Everything you need to know about how to exfoliate if you have sensitive skin

Exfoliation has a whole heap of benefits for our skin – we probably all know that it helps to remove the upper layer of dead skin cells revealing a fresher, brighter complexion.

But exfoliating not only keeps our skin’s texture smooth and soft, it can also help to reduce complexion complaints such as blemishes, age spots and blackheads, while allowing our skincare products – serums, oils, moisturisers – to penetrate more deeply into our skin.

However, if you have sensitive skin, the thought of exfoliating can conjure up images of harsh, abrasive scrubs and grainy formulas that can cause painful irritation and flare-ups. The good news is that exfoliators have become a lot more sophisticated since the days of apricot and walnut face scrubs – which could cause tears in the dermis and damage our skin barrier – and those with sensitive skin no longer have to skip this glow-giving step.

‘Exfoliation helps to slough off dead skin cells and can reduce dry patches, dullness and prevent breakouts,’ says Dr Justine Hextall, consultant dermatologist at La Roche-Posay. ‘And yes, it is absolutely possible to exfoliate sensitive skin – with the right steps and ingredients.’

First thing’s first, incorporate ingredients into your wider routine that are known for keeping your skin barrier healthy. ‘A compromised skin barrier is going to allow an exfoliant to cause unwanted irritation,” says Dr Hextall. ‘This means you need barrier repairing ingredients, such as niacinamide and ceramides, in your routine – look for them in your moisturisers and serums.’

Next, Dr Hextall says to exfoliate sensitive skin, avoid ‘physical exfoliation’ (any scrubs or polishes), and opt for liquid exfoliators instead. ‘Exfoliating acids are much more suitable for sensitive skin; try poly-hydroxy acids (PHAs) for very sensitive skins, or other acids such as glycolic acid at low doses – steer clear of high percentages and go slowly.’

These are our favourite exfoliating products for sensitive skin – we recommend using once or twice at first, before gradually building up if required…


‘Retinol isn’t out of the question for sensitive skin exfoliation,’ says Dr Hextall, ‘if used in low percentages and with compensating ingredients so you can support your skin barrier’. This dow-dose retinol with protective niacinamide is a great option for this.

PHAs plus niacinamide make this the perfect gentle exfoliator for sensitive skin.

Pre-soaked pads are a great option for gentle exfoliations, and these Zelens ones use natural, safe and non-irritating hydroxy acids to gradually resurface the skin.

These are a great option for soothing exfoliating pads at an affordable price point. Bakuchiol is a plant-based alternative to retinol, promoting cell turnover without the irritation.

Long hailed for their retexturing and smoothing abilities by beauty editors and skincare experts, this is the only peel that combines five AHAs and BHAs (they work wonders on spots and wrinkles, too). Unlike many peels, they won’t cause discomfort to sensitive skins.

It’s not just toners that work wonders for gentle exfoliation, but serums too. Alpha and beta hydroxy acids deliver overnight resurfacing and refining without the side effects.

Charlotte Tilbury’s 2-in-1 skincare superhero contains hard-working but ultra-gentle exfoliators, including glycolic acid and AHAs, plus nourishing and anti-aging hyaluronic acid and aloe vera.