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5 of the best scrub free facial exfoliants for sensitive and reactive skin

Regular exfoliation has a multitude of benefits, and even sensitive skin can get in on the act with the right products

Has your skin lost its glow? One of the quickest ways to improve dull, lacklustre complexions is a regular dose of exfoliation. But can you overdo it and is exfoliating really OK for sensitive skin types?

What does exfoliating do?

Simply put, exfoliating helps to whisk dead skin cells from the skin's surface, encourages healthy cell turnover and consequently leads to brighter, softer and smoother skin.

Skin follows a cycle of naturally shedding dead cells every 30 days or so, but if those cells aren't removed, skin is left dry, flaky, and dull. Exfoliating helps to speed up that process, leaving radiant skin that reflects light better.

How should you exfoliate?

The main two methods of exfoliating are mechanically with brushes, pumice stones or scrubs containing coarse, abrasive particles such as apricot kernels, or chemically with exfoliating acids and enzymes.

Chemical exfoliants loosen the bonds between dead skin cells and the skin’s surface. As scary as this sounds, they’re not industrial chemicals but rather plant-derived acids that cause a chemical reaction in the skin and dissolve the ‘glue’ that keeps the dead cells sticking to the surface. Surprisingly it's a far gentler way to remove dead skin than using an abrasive scrub.

Further advantages of hydroxy acids is that they’re anti-inflammatory so work on lightening pigmentation and controlling acne, and are also humectants, meaning they draw water into the skin keeping it hydrated.

Chemical exfoliants include:

  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) – these include lactic, malic, mandelic, phytic and glycolic acids. Sensitive skins should stick to lactic, mandelic and malic acids, while phytic acid is the gentlest of all.

  • Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) – there is only one of these – salicylic acid – which is particularly recommended for acne prone and congested skin and along with exfoliating the top layer, also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Polyhydroxy Acids (PHAs) – these include lactobionoic and gluconolactone acids, and although similar to AHA, their molecular size is larger which means they do not penetrate as deeply. They work to gently exfoliate the uppermost layer of the skin so are ideal for reactive and sensitive skin types.

  • Enzymatic exfoliants – these use enzymes - usually derived from fruits such as pineapple or other botanicals such as seeds - to literally break down the keratin in the top layer of the skin and dissolve the dead skin cells, rather than working deep in the pores like acids. Since enzymes literally 'digest' the dead skin cells, they won’t over exfoliate, making them a good choice for sensitive skins. 

Can you over exfoliate?

It is possible to over exfoliate by scrubbing too hard – you may also have heard horror stories of acids leaving skin red, irritated and inflamed. However, this is usually due to using the wrong acid for your skin condition, or using too many different acids.

How to use a scrub free exfoliant 

Acids usually appear in skin toners which are wiped over the skin after cleansing or in skin lotions that are left on the skin; enzyme based products can be in mask or cream format. Initially it’s best to go slow and use no more than twice a week – also check that the product isn't causing redness or irritation before stepping up usage.

Here are some of our favourite scrub free exfoliating products:

Institut Enzymatic Micro Peel

Botanical extracts such as chamomile, cucumber, aloe vera and passion fruit are combined with lactic acid making this light, silky lotion an ideal micro-exfoliant for dry, dehydrated and sensitive skin.

Verdilab Micro Exfoliating Mask 

Safe for sensitive skin, seven natural AHAs including lactic and phytic acids are combined with physical exfoliants and botanical ingredients in this extremely luxurious face mask that unblocks clogged pores, detoxifies and stimulates cell renewal.

Balance Me PHA Clarifying Mist 

For skin that still gets a little oily, this face mist contains both zinc and PHAs to gently exfoliate, balance excess sebum, tackle shine and calm blemish-prone skin.

NeoStrata Ultra Moisturising Face Cream

Ideal for those with rosacea as well as first time AHA users, this gently exfoliating cream includes 10 per cent gluconolactone (PHA), vitamin E and vitamin B complex to keep skin smooth, intensely hydrated and protected against pollution and free radicals.

Frances Prescott Tri Balm 

Enzymes from pumpskin seeds, natural antioxidants and botanical oils are combined in this luxurious facial balm to cleanse, exfoliate and moisturise in one step, while the solid stick format is perfect for travelling. Skin is left nourished and glowing.

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