Exfoliation is a major part of skincare, but it’s something that those with sensitive skin have traditionally had to either avoid or only do with heavy caution.
The fact is that exfoliation is harsh on the skin, even for folks with combination or tough skin – after all, it’s physically removing a layer of skin cells from your epidermis!
But even though exfoliation comes with certain caveats, it’s still possible to benefit from the process if you have sensitive skin. There are special exfoliation products to use and certain techniques to employ to minimize the risk of side effects.
Let’s break down how to exfoliate sensitive skin on this page.
Exfoliation: What It Does
If you’ve spent any time developing a skincare routine, you've probably heard of exfoliation. In fact, most skincare experts will agree that exfoliation is very important for skin health and as a means of achieving radiant, youthful skin.
Here’s what exfoliation does to your skin physically, which helps to explain why it’s difficult to incorporate exfoliation into a sensitive skincare routine:
- Exfoliating products come in three types: physical exfoliators, chemical peels, and enzyme peels. In any case, the goal of exfoliation is to remove dead skin cells that accumulate on the surface of the epidermis over time.
- This is a normal process that occurs regardless of your age or skin health, but if left unchecked, it can result in your skin’s pores being clogged by dead skin cells
- Furthermore, dead skin cells that aren’t removed beyond falling off of the course of a day can cover-up new, young skin cells that would otherwise look and feel great
- Therefore, by exfoliating, you remove the layer of dead skin cells that build up over time, exposing younger, warmer looking skin
The three different types of exfoliators do this in different ways. Physical exfoliators, which use small grains of ingredients like salt or sugar in many cases, scrub your pores and, as they are washed away, carry loosened dead skin cells with them.
Chemical peels use relatively harsh chemicals to dissolve dead skin cells, usually with the help of one or more acids. Meanwhile, enzyme peels work using organic reactions from fruit enzymes to more gently dissolve dead skin cells on your epidermis to reveal a fresher layer of clean, youthful skin.
Since you’re scrubbing away a layer of debris, grime, and dead skin cells, exfoliation can cause several effects. Most of these are benefits, but some of them can be uncomfortable and count as possible side effects:
- Exfoliation causes your skin to look warmer and healthier. This is because new and young skin cells are now at the surface, which tend to be more colorful anyway. But it’s also because the pressure of exfoliation causes more blood circulation, making your skin appear slightly redder.
- Exfoliation opens up your pores and can make your skin look and feel a little more porous or “air.y”
- Since exfoliation removes dead skin cells and exposes new, rawer skin cells, your skin can feel more sensitive or tender to the touch.
- New skin exposed by exfoliation often feel softer and plumper than dead skin, leading to a more youthful look.
As you can see, some of these effects are great, but others can be particularly concerning if you have sensitive skin.
How Exfoliation Affects Sensitive Skin
If you have sensitive skin, either due to genetics or other skin conditions, exfoliation can be a problem, even though it’s still an important part of a complete skincare routine.
Those with sensitive skin already have to deal with tenderness or rawness more than usual. As a result, exfoliation can result in painful, aching skin that reacts negatively to heat, sunlight, or even follow-up skincare products.
Exfoliating improperly with sensitive skin can also result in your skin overcompensating. Your skin may produce extra sebum, which is a natural type of oil used to trap moisture in your skin to prevent it from drying out. But if your skin overcompensates and produces extra sebum to protect itself from harm, you could end up with overly oily skin.
This, in turn, could lead to extra side effects like acne outbreaks. Ultimately, it’s important to exfoliate correctly and with the right exfoliation tools to prevent any of these outcomes.
How Often Should You Exfoliate Sensitive Skin?
Although those with sensitive skin have to be more careful when exfoliating, it’s still possible! Don’t worry if you’re one of these folks.
Folks with combination skin or other skin types can usually exfoliate one or two times per week depending on their comfort level and the type of exfoliating product they use. This limit is in place to prevent over-exfoliation, which occurs when you strip away too many dead skin cells and accidentally remove live, younger skin cells from the epidermis.
Doing so can result in skin sensitivity for anyone, not just people who already have sensitivity!
Therefore, people with sensitive skin should lower their exfoliation rate to once per week or even less. But won't this mean that your dead skin cells will pile up over time?
Yes… but that doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck with dry, old-looking, or scratchy skin. In fact, your skin replaces itself entirely about once every 27 days.
The reason most people try to exfoliate more than once per month is to ensure that dead skin cells don’t pile up too much. Additionally, skin regeneration doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a progressive cycle, so catching dead skin cells as they accrue is often more effective than trying to exfoliate all the dead skin cells at once.
Ultimately, this means that those with sensitive skin can exfoliate between two and four times per month and still get the majority of the benefits. While it’s true that your skin won’t be quite as clear as if you exfoliated twice per week, it’s a small price to pay for comfortable skin that doesn’t sting when you touch it.
Exfoliating Sensitive Skin
Now that you know how often to exfoliate sensitive skin, you have to consider what exfoliating products to use. As mentioned, there are three main types, physical exfoliators, chemical exfoliators or peels, and enzyme peels.
In our opinion, enzyme peels are far and away the best choice for sensitive skin. That’s because there isn't any harsh physical action or chemical dissolving going on when you use an enzyme peel. Enzyme peels can sink into your skin and gently dissolve dead skin cells thanks to the organic actions of the fruit enzymes contained on their surfaces.
Suki Skincare’s Resurfacing Enzyme Peel is a perfect example. Made with organic and all-natural ingredients like apple fruit extract, grapefruit peel oil, and rosa centifolia flower water, this enzyme peel can gently exfoliate your skin without any of the sensitivity side effects.
Even better, its complex ingredient list lends it additional benefits and bonus vitamins and minerals that can seep into your skin to bolster its health. For instance, this enzyme peel can jumpstart collagen, helping to firm up your skin over time and smooth your complexion. It’s particularly good at reducing the appearance of blemishes and hyperpigmentation of all different kinds.
As you exfoliate sensitive skin, it can help to follow these extra strategies:
- Be sure to use a revitalizing and soothing face serum after exfoliating. You can also find moisturizers to this effect. Either type of product will usually have soothing ingredients to calm your nerves down and help your skin recover more quickly from the exfoliation
- Try to exfoliate at the end of the day so your skin doesn’t have to deal with a lot of stress or contamination after exfoliation
- If you have acne outbreaks after exfoliation, you may need to switch products or look into using a toner. Since this can also affect sensitive skin, consider speaking to a dermatologist about the issue
What if Your Skin Still Reacts Poorly to Exfoliation?
If you have super sensitive skin, and even the relatively gentle action of an enzyme peel can’t do the job without causing uncomfortable side effects, it may be best to speak to a dermatologist about other options. There are other ways to take care of your skin and help get rid of dead skin cells besides traditional exfoliation techniques.
Remember, exfoliation is only valuable if you can do it without harming your skin or making your skin too sensitive for comfort. The goal is to enjoy your radiant, young-looking skin, right? So don’t go overboard or try to exfoliate if you’ll just make yourself uncomfortable in doing so.
Exfoliation is a tricky part of a complete skincare routine for just about everyone, but especially for people with sensitive skin.
Thankfully, we do believe most people with sensitive skin can still enjoy the benefits of exfoliation without having to put their skin through the wringer.
Let us know whether our enzyme peel seems like a good fit or if we can help with your all natural skincare regimen in any other way!