic, and trethocanic acid are great for oily skin.
Aside from their anti-microbial and exfoliating properties, they penetrate deep into skin pores and unclog sebum and stabilize the lining of the pores, thereby preventing breakouts. They are also helpful for regulating sebum production, which oily-skinned people often struggle with.
Beta hydroxy acids are oil-soluble, hence, they can penetrate deep into pores and remove oil and/or debris. This makes it a good choice for those with oily and/or acne-prone skin.
Tip: Read the label and check out how many % of salicylic acid is incorporated. For those with sensitive skin, generally 2% is the cut-off to minimize irritation.
Dry-sensitive skin feels tight, rough, and looks flaky. You ma also be prone to rosacea or even ezcema. That is why you want to go for AHAs or alpha hydroxy acids. They are gentle enough to remove dead skin cells without stripping your skin of its natural moisture.
Glycolic acid, citric acid, malic acid, tartaric and lactic acid are some examples of AHAs. However, note that the outermost layer of your skin is the most sensitive, therefore you should avoid physically abrasive exfoliants because it might cause microtears and could lead to irritatation and exacerbate your skin’s dryness.
For those with sensitive skin, AHAs like glycolic acid make for a good choice since they are exfoliating and hydrating.
Mandelic acid, on the other hand, has a larger molecular size and this allows slower penetration into the skin, thus, making it a gentler alternative.
This type of skin tends to change depending on the rise and fall of temperature or, sometimes, hormones. If you have this type of skin, you may need to have both AHA and BHA on hand. You can alternate between the two exfoliants, whichever your skin needs at the moment.
If you don't want the hassle of switching back and forth, PHAs or polyhydroxy acids are also a great choice since they are the mildest of all chemical exfoliants and also have humectant properties, so they won’t leave your skin dry. Some examples of PHAs include galactose, gluconolactone, and lactobionic acid.
PHAs, the relatively newer acids, are a good option for those with combination skin. Due to their larger molecular size, it penetrates slower and generally cause less irritation.
There are two types of exfoliants - chemical or physical. Both have their advantages and disadvantages and understanding them can help you decide which is best suited for your needs.
Chemical-based exfoliants work at a molecular level to penetrate beyond the surface of the skin to the inner epidermal layer and pores. They break down dead skin cells without the need for any harsh scrubbing or rubbing.
They can also provide a more even exfoliation. This makes them a more effective and less abrasive option than physical exfoliants. Depending on how sensitive your skin is, you can choose from three types of chemical exfoliants, namely, AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs.
Chemical exfoliation is the use of chemicals to aid in the turnover of skin cells. This can help remove mature skin cells, unclog pores, improve skin texture, and give the skin a healthy glow. If you have sensitive skin or have skin conditions like rosacea or eczema, it is best to take extra caution.
Physical exfoliants, on the other hand, are usually comprised of cleansers and scrubs that contain microbeads. It helps slough off dead skin cells on your skin’s outer layer. It is an alternative option if you are hesitant to use chemical exfoliants.
The scrubs can range from powdered or granulated seeds to plastic microbeads. It can feel satisfying because its effects are immediate, as it makes your skin feel instantly clean and smooth after just one wash. However, you may want to opt for fine-sized granules because they might cause microtears to your skin.
Physical aka mechanical exfoliation makes use of tools and/or scrubs with microbeads to physically remove dead skin cells.
Tip: Take extra caution if you choose to do this as those, especially with dry, sensitive, or acne-prone skin may find this too irritating.
All key exfoliating ingredients, chemical or physical, are best when paired with hydrating or soothing ingredients. These balance the effects of the exfoliant and lessen the chances of irritating your skin.
Ingredients like aloe vera, ginkgo, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides prevent moisture loss and help soothe irritated skin. Some ingredients like tea tree, calendula, rosemary, and willow bark help fight acne, which is helpful for those prone to breakouts.
Moreover, if you are suffering from dull skin and want a brighter and more even-toned complexion, you might want to look for exfoliators that contain papain or niacinamide.
Exfoliating ingredients are good if they are combined with hydrating and/or moisturizing ingredients to help soothe the skin and prevent possible irritation. Some ingredients to look out for include moisturizing ingredients like glycerin or panthenol, or even niacinamide which strengthens the skin barrier.
When buying an exfoliator, you have to look for indicators such as "gentle," "sensitive," or hypoallergenic" on the label. This suggests the product has a mild formulation and is free of harsh chemicals.
These products also contain very little to zero amount of sulfates such as sodium laureate sulfate, sodium laureate ether sulfate, and parabens such as methyl, propyl, benzyl, and butyl that can strip your skin of its natural oils. They also don't contain artificial fragrances and other irritants that may trigger allergic reactions or aggravate your skin.
While these labels ("gentle", "for sensitive skin", "hypoallergenic") are not standardized, choosing a product labeled with these does make it less likely (not 100%) that you would develop a reaction.
There are countless brands out there, but you don't want to try your luck and risk experiencing adverse reactions to find out which brand is a good one, no matter how trendy they are at the moment.
If you are unsure of where to start, dermatologically-tested brands are always a safe bet. They had already established themselves in the market. You can be sure the products went through rigorous testing and are effective, which is why they have gained the trust of their consumers.
When in doubt, don't hesitate to also #AskYourDerma. Remember, dermatologists are here to help you get effective results while minimizing the side effects.
After you have decided which exfoliant you will get for your skin, take time to read the product reviews. It is often handy to check other people's experiences regarding a particular product to give you a deeper insight about it. A product with poor ratings based on its performance, effectivity, and side effects are indications that you should not buy the product.
Product reviews are great as you get to get insights from different people even before you buy it. However, remember, not everyone's skin is the same, so what works for one person may not necessarily work for you.
Lastly, before you start using the product on your face or whole body, do a patch test first. Refer to the instructions indicated in the label. Most tests are done by dabbing a small amount of the product on the inner skin on the sides of your arm. If no irritation occurs, then it is likely safe for you to use the product.
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Hydro Boost Exfoliating Facial Cleanser
A Gentle Exfoliant That Leaves Your Skin Hydrated
Natural Aqua Peeling Gel
An Ultra-Gentle Exfoliator Suitable for Even the Most Sensitive Skin
Gentle Exfoliating Facial Wash
A Plastic-Free and Non-Comedogenic Exfoliator
Calendula PHA Hyaluronic Peeling Gel
A Hybrid Chemical and Physical Exfoliant for Both the Face and Body
Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser
A Cleanser That Prevents Breakouts Without Drying Your Skin
Andalou Pearl Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin
Reveal a More Flawless-Looking Complexion With Fruit Stem Cells
CeraVe SA Cleanser
A Non-Drying Exfoliator to Remove Oil and Dirt
Gentle Peeling Exfoliant
A Vegan-Friendly Peeling Gel
2% Salicylic Acid
Fade Acne Scars and Blemishes With 2% Salicylic Acid
Gentle Exfoliating Daily Face Wash
Prevent Blackheads With a Soap-Free Cleanser
Exfoliate your skin with Neutrogena’s Hydro Boost Exfoliating Cleanser. It is a lightweight gel-based facial wash infused with a combination of AHAs such as glycolic and lactic acid and papain extract. These ingredients gently exfoliate the skin to reveal a brighter and more even complexion.
Moreover, it contains hydrolyzed hyaluronic acid to increase your skin’s hydration and lock it in. Hyaluronic acid is known for stimulating soft tissue growth as well as collagen and elastin production. In its hydrolyzed form, it can effectively penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin.
This leaves your skin feeling soft and hydrated. Plus, the combination of ingredients makes this cleanser mild enough for everyday use. That way, you can reap the benefits of exfoliation without aggravating your skin!
Cure Natural Aqua Peeling Gel is made of 91% activated hydrogen water making it the mildest exfoliant on this list! No wonder it is one of Japan's best-selling and award-winning skincare brands! Unlike other exfoliants, this one doesn’t use chemical acids to break down skin cells.
Instead, the activated water gently attracts dead skin cells and lifts them away from your skin, giving you a more youthful glow. It is also infused with aloe, ginkgo, and rosemary extracts, which are all excellent ingredients for soothing the skin and preventing inflammation.
Moreover, it does not contain any fragrances and has a short ingredient list. This makes it suitable even for those with ultra-sensitive skin. If you’re looking for a basic and mild exfoliator, then this is it!
Get instantly smoother skin every time you cleanse with this facial wash from Céleteque. Instead of using plastic microbeads, you’ll be happy to know its beads are made of granulated Vitamins C and E that dissolves as you lather. These ingredients will promote skin cell turnover and help maintain its elasticity.
Aside from vitamin beads, it also contains lactic acid, which gently sloughs off dead skin cells, revealing softer skin underneath. Céleteque is also hypoallergenic, dermatologist-tested, and non-comedogenic. For best results, you may use this product 2-3 times a week.
South Korean skincare brands recently gained popularity owing to their mild formulas that are nourishing to the skin. This Calendula peel from Aprilskin is an example of that. It is a hybrid chemical and physical exfoliant, giving you the best of both worlds. It contains 0.3% PHA to gently break down oil and dirt buildup without irritating your skin.
Moreover, it contains cotton fibers that adhere to dead skin cells, which you can use to scrub your face. It is also infused with calendula extract to promote healing and hyaluronic acid to provide moisture to your skin. What’s also great about this is it can be used for both your face and body!
Another Korean skincare brand that gained many followers is COSRX. Their Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser works well, particularly if your skin is on the oilier side. It contains 0.5% salicylic acid that helps unclog pores and prevent blackheads and whiteheads from forming. It is also very gentle so you can use it every day.
In addition, it also contains a fusion of botanical ingredients such as tea tree oil, which has antibacterial properties to reduce breakouts, and willow bark water to keep your skin soft and hydrated. Altogether, this product is great for preventing breakouts, which is helpful if you have acne-prone skin.
If you’re on the hunt for organic exfoliators, look no further than Andalou Naturals’ exfoliator. This product is packed with micropearls made from fruit stem cells such as apple and grape to gently exfoliate dull and dry skin cells, revealing a more flawless-looking complexion.
It is also infused with alpine rose and pomegranate extract, which has moisture-binding humectants that help maintain your skin’s moisture barrier. Moreover, its primary ingredient consists of aloe vera instead of water, making it helpful for soothing irritated skin.
CeraVe is one of those skincare brands that meticulously work with dermatologists in developing products geared for sensitive skin, and this cleanser is no exception. It contains salicylic acid, which is great for exfoliating and smoothing rough skin as well as removing oil and dirt.
But it won’t dry out your skin as it is infused with hyaluronic acid to keep your skin hydrated and ceramides to maintain your skin’s moisture barrier. It is also formulated with niacinamide to help calm down redness. If you’re looking for a non-drying exfoliator, then you can never go wrong with this one.
e.l.f. is known for their affordable but quality cosmetics, and they do well in skincare too. Their Gentle Peeling Exfoliant removes dry and dead skin cells, allowing you to bring your best face forward. It uses papaya extract to gently exfoliate and brighten your skin. It also has anti-inflammatory properties to help soothe skin.
In addition, it contains licorice root and tangerine extract to rejuvenate the skin. For best results, massage the exfoliant on dry skin before rinsing with water. This preps your skin to absorb your skincare products better. For vegan skincare enthusiasts, you’ll also be happy to know this product is vegan and cruelty-free.
Those who have acne-prone skin often suffer from blemishes and scars; therefore, exfoliating is one of the best ways to go about reducing their appearance. The Ordinary’s 2% Salicylic Acid Solution removes dead skin cells and lightens them to improve the appearance of scars.
Exfoliation also helps prevent pores from clogging, which can contribute to breakouts. For best results, it is recommended to use this product at night as a spot treatment or all over the face for general use. However, if your skin is extra sensitive or easily prone to redness and peeling, this product might be too potent for you.
One of the most affordable but quality products you can buy off the drugstore shelves are products from the Himalaya brand. If you like the feeling of facial scrubs, then consider this apricot scrub. It is soap-free, dermatologically tested, paraben-free, and environmentally friendly.
This product uses micro granules made from apricot seeds to exfoliate dead skin cells and unclog pores, preventing blackheads. It is also combined with neem and lemon extract to remove excess oil as well as aloe vera to retain your skin’s natural moisture balance.
Below are some of the most asked questions on the web answered by Dr. Katrina!
Best to start lowーusually 2-3x a week is enough.
Some signs that might mean your skin barrier is compromised:
Definitely, take a step backーstop the product that you're using. Wash it off with a mild cleanser. And of course, if it persists, #AskYourDerma
Exfoliation is beneficial in removing dead skin cells and achieving a brighter, more even-toned complexion. If you are looking for more exfoliators, whether for your face or body, you may check out our following picks below.
Author: Joean Montayre
Editor: J. Cuizon
Our buying guide was carefully researched and crafted by the mybest team of writers and editors, in collaboration with the expert featured in this article. We used the buying guide as a basis for choosing and ranking the product recommendations, and we looked at reviews and ratings from different E-commerce sites like Lazada, Shopee, and more.
No. 1：Neutrogena｜Hydro Boost Exfoliating Facial Cleanser
No. 2：Cure｜Natural Aqua Peeling Gel
No. 3：Céleteque｜Gentle Exfoliating Facial Wash
No. 4：Aprilskin｜Calendula PHA Hyaluronic Peeling Gel
No. 5：COSRX｜Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser
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