How to Exfoliate Sensitive Skin

Megan Dominion

The best option to exfoliate sensitive skin is by using a mild chemical exfoliator. However, sometimes very sensitive skin will react to even the mildest of exfoliants. Here’s my tips on how to approach exfoliating your face when you are just about ready to give up exfoliating at all!

How do you know if you have sensitive skin?


There are many, many people with sensitive skin. You have sensitive skin if you often find that using even mild or gentle ingredients on your face or skin causes unpleasant reactions such as stinging, burning, pimples, or irritation when they come into contact with your skin. People with sensitive skin tend to experience a great deal of skin irritation from several sources, including ingredients, stress, and their environment.

Interestingly, the word “sensitive skin” is not commonly used in the medical field. This is more of a metaphor for sensitive skin in general. It’s not a professional diagnosis, but most dermatologists have a good sense of what you mean when you say you have sensitive skin.

Dry red skin

My skin is incredibly sensitive at the moment, should I be exfoliating at all?

In short, and in my experience – no, not yet! Hear me out…

The process of exfoliation involves sloughing off dead skin cells at the surface of the skin with the aid of a chemical, granular substance, or exfoliation tool. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends exfoliating because it helps the skin absorb topical skin care products better, making them more effective overall, and leaves the skin appearing brighter. As an added bonus, regular exfoliation helps keep pores clear and reduces the frequency of breakouts. Sounds like a good idea right?

When it comes to people with sensitive skin, exfoliation can be quite tricky. For sensitive skin, dermatologists advise using a chemical exfoliator rather than a physical one. Physical exfoliants may be overly abrasive and tend to create redness and irritation for persons with sensitive skin.

So, is your skin unusually sensitive at the moment, more red than usual, feels tight after washing, your usual products are now stinging when they weren’t before? This could be due to many factors, and one common cause of this is a compromised skin barrier or your skin is experiencing additional irritation.

How do I fix a compromised skin barrier / irritated skin?

If this sounds like you, put any kind of exfoliant or active ingredient back in the bathroom cupboard for a while. Especially any exfoliants or retinols. Here’s some more tips on how to fix an over-exfoliated skin. When my face is feeling extra sensitive I switch to the following routine for a couple of days:


Skincare routine for extra sensitive skin:


  • Cetaphil gentle cleaner (or something similar)
  • Avene Tolérance Soothing Skin Recovery Balm (or something similar)
  • Sunscreen


  • Cetaphil gentle cleaner (or something similar)
  • La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Balm B5 (or a siilar barrier repair cream)
  • Avene Tolérance Soothing Skin Recovery Balm (or something similar)


Once my skin feels and looks calmer, I’ll switch back to my usual cleanser and moisturiser, but keep using the LRP Balm B5 in the evenings until I feel I dont need it anymore. Feel free to adapt the above to suit your skin, but I have found the above products really great to have on hand for when my skin feels like it needs some calming down and extra TLC.

Chemical exfoliants for sensitive skin

If you feel like your skin is in a good place, and can handle some exfoliants, it’s still a good idea to approach exfoliating carefully. If you are using an exfoliating mask, serum or toner, don’t do this everyday. Try once a week and gradually increase this as you feel is needed and to see what your skin can handle.

Chemical exfoliants tend to be gentler for skin. There are a couple of different types:

Alpha hydroxy acids

AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) are natural compounds that are excellent for exfoliating dry skin because they dissolve the “glue” that keeps dead skin cells together. Yes, it’s gross, but the payoff is smoother skin. However, because AHAs are water soluble, they cannot enter very deeply into pores.

Beta hydroxy acids

BHAs (beta hydroxy acids) on the other hand, are oil-soluble compounds. As a result, they can penetrate deeper into the skin and pores. BHAs also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial characteristics, resulting in a more thorough exfoliation. Those with acne-prone, greasy skin should try using this sort of chemical exfoliant. If you’re worried about blackheads, stick to BHAs.

What about Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is an oil- and fat-soluble beta-hydroxy acid. Simply put, this acid can penetrate even the oiliest skin, shimmying deep into the pores to help unclog them at the source. As a result, it can help exfoliate the skin, eliminate excess oil, and regulate sebum levels.

Salicylic acid is also anti-inflammatory and skin-calming. The good news is that this acid is mild enough for most people with sensitive skin and those who are prone to redness and/or rosacea. Incorporating salicylic acid into your skincare routine might be beneficial. I use a facial wash with salycilic acid in it to ensure I am gently exfoliating each time I wash my face. When my face feels too sensitive or starts looking a bit red, I switch to Cetaphil for a couple of washes.

Skincare serum dropper and hand

Can people with sensitive skin use facial brushes to exfoliate?

This will entirely depend on your skin, but in short, yes, people with sensitive skin can use facial brushes to exfoliate if they are very careful with this. Facial brushes are not typically recommended for people with sensitive skin as they can cause dryness and inflame the skin’s barrier.

A facial brush is often a battery-powered, portable device with a moving bristle head. The continual pressure characteristics make facial cleaning more effective than the drowsy sudsing we occasionally turn to late at night or early in the morning. Brushes, when used in conjunction with an efficient cleanser, clean deep into pores, requiring fewer extractions during your next facial.

However, facial brushes have the potential to cause persistent inflammation. Using a washing brush too frequently can cause irritation—even non-visible inflammation. All physical exfoliants, including washing brushes, wash cloths, and face scrubs, should be used with caution whether you have sensitive skin or not.

Still need some advice on creating your perfect skincare routine? We’ve covered the basics here with skincare routine products for every skin type

Megan Dominion

Megan Dominion is SILKUP's Managing Editor. She's been down both the curly hair and skincare rabbit holes many times and loves that there's always something new to learn; a new science, method, product or personal experience.