4 Best Exfoliators for Sensitive Skin (Non-Irritating)

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4 Best Exfoliators for Sensitive Skin (Non-Irritating)
In a hurry? Here are our top picks:

BEST FOR SENSITIVE, ACNE-PRONE SKIN

ZELEN Life Exfoliator

Many people are reluctant to try an exfoliator because of the fear it will irritate their skin.

Exfoliators, when chosen correctly, can be an integral part of your skin care regimen.

All exfoliators work well at removing dead skin cells to give you a brighter complexion and unclogging pores to prevent acne and blackheads.

But the selection of the correct exfoliator should be based on your skin type. For example, an exfoliator for normal or oily skin is too harsh for people with sensitive skin.

So, when selecting the best exfoliator for sensitive skin, you must know what ingredients are appropriate and read the product labels.

Are you looking for some help?

This article will present 4 excellent exfoliators for sensitive skin types and will discuss what you should consider before making a purchase, along with some frequently asked questions about exfoliators for sensitive skin.

Let’s start with some pointers before you buy:

Quick summary

bb2-table__imageZELEN Life Exfoliator
  • Handmade with fine sugar powder, gentle on sensitive skin
  • Fused with organic jojoba and sunflower oil, hydrating effect
  • Packed with anti-oxidants and anti-microbial agents, assists acne
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bb2-table__imageLa Roche-Posay Ultra-Fine Scrub
  • Glycerin and perlite provide great skin hydration
  • Anti-inflammatory due to the thermal spring water
  • Contains physical and chemical exfoliants
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bb2-table__imageElemis Superfood Blackcurrant Jelly Exfoliator
  • Loaded with anti-oxidants such as blackcurrant, black seed oil, etc.
  • Gentle exfoliation due to the crushed blackcurrant particles
  • Anti-Inflammatory
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bb2-table__imageHey Honey Come Clean Propolis & Minerals Facial Scrub
  • Salicylic acid assists in acne prevention
  • Dead Sea salts purify and detoxify the skin
  • Great moisturization properties
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Before you buy: 3 things you have to consider when purchasing an exfoliator for sensitive skin

1. Confirm your skin type

If you have sensitive skin, your skin gets irritated very quickly. You may have redness and flaking and may experience a burning or itchy sensation.

Your skin can appear dry. You may frequently experience rashes and even breakouts. Your skin will be sensitive to harsh weather and different products.

2. Check ingredients

Make sure to read product labels to select the correct products for sensitive skin. You want to choose products with small smooth rounded beads that are not as irritating.

When you have sensitive skin, always select the lowest percentage of hydroxy acids in your exfoliator to start with. If your skin tolerates it, you can always increase the strength later.

If you are looking for a moisturizing exfoliator, there are several safe ingredients, such as glycerin or shea butter, that will moisturize without clogging your pores.

Many exfoliators contain anti-inflammatory agents to help sensitive skin, so look for ingredients, such as jojoba oil or green tea. If you are looking for anti-oxidants to help protect you from the sun, choose products with ingredients, like vitamins C and E.

3. Avoid certain ingredients

You should avoid a high percentage of alpha and beta hydroxy acids because they may be too irritating for sensitive skin. Fragrances, dyes, sulfates, and parabens can also be too irritating for some.

You should also exercise caution with essential oils. Because even though they are natural, they may still cause irritation as well. Do not use products with mineral oil or petrolatum as that can clog pores and cause acne.

Beads that are large, rough, or jagged can cause damage to your skin, which can also lead to infection and scarring. They can even cause damage to normal skin types but especially to sensitive skin.

The 4 best exfoliators for sensitive skin

1. ZELEN Life Exfoliator

ZELEN Life Exfoliator

Best features:

  • Gentle exfoliator
  • Anti-bacterial
  • Anti-aging
  • Organic, plant-based product

The best exfoliator for:

This exfoliator is suitable for all skin types. It has soothing and moisturizing agents for sensitive and dry skin, as well as anti-microbial agents for acne-prone skin.

Overview:

The ZELEN Life Exfoliator has as its main ingredients sugar particles to exfoliate the dead skin cells, jojoba oil for anti-aging benefits, and sunflower oil to moisturize and soothe the skin.

Other components include moisturizers (sesame oil, beeswax, shea butter, orange peel oil, and rosehip oil), anti-oxidants (vanilla extract, tocopherol, rose oil, and geranium oil), cleansing agents (decyl glycoside), and essential oils for fragrance (limonene, citronella, geraniol, and linalool).

The smooth fine sugar powder particles used to exfoliate the skin are small enough not to irritate sensitive skin but powerful enough to get the job done effectively (1, 2). Particles that are too big will not fit into the small folds of skin on the face. Also, if the particles are not smooth, they will irritate the skin.

Jojoba oil comes from a drought-resistant perennial plant found in desert areas of Mexico, California, and Arizona (3). It has been used for its anti-inflammatory properties to treat conditions, such as acne and atopic dermatitis (3-5). It enhances the absorption of other products, such as moisturizers and sunscreens. Jojoba oil also has anti-aging and wound healing properties.

Sunflower oil works well to hydrate the skin, even in infants (6-8). Long term use does not cause any redness, so it can be used in topical dermatitis patients. It even has some anti-oxidants and anti-aging properties.

Sesame oil has been used in the cosmetic industry as well as the food industry (6). It is known for its anti-antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Sesame oil has been used to help alleviate the pain of limb trauma and joint and wound pain. It also aids in the hydration of the skin.

Beeswax has long been known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties (3, 9-14). It has been used to treat burn wounds, rosacea, and atopic dermatitis.

Honey has been used since ancient times in Egypt and China for its anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-antioxidant properties (3, 15-18). It has been used to treat seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, burn wounds, and acne.

Shea butter is a potent hydrator and has been used to treat dry skin and atopic dermatitis (19-20). Citrus oil has anti-tumor and anti-oxidant benefits, making it a good addition to any anti-aging regimen (21-22). It also aids in hydration.

Rosehip oil has anti-inflammatory properties (23-24). It has been used to treat radiation dermatitis, aid in wound healing, and help with hydration of the skin. Vanilla has anti-oxidant properties that help with anti-aging and adds a pleasant fragrance to any product (25). Rose oil contains anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and has been used to help with arthritis pain (3, 26).

Geranium is a flower that is native to several areas in Africa (27-31). It has been used for its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties to treat inflammatory conditions like eczema and acne. It can also aid in wound healing.

Tocopherol, also known as vitamin E, is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, and seeds (3). It is a potent antioxidant, which also aids in wound healing.

All in all, this product is an excellent exfoliator with the added benefits of hydration, anti-aging, and anti-inflammatory effects.

The good:

  • All-natural and chemical-free (no parabens, sulfates, petrochemicals, colors, fragrances)
  • Very fine sugar powder to exfoliate without irritating the skin
  • Loaded with anti-oxidants, like sesame seed oil, tocopherol, and vanilla extract, to help with anti-aging
  • Packed with moisturizers, like shea butter and orange peel oil, to keep your sensitive skin from drying out
  • Has anti-microbial agents, like honey and geranium flower oil, to help with acne

Things to think about:

  • Does contain essential oils, which some people with sensitive skin cannot tolerate
  • Even though the sugar particles are very fine, some people could find it irritating
  • Some people cannot tolerate scents, even natural ones

Bottom line:

This exfoliator is great for all skin types, even someone with sensitive, acne-prone skin who needs lots of moisture and wants the benefits of anti-aging properties.

2. La Roche-Posay Ultra-Fine Scrub

La Roche-Posay Ultra-Fine Scrub for Sensitive Skin

Best features:

  • Gentle exfoliator with physical and chemical exfoliants
  • Moisturizing
  • Alcohol and paraben-free
  • Thermal spring water

The best exfoliator for:

This exfoliator is suitable for all skin types, especially sensitive skin, because it is loaded with moisturizing and anti-oxidant ingredients.

Overview:

La Roche Posay Ultra Fine Face Scrub has as its main ingredients pumice (physical exfoliator), hydroxyethyl piperazine ethane sulfonic acid (chemical exfoliator), glycerin (moisturizer), and perlite (moisturizer).

Other ingredients include moisturizers (butylene glycol, caprylyl glycol, anthem gum, polyquaternium 47, and ammonium poly acryloyl dimethyl taurate), preservatives (disodium EDTA, phenoxyethanol, sodium benzoate, myrtrimonium bromide, and BHT), pH balancer (sodium hydroxide), cleanser (poloxamer 184 and t-butyl alcohol), and fragrance.

Glycerin, which is derived from fats, has been used since the 1700s to moisturize the skin (3). It has also been used to treat diaper rash, eczema, and burns due to its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.

Perlite is extracted from volcanic rock (32). It has been used to help moisturize the skin and help conceal shine as well. Its round beads also help exfoliate dead skin cells without irritation.

Since ancient times, pumice has been used to exfoliate dead skin cells and get rid of oil and debris from the skin to give you a smoother complexion (33-35). These very fine particles can get into skin folds without irritating the skin. It will leave your skin smoother and glowing.

The thermal spring water in this exfoliator contains minerals, which help maintain healthy skin flora and decrease dryness of the skin (36-38). It also has anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties. It has been used to help treat atopic dermatitis, rosacea, and psoriasis.

Hydroxyethylpiperazine ethane sulfonic acid has been used as a chemical exfoliant to get rid of dead skin cells and also helps counteract acids to balance the pH of cosmetic products (2, 39).

This exfoliator packs in chemical and physical exfoliants with hydration and antioxidant benefits.

The good:

  • The pumice particles are small and delicate enough for sensitive skin but effective
  • Lots of moisturization with glycerin and perlite
  • Thermal spring water for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits
  • Chemical exfoliant

Things to think about:

  • Some people may not tolerate the fragrance
  • The pumice may be too irritating for some people
  • Sulfates can sometimes irritate the skin

Bottom line:

This exfoliator is good for sensitive skin because it has very small exfoliating particles and lots of hydration and anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.

3. Elemis Superfood Blackcurrant Jelly Exfoliator

Elemis Superfood Blackcurrant Jelly Exfoliator

Best features:

  • Sustainably sourced crushed blackcurrant particles to exfoliate
  • Anti-oxidants
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Hydration

The best exfoliator for:

This exfoliator is great for sensitive skin because it uses crushed blackcurrants, a natural exfoliant, and is rich in anti-oxidants and moisturizing ingredients.

Overview:

The main ingredients in Elemis Superfood Blackcurrant Jelly Exfoliator are crushed blackcurrants as an exfoliator, antioxidants (blackcurrant, black seed oil, nordic bilberry, grape seed extract, tocopherol, and betula alba), and moisturizers (almond oil, glycerin, grape seed oil, and linseed oil).

Other ingredients include moisturizers (octyl dodecanol, ethylhexyl olivate, benzoic acid, propylene glycol, and polyglyceryl 4 olivate), preservative (phenoxyethanol, dehydroacetic acid, potassium sorbet, and sodium benzoate), anti-microbial agents (Nigella sativa seed oil, candida bomcicola/glucose/methyl rapeseedate ferment, and chlorphenesin), prebiotic (alpha glucan oligosaccharide), and fragrance.

Blackcurrant has long been known as a superfood because it is loaded with anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (40-42). It has been used to help treat atopic dermatitis and eczema. Black currant has also been shown to increase collagen to aid in anti-aging.

Black seed oil is also a good anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory agent (43). It has been used in the treatment of atopic dermatitis.

Grapeseed oil is an excellent moisturizer and anti-inflammatory agent, which helps with eczema and psoriasis (3, 44-45). Bilberry has been shown to exert anti-microbial and anti-oxidant effects (46). It has been used to help treat eczema and psoriasis.

Betula alba or birch bark has anti-oxidant properties, which have shown promise in treating precancerous actinic keratoses on the skin (47-48). It has also been used to treat herpes zoster due to its anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Almond oil’s use dates back to ancient China (49-50). It has anti-inflammatory properties, which help in treating psoriasis, eczema, liver, and gastrointestinal problems. It is also a good emollient for dry skin.

Linseed oil has anti-anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-antioxidant properties (3, 51-52). It has been used in wound healing and to prevent irritation from ostomy sites. Nigella sativa has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties (53-56). It has been used to treat diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, skin infections, vitiligo, acne, and radiation dermatitis.

Black and green tea are potent anti-oxidants and exert chemoprotective qualities (3, 57-59). They have been studied in the prevention of skin cancers. They have also been used to help treat facial dermatitis because of their anti-inflammatory properties.

Glycerin is an excellent moisturizer with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as listed above (3). Tocopherol, or vitamin E, is a potent anti-oxidant, which will deliver anti-aging benefits (3).

This exfoliant is packed full of moisturizers, anti-oxidants, and anti-inflammatory ingredients to make it great for sensitive skin.

The good:

  • Vegan
  • Cruelty-free
  • Sustainably sourced blackcurrants
  • Moisturizing with grape seed oil and glycerin
  • Full of anti-oxidants, like nordic bilberry, blackcurrant, black seed oil, and black tea

Things to think about:

  • Some people cannot tolerate fragrance
  • Pricey

Bottom line:

This is a great natural exfoliator for sensitive skin because it is packed with anti-antioxidants and ingredients to add moisture to the skin and decrease inflammation.

4. Hey Honey Come Clean Propolis & Minerals Facial Scrub

Hey Honey Come Clean Propolis & Minerals Facial Scrub

Best features:

  • Dead Sea salts to exfoliate
  • Anti-oxidants
  • Moisturizers
  • Salicylic acid
  • Cruelty-free
  • Paraben, sulfate, and mineral oil-free

The best exfoliator for:

This exfoliator is best for sensitive skin that is prone to acne.

Overview:

The main ingredients in Hey Honey Come Clean Propolis and Minerals Facial Scrub are dead sea salts (exfoliator), propolis (anti-bacterial), castor bean oil, beeswax, marigold extract, salicylic acid, glycerin, and vitamins C and E.

Other ingredients include moisturizers (caprylic triglyceride, Cetyl Alcohol, PEG 75, lanolin, Cetearyl ethyl hexanoate, PEG 45, isopropyl myristate, lecithin, and hydrogenated palm glycerides citrate), preservatives (benzyl alcohol and sorbic acid), fragrance, additives for texture (corn starch, aluminum starch, and stearalkonium hectorite), and solvents/cleansers (laureth 4 and propylene carbonate).

Dead Sea salts are famous for their anti-inflammatory benefits due to their high concentrations of magnesium, as well as calcium, sodium, potassium, and zinc (60-62).

They have been used to treat atopic dermatitis and psoriasis and can exert anti-aging effects also. These salts make a good exfoliator that will not irritate the skin.

Also, magnesium is anti-microbial, which can help with acne.

Propolis, also known as bee glue, has been used since ancient times and is derived from beehives (3). It has anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties (3, 63-64). It has shown promise in treating herpes, aphthous ulcers, and psoriasis.

Castor bean oil has been used since ancient times in the Mediterranean (65-67). It has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. It has been used to treat psoriasis, joint pain, constipation, and even induce labor.

Also, it is a non-irritant exfoliant that is good for oily skin and acne as well as sensitive skin.

Marigold extract has been used since the times of ancient Rome for its anti-inflammatory effects to help with radiation dermatitis, anti-oxidant effects to help with anti-aging, and anti-microbial effects to help with wound healing (3, 68-70).

Beeswax has long been known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties (3, 9-14). It has been used to treat burn wounds, rosacea, and atopic dermatitis. Glycerin, which is derived from fats, is an excellent moisturizer (3).

Salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid, is a good chemical exfoliator, which helps unclog pores to treat and prevent acne (3). It also has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties to help with acne.

Vitamins C and E are known for their anti-oxidant and anti-aging benefits (3). They work best when combined. Vitamin C also helps build collagen, which can help with wrinkles. Vitamin E helps with wound healing.

This exfoliant is great for sensitive skin because it has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties combined with good moisturizers.

The good:

  • Dead Sea salts are a great physical exfoliator that is full of minerals to purify and detoxify the skin
  • Packed with anti-oxidants to help with anti-aging
  • Lots of moisturizers to hydrate and protect the skin
  • Anti-inflammatory properties to help soothe sensitive skin
  • Salicylic acid for chemical exfoliation and treatment/prevention of acne

Things to think about:

  • Some may find the combination of chemical and physical exfoliators to be too irritating
  • It contains lanolin, which may irritate the skin or cause allergic reactions

Bottom line:

This is a great exfoliator for sensitive skin because it has a great combination of moisturizers and anti-inflammatory ingredients. It also helps with acne and anti-aging.


How we chose these products

When making our selections, we ensured that all of these products are made from high-quality ingredients proven effective at exfoliating sensitive skin.

Whatsmore, these products are all oil-free, non-comedogenic, so they will not cause acne breakouts. They do not contain any parabens, which have been linked to allergic reactions, possible hormone disruption, and reproductive issues. Also, they do not contain sulfates, which may clog your pores and make acne worse. Finally, they do not contain a high percentage of strong acids, which could irritate your skin.

When carrying out our research, we did not only focus on ingredients. We also considered user opinions. We checked out reviews and ratings to make sure our selections have a good track record. The volume of reviews was also a factor to make sure the opinions are the consensus.

When finalizing our choices, we aimed to provide various options to suit different user requirements and budgets.

Frequently asked questions

Who needs to use an exfoliator?

Everyone can benefit from an exfoliator in their skincare regimen. As long as you select the correct ingredients for your skin type and use it appropriately, you should have no problems.

Exfoliators are great for removing dead skin cells, dirt, and debris to yield a brighter, smoother complexion. Exfoliators are also great at unclogging pores to prevent acne breakouts.

When do I use an exfoliator?

You should use it after you wash your face but before you apply your moisturizer. You can use it either in the morning or evening, but the evening is more beneficial and safer. Exfoliation removes part of the top layer of the skin.

This is the layer that helps protect us from the sun’s harmful rays; therefore, it is safer to use at night when you are not exposed to sunlight.

Also, by removing the top layer of skin, it allows the better penetration of your products that you apply afterward, such as serums or moisturizers.

What type of exfoliator should I choose for sensitive skin?

There are two types of exfoliators:

1. Chemical:

This utilizes chemicals, which dissolve the bonds between the dead skin cells, so they just wash away. These tend to be safer, especially for beginners. This category includes chemicals such as alpha-hydroxy acids (glycolic acid, lactic acid) and beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid).

2. Physical:

This utilizes dissolvable or non-dissolvable beads, brushes, or sponges that will physically remove the dead skin cells. They are very operator dependent and easy to overdo it if you are a beginner. If you cannot tolerate the chemical exfoliators and you want to try a physical one, look for one with very fine smooth round beads that are dissolvable since they are less irritating.

How often do I need to exfoliate if I have sensitive skin?

You should start once a week for a few weeks and see how your skin tolerates it. If you do not experience any irritation, you can increase it to twice a week, but that would be the maximum amount of times you should exfoliate.

If you do it more often than twice a week, you could over-exfoliate and cause more harm than good. Over-exfoliation causes the skin to get red, swollen, and peel.

You may feel an itchy or burning sensation or even pain. In severe cases, it has lead to permanent scarring and infection.

Where can I use an exfoliator?

You can exfoliate anywhere on your body that you want radiant, glowing skin. However, you will need different exfoliators for different body parts. The one you use on your face will not give the same results if you use it on your elbows. Your elbows will require a stronger product.

How do I apply an exfoliator?

Make sure your face is clean and damp. If you are using a physical exfoliator, you can apply some to your damp clean fingertips and, using gentle circular motions, massage it into your skin for about 30 seconds.

You may need to add some more water to help it glide over your skin. Then, wash it off and pat dry with a clean towel. Then, apply your serums or moisturizers.

If you are using a chemical exfoliator, you will need to follow the directions on the package to determine how long you leave it on your skin before washing it off.

Always follow the directions. Otherwise, it could irritate your skin if you leave it on too long. Likewise, if you do not leave it on long enough, you will not get the maximum benefits.

Conclusion

Exfoliators can be a beneficial addition to skin care regimens for all people, even those with sensitive skin.

You must read the ingredients carefully to determine if they are appropriate for sensitive skin.

The exfoliators presented here are by no means the only exfoliators on the market. There are many good ones available. The best exfoliator for your sensitive skin is the one that your skin will tolerate and give you the best results.

Do you have any exfoliators you can recommend?

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About The Author

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Board-Certified Dermatologist

BS-MD (University of Miami)

United States

Dr. Trent completed a 6 year combined BS-MD at the University of Miami with an undergraduate major in biology and a minor in chemistry. She completed her internship in Internal Medicine and her residency in Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital. Dr. Trent is a world recognized dermatologist, who has published over 40 articles in peer-reviewed journals. She also co-authored a textbook on dermatologic diseases and therapy, which was published by McGraw-Hill Co, Inc. She has had the opportunity to present her clinical research several times at national medical meetings. Dr. Trent has been the recipient of several awards for research, teaching and clinical practice, including the prestigious Young Investigators award for research from the American Academy of Dermatology as well as the coveted Castle Connelly Top Doctor award.

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