Here’s the right way to exfoliate sensitive skin, according to two estheticians

No matter how well versed you may be retinol, bakuchiol, and vitamin C serum, there’s one skincare question that can daunt even the most savvy beauty lover: How can I maximize skin cell turnover without irritating my sensitive skin? And what is the best exfoliators for sensitive skin?

We live in a time of overexfoliation. There are so many great products available with exfoliating ingredients (the most notable being AHAs, BHAs, PHAs, and retinoids) that are essential for removing dead skin cells and encouraging cell turnover. But there are also many buyers who blindly follow the instructions, and skin care products are not the same. Your skin type should always be a factor when tailoring your skin care routine, especially if it’s more reactive than most.

The good news is that sensitive, dry skin can (and should!) still get some exfoliating love. “Exfoliation is important for all skin types, even reactive,” explains celebrity facialist Candace Marino. “Exfoliation is the key to hydration, without exfoliation you can’t retain moisture or really hydrate the skin.”

But finding the right ingredients and frequency can be a little less clear. For anyone currently playing that guessing game, we’ve tapped two pros — Marino (aka LA Facialist) and esthetician Casey Boone of Glow Skincare LA– to find the very best exfoliants for sensitive skin.

And let it be known, “gentle” does not translate to “ineffective.” These hardworking formulas are here to support our theory.

Feature image of Riley Reed.

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How do you exfoliate super sensitive skin?

Before we dive into the best exfoliators for sensitive skin, it’s important to know what makes our product recommendations work so well. You’ve probably guessed that harsh scrubs aren’t the move (experts almost always recommend chemical exfoliation over manual peels), but what are the gentle heroes that can still get the job done?

PHAs (polyhydroxy acids)

A fruit acid, PHAs fall into the same category as AHAs and BHAs, but have a larger molecular structure so they don’t penetrate quite as deeply. They also provide a bit more hydration. The most popular PHAs are gluconolactone, lactobionic acidand galactose.

Lactic acid

Lactic acid is one of the mildest AHAs, but like PHAs, it goes hard on moisture. “PHAs and lactic acid both help hydrate the skin while increasing cellular turnover,” adds Boone.

Fruit enzymes

“Enzymes digest dead cells, making them a gentle way to break down the layer of dead cell debris that builds up, preventing product penetration,” says Marino. “Unlike chemicals, they won’t affect living cells.”

Marino recommends papain and bromelain enzymes.

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How often should you exfoliate sensitive, reactive or fragile skin?

Everyone’s skin is unique, but a good rule of thumb for someone who identifies with sensitive or more reactive skin is to exfoliate once or twice a week, according to Boone.

But if your skin is really inflamed or highly reactive, Marino recommends working up to gentle chemical formulas, using enzymes paired with products (including the DMK gel below) that can help strengthen and repair your skin barrier.

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The best exfoliators for sensitive skin

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