Gentle Facial Exfoliators

As a hormonal teen affronted with acne and post-blemish scars, I made a beeline for gritty face scrubs and the “renewed skin” promise they held. Well, it didn’t go as planned.

Harsh scrubbing just facilitates a Catch-22 situation; the more I scrubbed, the more my reactive epidermis struggled to defend itself. It ultimately lost the battle, and my weakened skin barrier became even more susceptible to breakouts until I found these gentle exfoliators suited for my sensitive skin.

Why exfoliation is important

As we age, the process of cell turnover slows down, creating a rough, dull texture that looks older which is more vulnerable to irritants. Done correctly, exfoliation helps your skin purge dead cells and unclog pores to reveal a clearer, smoother complexion.

When you over-exfoliate, however, you open up a pathway for bacteria and pollutants into the deeper layers of your skin, where they can cause redness, dryness, as well as acne.

Below, I’ll show you what to look for and what to steer clear from next time your skin needs a boost of confidence.

What to look for:

1. Salicylic Acid

From left to right:
CosRX Natural BHA Skin Returning A-Sol (S$19)
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliator (S$43)
Mario Badescu Acne Facial Cleanser (S$32)

Salicylic acid, a form of beta hydroxy acid (BHA), isn’t as harsh as it sounds.

These non-abrasive, leave-on treatments work impeccably to clear out pores, clarify uneven skin tone, and increase hydration levels. If you suffer from frequent breakouts on top of skin sensitivity, these are designed with you in mind.

This is why I’ve been purchasing the cult formulation by Paula’s Choice for a few years now. It does what it says on the tin, and I only need to swipe on a small amount once or twice a week in the evening for some serious blemish and blackhead busting.

If a leave-on salicylic acid treatment is still too harsh for you, turn to a cleanser formulated with the ingredient and use that twice a week instead.

2. Gommage exfoliators

From left to right:
Cure Natural Aqua Gel (S$29.90)
Boscia Exfoliating Peel Gel (S$51)
Porcelain Revive Natural Skin Refiner (S$98)

Translated from French, “gommage” means “to scrub,” because as you gently rub the product on your skin, it starts to peel, providing a soothing and effective form of exfoliation.

This is because the gommage variety uses natural cellulose and enzymes which remove dead skin cells and impurities, so smoother skin is almost instantly visible.

There’s just something satisfying about seeing tiny balls of product and dead skin roll off too. Unlike BHA exfoliants, I recommend using them no more than once a week, or only when your skin is feeling extra rough and dry.

3. Vitamin serums

From left to right:
The Ordinary Ascorbyl Glucoside Solution 12% (S$16.19)
Klairs Freshly Juiced Vitamin Drop (S$31)
Skin Inc Vitamin C Serum (S$68)

If your skin is deemed extra sensitive, using a vitamin serum at night will provide mild exfoliation. Look for ones that contain vitamin C. The ingredient not only expedites skin cell turnover for smoother skin, it targets dark spots and scars too, lightening them over time.

Since vitamin serums can decrease the skin’s sun tolerance, make sure you cleanse your face the morning after, and follow up with a lightweight sunscreen.

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What to avoid:

1. Glycolic Acid

Similar to salicylic acid, glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant geared towards acne-prone skin, but it falls under a set of molecules known as AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids).

Its high acidity and effortless solubility makes it an ideal exfoliator for dry skin, but less so for sensitive complexions. The low pH of glycolic acid could cause a slight tingling sensation followed by irritation and redness on reactive skin.

2. Retinol

A form of vitamin A, retinol is an anti-aging ingredient known for its ability to make the skin look young again. It boosts firmness, smooths fine lines and wrinkles, fixes uneven skin tone, and improves skin texture.

It’s a wonder multi-tasker, but retinol has also been widely associated with exacerbating skin sensitivities. Due to the potency of the chemical, redness, peeling, and increased sensitivity to the sun are side effects.

With regular use, normal skin will eventually acclimatise, but it won’t work the same on more sensitive skin-types.

3. Abrasive physical exfoliants

From left to right:
Sephora Collection Face Konjac Sponge (S$13)
The Konjac Sponge Company Konjac Sponge Puff with French Pink Clay (S$18)

Physical exfoliants made with apricot kernels and walnut shells have rough, irregular edges that can tear the skin on a microscopic level, quickly inducing redness and reactions.

Scrubs containing beads might also irritate your skin, and they’re harmful to our environment too. But if you simply can’t do without some physical sloughing, I’d suggest buffing your skin lightly with a konjac sponge.

They’re made with natural konjac root, a porous vegetable that grows in Asia, first created as a way to cleanse a baby’s skin. You can use it on its own in the morning, and/or pair it your regular cleanser.

Facial Exfoliators For Sensitive Skin

If you’ve got sensitive skin, hopefully these gentle exfoliators will give your skin the help it needs.

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