Even if you haven't had your morning cup of coffee yet, here's something sure to wake you up: If an exfoliator isn't part of your current skincare regimen, chances are your skin has yet to reach all its glowing potential. After all, in order for your onslaught of serums, moisturizers, and masks to penetrate deeply and actually, you know, work the magic they're designed to work, they have to have easy access to the deepest, darkest corners of your pores (a scary visual, we know). If excess layers of oil, dead skin, and other pore-clogging mischief are in the way, you'll essentially wind up watching your skincare budget circle the drain—figuratively and literally.
That said, exfoliators aren't necessarily child's play within the skincare realm, and depending on your skin type (especially the dry and/or sensitive camps) finding an effective yet gentle exfoliator can feel like searching for a needle in a haystack: frustrating and seemingly impossible. Unless that is, you have three esthetician fairy godmothers to guide you.
Sure, as Byrdie editors, we've tried an overwhelming amount of exfoliating formulas, some great, some not, but since the subject of sensitive skin can be, well, sensitive, we thought we'd leave this one to the pros. The all-star lineup: celebrity estheticians Renée Rouleau, Shani Darden, and Angela Caglia (all hailed for their mystical skin prowess and star-studded clientele).
Not surprisingly, there's a method to the madness when it comes to choosing the best exfoliators for sensitive skin and a fine line between doing more harm and doing good. (Sensitive skin can be finicky and easily angered, especially if abused by an overly aggressive exfoliating formula.)
"For sensitive skin, acids can be a great choice since essentially they do the work for you. They work by lowering the pH of the skin, which puts the skin into an acidic state and eventually dissolving cellular buildup," explains Rouleau. "Many people are scared of the word 'acid,' so if someone has red overly sensitive skin and they want to give their skin some much-needed exfoliation, they might resort to a facial scrub instead. The problem here is twofold.
- If the facial scrub has sharp edges (such as one with a natural grain), it can create micro-tears, ultimately damaging the skin's natural barrier.
- Many people make the mistake of applying too much pressure when massaging a facial scrub over their face—pressing too hard, scrubbing too long, and eventually removing too much of the skin's protective barrier, which stimulates blood flow and unwelcome redness."
The lesson: When considering an exfoliator for sensitive skin, choosing a strategic yet gentle formula is crucial. Keep reading to see the best exfoliators for sensitive skin with an A+ stamp of celebrity esthetician approval (in their own words).
"The Triple Berry Smoothing Peel is a great one for sensitive skin because it's only recommended to use once a week, and for sensitive skin types, you'll only leave it on for five minutes. In fact, it's so gentle (yet amazingly effective) that I have all of my celebrity clients use it the night before a big event because it completely smoothes the skin and creates a beautiful radiance—with no risk of irritation. (Ever seen Demi Lovato at the Grammys or the VMAs?) Her skin is always glowing, and she uses Triple Berry Smoothing Peel faithfully before every special event." — Renée Rouleau, celebrity esthetician
"Another great exfoliant for sensitive skin is IS Clinical's Tri-Active Exfoliant. It combines powerful botanical enzymes, salicylic acid and eco-friendly micro-beads, which provide ideal exfoliation. It helps to smooth, brighten, and soften your skin. I recommend using this product one to two times per week, depending on your skin type. I am not a big fan of rough scrubs, because it is easy to overdo it, which can contribute to redness. You'll want to apply this product to your skin, leave it on for five minutes, then rinse." — Shani Darden, celebrity esthetician
"This mask is great for sensitive skin because it's a lightweight gel and strategically balanced for the skin's pH—right between 3.5 to 4.2—so it won't over-strip or sensitize your skin. It is delicately and naturally scented with rose distillate and a light percentage of glycolic acid to gently exfoliate and give the skin an immediate glow. Plus (thanks to purple sweet potato extract), the formula is a pretty, natural shade of pink and feels soothing to the skin. It's gentle enough to use up to three times a week." — Angela Caglia, celebrity esthetician
"Exfoliating by wiping a liquid acid over the skin is a concept that is growing in popularity. This one can be used once a day and will gently dissolve cellular build up for sensitive skin types." — Renée Rouleau
"Exfoliation is essential if you want a healthy complexion, and at-home exfoliants are key to keeping your skin bright and glowing. I recommend using Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peels once a week. Just make sure you go with the 'Original Strength' formula, which will be best for sensitive skin. The two-step treatment has powerful ingredients including glycolic and lactic acids, along with green tea extract and vitamins A, C, and E to protect from environmental damage." — Shani Darden
"This one by Yon-Ka (a dreamy Parisian skincare brand) is an effective exfoliating and clarifying gel made for both dry and/or sensitive skin. It's expertly formulated with nettle flower and lime oil. To peel it off, you'll just gently rub it with your fingertips." — Angela Caglia
"This one by First Aid Beauty is one of the best exfoliators for sensitive skin because it's a gentle 10% leave-on formula but is also fragrance-free, which helps it adapt nicely to sensitive, easily irritated skin." — Renée Rouleau
"Easy and gentle on the skin yet very effective, I also love Tula's exfoliating treatment mask. Its hero ingredients are clay, lactic acid, jojoba, and vitamin E, and skin is left calm, even, and glowing." — Angela Caglia