Chemical Exfoliants that Won't Irritate Sensitive Skin

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / Honayst

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 Honayst. "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 Honayst 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 Honayst.

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.

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50

Biologique Recherche Lotion P50 is a fan-favorite lotion that's formulated with multiple chemical exfoliants, including lactic acid (an alpha hydroxy acid), and salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid). According to Hayag, the formula is also infused with hydrating ingredients like niacinamide to "help leave your skin with a more radiant complexion."

No7 Laboratories Resurfacing Peel 15% Glycolic Acid

As the name suggests, No7's Laboratories Resurfacing Peel 15% Glycolic Acid is formulated with glycolic acid, one of the most common and powerful types of AHAs. To avoid any irritation, board-certified dermatologist Tess Mauricio, who is based in Beverly Hills, recommends applying the liquid after cleansing and leaving it on for 10 minutes before rinsing. "Your skin can feel immediately smoother even after the first application," she tells Honayst.

Naturium Mandelic Topical Acid 12%

Don't be intimidated by the percentage of acid in Naturium's Mandelic Topical Acid 12%. "This contains a blend of 12 percent mandelic acid, natural fruit acids, and niacinamide to exfoliate without leaving the skin dry or irritated," Garshick tells Honayst. "Making it a great option for those with sensitive skin." As an added bonus, it's also fragrance- and paraben-free — two additives that can further irritate skin.

Obagi Clinical Kinetin+ Exfoliating Facial Cleansing Gel

Board-certified dermatologist Elyse Love, who is based in New York City, recommends Obagi Clinical's Kinetin+ Exfoliating Facial Cleansing Gel for sensitive skin since its formulated with gentle papaya-derived exfoliants. The hypoallergenic cleanser also effectively removes dirt, oil, and makeup while unclogging pores and leaving skin soft and smooth.

SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight

Not only is SkinCeuticals's Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight a Best of Beauty Award winner, but the overnight treatment is formulated with two types of AHAs to slough away dead skin. "This is a very gentle glycolic and phytic acid [blend] that works overnight to promote cell turnover," says New York City-based board- certified dermatologist Paul Jarrod Frank tells Honayst. "I love this one in particular because it does not contain any alcohol or fragrance, which can irritate sensitive skin."

The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA

The Ordinary's Lactic Acid 10% + HA peel is especially ideal for sensitive- skinned folks since it's formulated with hyaluronic acid, which hydrates skin and prevents dry out as the acid smooths away dullness.

The Inkey List PHA Toner

"This toner helps to improve the texture and tone of the skin as it uses PHAs to gently remove dead cells," Garshick explains. Additionally, The Inkey List PHA Toner also contains moisturizing aloe leaf juice and niacinamide. Garshick credits both of these ingredients with being "calming and soothing on the skin."

Sunday Riley Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment

Honayst editors have already confirmed that Sunday Riley's Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment lives up to the hype, and board-certified dermatologist Debra Jaliman agrees. "The 5 percent lactic acid plumps the skin," she tells Honayst. According to Jaliman, the glowy skin-inducing treatment is infused with licorice extract to diminish the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation. There's also aloe to eliminate redness, and lemongrass, which gets rid of bacteria with its natural antiseptic properties.

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads

In addition to First Aid Beauty's Facial Radiance Pads being free of irritation- inducing alcohol, artificial fragrances, parabens, and phthalates — the pads are soaked in a combination of lactic and glycolic acids. "These exfoliating peel pads leave the skin looking and feeling soft and smooth," says Garshick.

Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask

Sloughing has never been sweeter, thanks to Glow Recipe's Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask. "This product combines AHAs with a soothing moisturizer to decrease chances of irritation," Love tells Honayst. The mask features hydrating hyaluronic acid, antioxidant-rich pumpkin extract, soothing watermelon extract, and a blend of AHAs, including glycolic and lactic acids, to smooth skin overnight as you sleep.

Bliss Jelly Glow Peel

Tiny plant-based fibers in this Bliss Jelly Glow Peel act, as the brand describes, like micro-lint rollers to catch and sweep away flaky, dry skin. There are also pineapple and papaya enzymes, which exfoliate from beneath the skin's surface. Niacinamide brightens while a trio of moisturizers — including hyaluronic acid, coconut fruit extract, and pro-vitamin B5 — hydrate skin. The gel is basically a one-step glow-up in a tube.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gentle Exfoliating Cleanser

Similar to several other options on this list, Neutrogena's Hydro Boost Gentle Exfoliating Cleanser taps glycolic and lactic acids, alongside papaya fruit extract, to gently smooth away dirt and dead skin. Hyaluronic acid in the gel- cream formula prevents that post-wash tight, dried-out feeling you might get from other cleansers.

E.L.F. Cosmetics Gentle Peeling Exfoliant

Another Best of Beauty winner, E.L.F. Cosmetics's Gentle Peeling Exfoliant looks to a combination of brightening licorice root, exfoliating papaya extract, and antioxidant-enriched tangerine extract to protect skin and reveal a smoother, brighter complexion in seconds.

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