Face exfoliators often get a bad rap for causing redness and burning, which is enough to scare away anyone with sensitive skin. The thing is, the best face exfoliators out there can do their job without causing flare-ups and irritation—even in people with reactive skin. Yes, you really can have it all.
We know how tricky—and high-key scary—it can be to dabble with new skin-care products when you have sensitive skin. You want to avoid skin flare-ups at all costs. But sleeping on exfoliators isn’t going to do your skin any good. In fact, adding an exfoliant into your routine can do some pretty great things for your skin, as long as you follow a few best-practices that dermatologists recommend for people with sensitive skin.
The benefits of face exfoliators
Exfoliators play an important role in helping to slough away dirt and dead skin cells, which helps promote cell turnover (growth of new, fresh skin cells). Because of this, exfoliators help unclog pores and prevent breakouts, even out skin tone, and transform dull skin. Exfoliating regularly can also help prevent fine lines and make it easier for other skincare products to penetrate the surface of your skin. Avoiding exfoliation can cause clogged pores and decrease the efficiency of your other skincare products.
As SELF previously reported, exfoliants can be broken down into two categories: Physical ones (think: facial scrubs or cleansing brushes) that physically remove dead skin cells and dirt from your face, and chemical ones (typically alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic or lactic acid and beta-hydroxy acids like salicylic acid) that work by dissolving bonds between skin cells. Some products, like many containing salicylic acid, can combine both physical and chemical exfoliants.
Face exfoliator tips for sensitive skin
You can basically consider exfoliation the gateway to softer, more glowing skin overall, though it can make your skin feel extra sensitive and increase UV light sensitivity (another very important reason to wear SPF every day). Because of this, dermatologists suggest easing into it if you have easily reactive skin. That’s especially important if you have a touch-and-go condition like eczema or rosacea.
Doctors recommend that those with sensitive skin start conservatively. “Because people with sensitive or dry 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 skin or combination skin may be able to use,” Shari Marchbein, M.D., assistant professor of clinical dermatology at NYU School of Medicine, tells SELF. “Over-exfoliating can result in red, flaky, irritated skin, especially on the face.”
It’s best to slowly work your way up in strength or frequency, to help your skin build up 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.
Dermatologists often prefer chemical exfoliators, as they tend to be gentler and less likely to cause irritation to sensitive skin. That doesn’t mean physical ones are totally off-limits. Dr. Marchbein and Patricia Wexler, M.D., associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai hospital, both note that when using a physical exfoliator in your skin-care routine, those with sensitive skin should look for gentle ones that use superfine particles, like sugar scrubs, to avoid irritation.
Dr. Marchbein also recommends always moisturizing immediately after exfoliating, which can help with tolerability and combat dryness.
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 best face exfoliators, according to dermatologists, that are both gentle and effective for people with sensitive skin.
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