13 Chemical Exfoliants That Won't Irritate Sensitive Skin

This article first appeared on June 16,2021 at allure.com.
Skin smoothing with acids can be scary, but glow up with ease, thanks to these expert-recommended peels, serums, and cleansers.  

Skin-sloughing is key when it comes to achieving — and maintaining — healthy, glowy skin. "Exfoliation removes the outermost layers of the epidermis to reveal the newer skin beneath," board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, who is based in New York City, tells Allure. "Regular exfoliation is key to a glowing complexion."

While there are two different types of exfoliants — physical and chemical — the latter is especially ideal for those with sensitive skin since they are less abrasive than the former, explains board-certified dermatologist Marie Hayag, who is also based in New York City. Additionally, "chemical exfoliants can penetrate deeper into the skin and work by breaking apart the bonds that hold dead skin cells together," Hayag explains.

Board-certified dermatologist Orit Markowitz, who is based in New York City, also tells Allure that alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are two of the most common types of chemical exfoliants. According to Markowitz, these ingredients "gently exfoliate the buildup of dead skin cells and reveal softer, more hydrated skin without damaging the skin." Fruit enzymes like papaya and pineapple are another type of chemical exfoliant, which, as Hayag notes, are great for sensitive skin since they gently slough.

Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) are also ideal for those with sensitive skin. According to board-certified dermatologist Karyn Grossman, who is based in Santa Monica, PHAs penetrate the skin slower than AHAs and BHAs — thus creating less irritation. "These acids are much milder than AHAs or BHAs, which makes them an excellent alternative for individuals with sensitive skin," explains board-certified dermatologist Michele Green, who is based in New York City. "Additionally, PHAs have humectant properties, so [they] are able to draw in moisture [and] minimize dryness," board-certified New York City-based dermatologist Marisa Garshick tells Allure.

Just be sure you're not over-exfoliating, which may cause inflammation, breakouts, dryness, and redness — especially if you're already prone to sensitive skin. How often you exfoliate primarily depends on your skin type. New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Shari Marchbein previously shared with Allure that those who have combination or oily skin can exfoliate "up to three times weekly." 

To help navigate the (sometimes) intimating world of chemical exfoliants  — especially if you have sensitive skin — we narrowed down the top dermatologist-recommended products that smooth without irritation.