Sensitive-skinned souls are usually quite afraid of exfoliation in any form and rightly so. If you have a reactive skin, which is my preferred term for sensitive skin as “sensitive” can be vague, anything you put on your face could potentially cause you to flake, go bright red and sting. It’s not a risk that many are willing to take without education. As you’ll be aware of if you’ve read this column before, I’m all about education so I am the human for the job.
Prior to reading, please note that not all of these with be fail-safe options for any reactive skin. As I am constantly preaching, each individual skin is different so you truly need to patch-test things before using them if you are reactive (technically, even if you’re not)… More on that later on.
Reactive skin is something that you are genetically predisposed to so you can thank your parents if you do have it. It’s important, dear reader, to note the differences between a) sensitive skin –what you are born with it and b) sensitised skin – skin that has become more reactive to products due to its barrier being worn down.
Plenty of things can cause skin sensitisation over time, such as excessive sun exposure, pollution, stress, over-exfoliation and using wipes as they are filled with drying alcohols and fragrances! If your skin was never sensitive and you suddenly started having reactions, you’re probably sensitised rather than sensitive.
Exfoliating Sensitive Skin – No Scrubs
I am not a fan of mechanical exfoliation, ie. your scrubs, grits and exfoliating gloves, at the best of times but certainly not for those with sensitive skin. If you have sensitive skin, you’ll know the redness and the heat you can experience if you accidentally rub your face too much so you can only imagine what scrubbing at it with grains of whatever will do.
This form of exfoliation causes little tears across the surface of the skin which will irritate your already weak barrier and could bring out some redness and scaly-ness.
Use Lactic Acid Instead Of Glycolic Acid
AHAs are the most well-known form of non-physical exfoliation in my eyes but are you using the right one for your princess skin? Lactic acid is preferable to glycolic acid for sensitive skin, even though it does the same job of telling your skin to let go of its dead skin cells.
Let’s get nerdie: glycolic acid has the smallest molecular sizing of the AHAs so it can get deeper into the skin and thus speed up your skin’s own exfoliation process more than the others. Because of this, it can’t be tamed as easily. It’s the lion of the AHA gang – wild but the king of the jungle in certain circumstances.
Lactic acid, on the other hand, has a slightly larger molecule and so it is not quite as effective as glycolic acid but safer for sensitive skins. The other benefit of lactic acid is that it is a humectant, meaning that it hydrates the skin – I find that sensitive skin tends to be on the drier side of things so this is a big plus.
REN’s Glycol Lactic Radiance Renewal Mask (€34.95 Cloud10 Beauty) is an exfoliating masque that uses lactic acid as its main exfoliating ingredient – it also contains glycolic acid from pineapple in a smaller amount and exfoliating papaya enzymes. It’s truly a fab exfoliating option for more reactive skins, however, it does contain essential oils which can irritate some.
Go For PHAs Instead of AHAs
Have you heard of PHAs? If so, we should be friends. PHA stands for polyhydroxy acid which are very similar to AHAs in form and act like them in the way that they exfoliate yet they cause no irritation. Unlike AHAs, PHAs actually work to strengthen the skin’s barrier, the very thing that protects our skin from all that irritates it.
They’re also antioxidant in nature and, like lactic acid, are hydrating by design.
PHAs are actually made by Neostrata, a highly active brand that you can buy over the counter in pharmacies, so when I’m recommending a PHA product, I feel like it has to be by them.
The Neostrata Skin Active Exfoliating Wash (€32.50 Cara Pharmacy) uses gluconolactone and maltobionic acid, two PHAs, to help to exfoliate the skin without causing sensitive skin to throw a strop.
Reactive To ALL Acids? Enzyme Time
Even the exfoliating acids that are believed to be suitable for or are literally formulated to be used on reactive skin can still irritate some and may lead you to think it is time to give up on exfoliation. That you can do – your skin does exfoliate itself anyway, it’s not like you just keep accumulating dead skin cells on top of the fresh ones until the end of time.
If you do still want to exfoliate, enzymes are the way. Using enzymes in your skincare means releasing lots of microscopic Pacmans on to your skin to gently gobble up all the dead skin cells without causing irritation or inflammation.
For the most part, the enzymes you’ll find in skincare products are from fruit such as papain from papaya (like in the REN Glycol Lactic Mask I mentioned earlier) or bromelain from pineapple. Fun fruit fact: the enzymes found in pineapple are the reason that pineapple can sting your mouth, as they eat you back.
IMAGE Skincare’s Hydrating Enzyme Masque (€42.00 SkinShop.ie) uses both pineapple and papaya enzymes as well as vitamin C, hyaluronic acid and antioxidants so it is perfect for a super gentle, super sensitive exfoliation.
My word to all sensitive-skinned folk in this world of highly irritating skincare products is to tread softly and patch test. Patch test on a hidden area such as the back of your neck as the skin there is most like the skin on your face. What you want to do is apply a small amount to that area and wait 24 hours to see if anything happens – keep in mind that some reactions won’t show for 3 days so if you can go that long before using the product, do it.
Jennifer Rock is the founder of The Skin Nerd online skin consultancy and online cosmeceutical skincare store. If you’re interested in having a consultation with one of her expert Nerdettes, click here for more information.