What’s the Deal With Exfoliating Sensitive Skin?
Love to exfoliate but hate how irritated your sensitive skin gets? Chances are you’re doing it all wrong…
If you have sensitive skin you’ll know that daily scrubbing with a full-on exfoliating face wash is bad news. In all honesty, vigorous exfoliation is far from ideal for any skin type (yes, even oily skin), but still, sensitive souls are likely to feel the burn way more than most. And this is down to your all-important skin barrier function.
Everybody’s skin has a protective, fatty barrier that works to keep water in and irritants out. Sensitive skin usually has a weaker, thinner barrier than other skin types which makes it less able to retain moisture (hello dryness and dehydration) and easily irritated by external triggers. Things like extreme heat, wind, pollution and topical skincare can all cause discomfort to sensitive skin types, making it feel sore, itchy, extremely dry or inflamed.
In cases of severe sensitivities or ongoing, underlying conditions such as eczema, rosacea, psoriasis and contact dermatitis these symptoms are often ten times worse. This is because your immune system goes into overdrive to protect your body from any perceived threats (irritants) that have broken through your skin’s barrier. An inflammatory response then occurs and results in everything you know and hate about your eczema, psoriasis and the like.
If you do have a certain skin condition, you should always consult your dermatologist for advice on how best to exfoliate your skin – chances are you should cut it out of your routine entirely. But if your sensitivities are less ongoing and more controllable at home, you can still benefit from a little exfoliation in your life. You just need to know how to do it correctly.
Below, our five golden rules for safe exfoliation for sensitive skin…
Rule #1. Chemical exfoliation is usually better than physical exfoliation
There are two main types of exfoliation: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliators include anything that requires you to exert some kind of physical movement or pressure to remove dead cells from the surface of your skin. Think face scrubs, loofahs and cleansing brushes.
Chemical exfoliators, on the other hand, use chemicals to break down the bonds between your skin cells so they can naturally shed without you putting too much effort in. Typical chemical exfoliators are AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid, as well as BHAs such as salicylic acid.
Both physical and chemical exfoliators have their place in the world, but if your skin errs on the side of sensitive, look out for a chemical treatment that gently exfoliates but also hydrates and soothes your skin at the same time.
Our Ocean Minerals Super Toner contains glycolic acid making it the ideal way to boost cell turnover without causing too much irritation. Apply it to clean skin two or three times a week. If your skin suffers with sensitivities AND breakouts, however, you might be better off with our Vitamin C Super Serum+ which contains salicylic acid to target excess oil production. Again, apply this to clean, dry skin two or three times a week, perhaps even less if you’re super sensitive.
Rule #2. Oftentimes, a clean washcloth is enough to do the trick
Even chemical exfoliation can cause irritation if you’re not careful, but a great way to avoid this is to do a patch test first, then you'll know if that particular product is going to work for you. And if not? Don’t sweat it too much as there are still plenty of ways to gently boost cell turnover and get your glow on.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the easiest way to gently exfoliate sensitive skin is to invest in a few washcloths. Cleanse your skin as normal by gently apply a mild cleanser like Vitamin C Brightening Cleanser to damp skin. Then moisten your cloth and work this over your skin for 30 seconds before rinsing thoroughly with lukewarm water and patting dry with a clean towel. The action of the cloth works like a very light physical exfoliator. Just remember to wash your cloths after every use to stop bacteria from breeding and causing further irritation to your skin.
Rule #3. Important: don’t exfoliate too often
Some people can get away with exfoliating their skin five times a week, maybe even daily. But sensitive skin types? Not so much. Of course, how often you exfoliate varies from person to person, but we recommend sticking to once or twice a week to begin with. You can always increase your frequency at a later stage if you think your skin will benefit from doing so.
Rule #4. Let retinol do its thing
Retinol boosts collagen and elastin production to help reduce lines, dark spots and poor skin tone. But not only that, it also forces your cells to turn over more quickly which hey, is what exfoliation is all about, after all.
Instead of a full-on retinol serum, try adding Retinol Moisturizer into your skincare routine once or twice a week. Moisturizers don’t penetrate the skin quite as deeply as serums, which means you’ll still get the benefits of all those awesome active ingredients… but they’re less likely to irritate your skin. Retinol Moisturizer also contains aloe and hyaluronic acid to hydrate, vitamin E to heal, plus jojoba oil and shea butter to seal moisture into your skin. Patch test it first to check for sensitivities and always introduce it slowly into your routine. This is really important. Like, REALLY important – especially when it comes to sensitive skin. Got it? Good.
Rule #5. Always follow with moisturizer
Exfoliation not only deeply cleanses your skin and boosts cell turnover, but it can also remove a lot of good stuff from the surface of your skin, causing it to become dry and dehydrated in no time. But this is an easy fix, as long as you always apply moisturizer after exfoliating.
If you’re using our Retinol Moisturizer to gently exfoliate your skin, you’ve nailed this step already, but if you’re exfoliating with a washcloth or chemical serum, you must always follow with a separate moisturizer. Try Vitamin C Brightening Moisturizer each morning and Vitamin C Deep Hydration Night Cream before bed.
About Georgia Gould
Georgia is an award-winning beauty writer who has been in the business for over 20 years. British-born, she began her career as a magazine beauty editor in London before moving to San Francisco, CA in 2012 where she now continues her love as a freelance writer and editor. As well as her editorial work, Georgia has created content for many high-profile beauty brands, including Clarins, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Simple and TRESemmé. Her passions include retinol (obviously), golfing, skiing and walking her beloved Schnauzer, Dave.