We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.
In recent years, exfoliating products exploded on the skin care market, and influencers on social media became increasingly vocal about the benefits and importance of exfoliation.
However, exfoliation can also damage the skin barrier and cause long-term irritation, redness, and sensitivity. For people who already have sensitive skin, exfoliating incorrectly can make sensitivity worse.
There are two main types of exfoliants: chemical and physical.
The main chemical exfoliants used in beauty products are alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) — like glycolic, lactic, and malic acids — and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) — like salicylic acid.
Physical exfoliants, on the other hand, physically peel away dead skin cells from the top layer of skin. These can be, for example, scrubs with beads, facial brushes, and dermaplaning tools.
People with sensitive skin often struggle with redness, rashes, dryness, flaking, and itching. They also often experience stinging or burning after using certain beauty products.
While numerous factors can cause sensitivity, including genetics, sun exposure, product use, and the environment, one thing is clear: skin sensitivity is the result of a damaged skin barrier.
Therefore, people with sensitive skin need to be careful about what kinds of exfoliants they use and how often.
In fact, Dr. Matt Innes, a board certified dermatologist at the Tanner Clinic in Utah, says people with sensitive skin may rarely need to exfoliate at all.
“The main reasons to exfoliate are if you have hyperpigmentation, keratosis pilaris, acne-prone skin, or mature, photo-damaged skin,” he explains. “If you don’t need exfoliation for any of those things, then you may skip it altogether.”
For people with sensitive skin who want to exfoliate, Innes recommends starting with a gentle cleanser. These cleansers have a shorter contact time with the skin and thus lead to less irritation. Once a week should be enough for people with sensitive skin.
He also recommends removing other potentially irritating products, including retinoids, vitamin C, and other AHAs that might cause cumulative irritation while exfoliating. Always patch-test products before using them, and use SPF after exfoliating.
Thankfully, many clean skin care brands specialize in products for sensitive skin. We scouted out the best natural skin care exfoliators for sensitive skin to help simplify your search.
We chose exfoliants based on their gentle ingredients, affordability, company reputation, and, most importantly, customer reviews.
We did our best to choose products in a budget-friendly price range. The good thing about exfoliators for people with sensitive skin is that they last a long time when used sparingly, making the price well worth it.
- $ = under $20
- $$ = $20–$40
- $$$ = over $40
KraveBeauty is sensitive skin’s best friend. The company takes a simple approach to skin care, offering five basic products with the philosophy of giving your face a reset and healing the skin barrier.
Kale-Lalu-yAHA is a gentle exfoliant made with glycolic acid, along with hyaluronic acid to soothe and hydrate, and antioxidants. The 5.25 percent concentration of glycolic acid is an ideal amount to provide a gentle exfoliation.
Many of Krave’s customers have sensitive skin, and reviewers say they notice a visible difference from the product without irritation or redness. Others said they would highly recommend the product to others with sensitive skin.
In a consumer study done by REN Clean Skincare, 96 percent of users reported that the Ready Steady Glow Daily AHA Tonic did not cause irritation. Odds like that make this clean beauty product a good bet for people with sensitive skin.
Technically, this product is geared toward all skin types, though the company recommends that people with hypersensitive skin start by diluting the tonic with water to see how their skin reacts to it.
People with hypersensitive skin will also do well using this tonic occasionally rather than daily.
Reviewers swear by the lactic acid in this product, saying that the tonic leaves their skin feeling bright, clean, and noticeably clearer.
This lactic acid-based mask is a quick way to exfoliate and moisturize at the same time.
The Resurfacing Moisture Mask contains lactic acid, one of the gentler AHAs, along with hyaluronic acid to help prevent moisture loss and heal the skin’s barrier.
Reviewers said the mask did not irritate their rosacea or sensitivity, and some said it helped reduce redness.
Farmacy Beauty’s products are a favorite of organic skin care users thanks to their innovative formulations that fuse nature and chemistry, along with proven results through testing.
The Honeymoon Glow is a nighttime serum formulated with gentle ingredients to exfoliate and soothe skin.
The brand says lactic, glycolic, citric, and fruit acids do the work of addressing hyperpigmentation and promoting cell renewal, while BHA from willow bark diminishes pore sizes. Hyaluronic acid and honey work to help hydrate and soothe the skin.
A 6-week consumer panel done by Farmacy Beauty that tested all skin types, including sensitive skin, yielded impressive results. People with sensitive skin found the serum to be gentle, and people with dry, sensitive skin experienced more softness without irritation.
Drunk Elephant calls this their “ultra-mild multitasking” exfoliating bar, and it is formulated for people with sensitive skin.
The bar is free of fragrance, soap, silicones, and essential oils, and it has a pH of 6.3. This means it cleanses the skin without stripping the barrier of its important oils.
Bamboo powder, heilmoor clay, and virgin marula oil are the all-stars in the exfoliating moisture combo of this bar. While bamboo powder is technically a physical exfoliant, the powder is so thin and gentle that it won’t irritate skin the way a scrub might.
Reviewers like the Juju Bar, saying it exfoliates without drying out or irritating their skin.
Using it too often may lead to dryness, but if you have sensitive skin, you should only be exfoliating occasionally anyway.
This hydrating exfoliator contains a mix of lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acids, along with reishi and niacinamide, which have calming and hydrating properties.
The Acid Potion is a good option for people who have dark spots and sun damage and are looking for a gentle way to clear their skin.
It averages 4.9 out of 5 stars with over 500 reviews, and many reviewers say it’s the best acid toner they have used. Reviewers with sensitive skin say they wake up with clearer complexions and have no irritation, even on hypersensitive skin.
Some users recommended using the product at night, noting that they experienced redness after applying it during the day.
Caudalie’s products are made up of mostly natural ingredients derived from grapes — and 85.7 percent of the ingredients in the Glycolic Peel Mask are natural.
This cream mask gently exfoliates with glycolic acid, and it is made for all skin types, including sensitive skin.
It is meant to be left on for 10 minutes, though those looking for an even gentler exfoliation might find less time works well for them.
Reviewers have only positive things to say about this mask. Many reviewers are older, and given that this mask is meant to restore radiance, it is a great option for people with mature-looking skin.
The Counter+ Overnight Resurfacing Peel is specifically formulated with irritation in mind.
This leave-on AHA and BHA product is meant to be used at night while the skin regenerates. Glycolic, lactic, and citric acids act as exfoliants, while arginine and fatty acids moisturize.
This product averages 4.8 out of 5 stars with over 4,000 reviews. Many reviewers who identify themselves as having hypersensitive skin and rosacea say this peel leaves them without irritation and with skin that feels soft.
Mad Hippie’s products merge chemistry with natural beauty, providing results alongside a commitment to the environment.
Anyone looking for a mild nighttime exfoliant that they can use consistently will find it in the Vitamin A Serum. The serum is made with a bioavailable form of vitamin A that gently reduces the appearance of wrinkles and discoloration overtime.
The brand says phytoceramides plump up the skin and protect the skin’s barrier, and sodium hyaluronate, oat beta glucan, and aloe vera all soothe and moisturize the skin.
This product boasts 5 stars on the company’s website, and many reviewers, including those with sensitive skin, refer to this serum as their “holy grail.”
No list of sensitive skin products would be complete without First Aid Beauty, a clean beauty brand committed to products that are safe for sensitive skin and do not cause irritation.
According to the company’s website, the Facial Radiance Pads are safe to use daily by all skin types, including sensitive skin. Designed to gently smooth the skin, these pads are formulated with low concentrations of lactic and glycolic acids, along with lemon peel, Indian gooseberry, and antioxidants to protect the skin.
Reviewers with sensitive skin emphatically recommend this product, saying it helped clear acne and redness without irritation. Others say this is one of only a few products that doesn’t cause reactivity for them.
Skinfix Resurface+ Glycolic Renewing Scrub uses glycolic and lactic acids for a gentle exfoliation.
This scrub is designed to target rough, bumpy, and crepey skin, along with keratosis pilaris. In a 2-week dermatologically led study, 100 percent of users said their skin felt softer and smoother, and 94 percent said the scrub exfoliated their dead skin.
Skinfix’s products are nontoxic, cruelty-free, and free from a long list of irritating ingredients.
Those looking for a gentle, plant-based chemical exfoliant will hit the jackpot with this body mask.
The True Botanicals Resurfacing Body Mask contains lactic acid to gently remove dead skin cells while stimulating the production of ceramides and collagen to boost hydration. There’s also green tea to fight inflammation. The combination removes dryness and bumps from the body.
Those with sensitive skin say they don’t experience irritation with this mask, and others say this helped reduce their keratosis pilaris.
The Seaweed Bath Co. was founded with the goal of creating products for the founders’ sensitive skin, and, in the process, they discovered the healing benefits of bladderwrack seaweed from Maine. This is the basis for all the company’s products.
The Hydrating Exfoliating Body Scrub was formulated specifically for sensitive skin, and, although it is technically a physical exfoliant, the pumice is so finely ground that it is safe for compromised skin.
The scrub contains pumice to exfoliate, along with organic, sustainably harvested seaweed, Hawaiian kukui oil, coconut oil, and aloe vera to nourish and hydrate.
Reviewers rate this scrub highly, saying it leaves their skin feeling soft without the harsh effects that are often felt from a physical exfoliant.
The KP (keratosis pilaris) Bump Eraser Body Scrub is one of First Aid Beauty’s most popular products due to how effectively it reduces scaly bumps on the body.
This dual chemical and physical scrub is formulated with 10 percent combined glycolic and lactic acids, an ideal concentration for people with sensitive skin. The acids remove the top layer of dead skin cells, while pumice buffing beads decongest clogged pores that often lead to bumps.
Like all First Aid Beauty products, the scrub is specially formulated with sensitive skin in mind, and it also contains bisabolol and vitamin E to soothe skin.
Reviewers say the scrub isn’t too harsh for sensitive skin, and it helps remove bumps along with ingrown hairs.
The Herbivore Botanicals Coco Rose Coconut Oil Body Polish is a cult favorite that has rapidly grown in popularity.
The scrub is a blend of coconut oil, Moroccan rose, shea butter, and pink clay. The coconut oil and shea butter are intended to provide hydration, while the rose and clay give the scrub its pink color and floral scent.
The main exfoliating agent is sugar, along with the pink clay which provides a gentle detoxification. In the proper concentration, sugar can be a gentle enough physical exfoliant for skin on the body, and many reviewers say that the scrub isn’t irritating for their sensitive skin.
OSEA is known for its naturally crafted products and commitment to the environment. This body polish is a great choice for those looking for a gentle exfoliation.
The brand says undaria seaweed, hemp seed oil, and kukui seed oil work to improve the appearance of skin and moisturize, while ultrafine volcanic pumice and lychee seed gently exfoliate the skin.
Overall, reviewers rate this product highly.
This gently exfoliating cleanser can be used on both the face and body. Though, due to its physical exfoliation, we recommend using it on the body only.
Angels On Bare Skin uses ground almonds and cleansing clay to gently slough away dead skin, along with rose and chamomile to soothe redness.
Reviewers with sensitive skin rave about this cleanser, saying it helped relieve their dryness and irritation, and that it has a scent that’s subtle and pleasant but not heavy.
SheaMoisture’s Hydration Crème Sugar Scrub provides the perfect mix of hydration and exfoliation for people with sensitive skin.
The scrub has a velvety texture due to the combination of coconut oil, coconut milk, shea butter, and raw sugar. This allows for gentle exfoliation as well as deep hydration.
Reviewers say the scrub is very gentle on their skin, and many say it leaves them feeling smooth and hydrated.
Weleda is one of the original natural skin care brands, and their products have stayed evergreen with consistently high-quality ingredients and formulations.
The Body Cleansing Scrub is designed to provide gentle exfoliation that refreshes dull skin without stripping it of moisture. The scrub has tiny granules of wax that are made to be gentle on the skin and environmentally friendly. Plus, the fresh scent is the result of grapefruit, citrus, and cypress.
Weleda recommends using the scrub once per week, which is a good bet for people with sensitivity.
Our lips often go unnoticed when it comes to exfoliation. However, lips have cells that get regenerated like all the other areas of the body. Occasionally exfoliating the lips can leave them feeling more supple and hydrated.
The French Girl Organics Rose Lip Polish combines sugar, coconut oil, cocoa butter, shea butter, castor oil, and more to create a super hydrating scrub. The lip skin is delicate, and this hydrating sugar mix is said to exfoliate without irritation.
People with sensitive skin should approach exfoliation with caution. When it comes to irritation-prone skin, under-exfoliating is better than doing too much.
Gentle chemical exfoliants, like glycolic and lactic acid, in small concentrations are ideal for people with sensitivity. It is best to avoid face products that have physical exfoliants.
When it comes to exfoliation with sensitive skin, less is more. And, no matter what, moisturize and wear SPF every day to protect your skin barrier.
Lucia Whalen is a Chicago-based writer and multimedia journalist specializing in the intersection of health, science, and environment; she is also a cofounder of Trashy Magazine. Her writing has been featured in Atlas Obscura, South Side Weekly, MindBodyGreen, and other publications. She is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.