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19 Nov

5 Gentle Ways to Exfoliate Sensitive Facial Skin

Two years have passed since the UK Government enforced a ban on the use of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetics. With these harmful plastic orbs eradicated to protect our oceans, seas and sea life – the most sought-after types of skin exfoliants are those composed of natural materials: sugar being the most common replacement to microbeads. 

Undoubtedly, skin care brands are improving their sugar-based scrubs and polishes to make them gentler for the delicate skin on our faces. Most of the time these alterations are based around the particles themselves; making them softer and smaller to avoid irritation and microdermabrasionMany exfoliating products you’ll find on drugstore shelves today use Oryza sativa (rice) germ powder or microcrystalline cellulose (redefined as wood pulp) in replacement of the microbeads we once used.  

Despite these improvements some of us would rather entirely eliminate solid particles from our skin care routines; this could be because our skin is too sensitive to use them on a regular basis or because we are very conscious of what enters our water systems, soil, etc. alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHA) are a prime example of a natural exfoliant used in both wash-off of skin care as well as skin care we leave on our skin. We will distinguish the differences between these forms of hydroxy acids in due course. 

What are AHAs? 
  • They are natural sugars derived from sugary fruits and sugar cane. 
  • They are water-soluble. 
  • Help stimulate collagen production, which is essential for plump, youthful looking skin, which is relatively free of fine lines, wrinkles, and so on. 
  • They coax the turn-over cycle of skin cells with light exfoliation – shedding dead skin cells to reveal smoother and softer skin with less of a risk of irritation. 
  • Examples: glycolic acid, lactic acid (an AHA sometimes labelled as LHA)tartaric and citric acid.


What are BHAs? 
  • The most common beta-hydroxy acid is salicylic acid which is often found in gel face washes. 
  • Known for its bacteria fighting properties. 
  • Ideal for deep pore cleansing as it is oil-soluble and can therefore breakdown oils in makeup and sebum.  
  • Included in some acne skin care to regulate hyper keratinization (the shedding of skin cells too fast) and unclog congested pores.  
  • Other examples: betaine salicylate and willow bark extract. 

Malic acid is considered an AHA and BHA hybrid which is gradually becoming more widely used by Korean skin care brands. Several of AHA and BHA’s functions cross over – both work at brightening skin by evening out dull and uneven skin tone, whilst also having a role in improving overall skin textural issues.  

This should not deter you from traditional exfoliators, more so it is to help you discover gentle alternatives which may be more appropriate for you. Furthermore, it highlights that wash-off products and scrubs aren’t our only methods of exfoliation. Let’s explore our options 

AHA/BHA peeling gels 

These are not to be mistaken for peeling masks which put pores and capillaries under a lot of stress. Peeling gels formulated with AHA/BHA combine chemical and manual exfoliation. Sometimes when we hear or read the word chemical we instantly assume that something is unsafe or harsh, however it’s important to remember that hydroxy acids are natural and typically derive from plant sources of some variety.  

The majority of peeling gels are gommage type products – erasing dead skin cells with minimal effort and/or the need to apply much pressure on skin. There’s a misconception that when a peeling gel balls-up that it is skin cells flaking-off and binding together, although actually it’s the ingredients themselves which are ‘congealing’ as we work them into the skin.  

AHA/BHA tonersserums & sheet masks 

If you would rather incorporate hydroxy acids into your routine with a product you wipepat or sits on your skintoners are a fast way of getting some light exfoliation into your skin care routines. As some toner, sheet mask ampoule and serum residue will remain on skin the hydroxy acids have longer to do what they do best; hence why some people prefer to use these acids in the steps which come after cleansing rather than in masks and cleansers which are washed off.  

Its important to note that if you are going to use AHAs in your daytime routine that you always apply daily sun protection as AHAs react with sunlight and may cause skin to become sensitised if not used in conjunction with sunscreen.  

AHA/BHA gauze pads 

Sometimes when people make the switch from scrubs to hydroxy acids, they miss the physical aspect of exfoliation. In this case you can opt for AHA/BHA toner gauze pads – these typically have a soft side and a gauze side to each pad. The softer side promotes gentle physical and chemical exfoliationwhereas you can control how abrasive you exfoliate with the gauze side of the pads. It is important not to over exfoliate with these pads and should be considered as an occasional step in your routine.  

Enzyme Powder Face Cleansers 

Originally powder face washes were invented to help promote sustainability and eco-friendly lifestyle choices, because they aren’t premixed with water and often use enzymes extracted from certain fruits. Nowadays people are discovering that that enzyme powder washes are gentle enough to use as a daily exfoliator. The enzymes greatly contribute to eradicating keratin build-up, but the soft powder particles also take the role of the exfoliator  allowing you to exfoliate little by little everyday rather than doing one intensive exfoliation each week.  


Finding which exfoliating method for you can take some time, but once you discover which is best, you may find that you’ll never buy a traditional facial scrub again. 

Emma Moseley

I’m a twenty-something year old South-east Londoner, with my heart in the East. Skincare, Kbeauty & Jbeauty are what get me enthusiastic. Need any sheet-mask recommendations? – I’m your girl for that! ‘Writing freely’ is my motto, so you’ll often see me rambling on about tasty food for the West & the East, idyllic cafés, & travel/cultural experiences in addition to must-try skincare products.

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