Chemical exfoliants (which are often referred to as chemical peels) are used to remove dead skin cells and help improve the texture and tone of your skin. But if you have sensitive skin, you’ve got to be extra careful about the types of exfoliants you use. “When looking for a chemical peel product for sensitive skin, you should look for ingredients that are gentle and non-irritating,” says dermatologist Michelle Henry of how you can safely incorporate a chemical exfoliant into your routine. According to Dr. Henry, who spoke to Elite Daily for this article, the best chemical peels for sensitive skin use gentle AHAs like lactic acid or mandelic acid, or a group of acids called polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) that are even gentler. “These ingredients are typically milder than glycolic acid or TCA and are less likely to cause irritation or redness,” she explains. Additionally, you’ll want to avoid any other known triggers for your skin (which vary from person to person), but some of the most common offenders include parabens, fragrances, and dyes.
As for the type of chemical peel you choose, Dr. Henry says that it’s largely based on personal preference. “However, some people may find that certain formulas are better for their sensitive skin,” she advises. “For example, a cleanser or toner with low concentrations of exfoliating acids may be more suitable for daily use, while a serum or mask with higher concentrations may be more effective for weekly use.”
Dr. Michelle Henry, M.D., is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin & Aesthetic Surgery of Manhattan in New York City. Dr. Henry’s areas of expertise include treating skin of color, aesthetic surgery, and high-risk skin cancer treatments. She specializes in Mohs micrographic, reconstructive, and cosmetic surgery. Dr. Henry has been published in articles and chapters on cosmetic surgery and skin cancer treatments, and she is a clinical instructor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.
How To Use A Chemical Peel When You Have Sensitive Skin
You can have the right chemical exfoliator for your skin and still experience irritation if you’re using it the wrong way. First, you’ll want to start with a product that contains a lower concentration of exfoliating acids (such as 1% or 2%), and gradually increase the strength of the actives over time. “You should avoid leaving the product on your skin for too long and be sure to follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer,” notes Dr. Henry, who adds that you should never use a chemical peel if you have open wounds or active breakouts.
What To Use With Your Chemical Peel
“People with sensitive skin should pair a chemical peel product with gentle, soothing skin care products that can help to minimize redness and irritation,” says Dr. Henry. Hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, and chamomile extract are a few favorites of Dr. Henry’s, and you can find serums and moisturizers with these ingredients to apply post-peel (or even look for a chemical exfoliator that incorporates a few of these ingredients into the formula).
Even if you’re using a chemical peel or exfoliant just once or twice weekly, you’ll want to skip out on other resurfacing active ingredients. “People with sensitive skin may need to avoid using other harsh exfoliating products such as retinol or physical scrubs,” says Dr. Henry, who adds one more important tip to remember. “Everyone’s skin is different, and what works well for one person may not work well for another. It’s always best to consult with a skin care professional before starting any new skin care routine.”
Shop The Best Chemical Peels For Sensitive Skin
In a hurry? Here are the best chemical peels for sensitive skin:
- Best Chemical Peel Cleanser For Sensitive Skin: Neutrogena Skin Balancing Milky Cleanser For Dry Skin
- Best Rinse-Off Peeling Gel For Sensitive Skin: COSRX Low PH Goodnight Soft Peeling Gel
- Best Chemical Peel For Sensitive Skin That’s Acne-Prone: Paula’s Choice Calm 1% BHA Sensitive Skin Exfoliant
- Best Chemical Peel Toner For Sensitive Skin: Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow PHA+BHA Pore-Tight Toner
- Best Chemical Peel Pads For Sensitive Skin: Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel
1. The Best Place To Start
Whether your sensitive skin has you wary of using chemical peels or you’re just new to the idea of an exfoliating product in general, a cleanser is a great place to start since it was designed to be washed right off. Neutrogena’s Skin Balancing Milky Cleanser For Dry Skin was developed with dermatologists for sensitive and dry skin types. The hypoallergenic formula includes 2% polyhydroxy acid to gently dissolve dead skin cells while also helping to draw more water to the skin, while ingredients like allantoin, sunflower seed oil, and avocado oil offer soothing and more moisture-restoring benefits. While the cleanser is free from common irritants like parabens, sulfates, phthalates, alcohol, and dyes, it does contain fragrance, if that’s something to which you have a known sensitivity.
Active Ingredient: Gluconolactone Key Ingredients: Sunflower Seed Oil, Glycerin, Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Avocado Oil, Allantoin Size: 6.3 oz. Fragrance-Free: No
Relevant Review: “I’m 41 with combination/sensitive skin that is very easily irritated. I’ve used this cleanser for a week and it is my new favorite! Removes makeup and hydrates but doesn’t leave an oily residue. I don’t use physical exfoliants or scrubs on my face so I love the addition of the gentle PHA acid.”
2. Best Rinse-Off Peeling Gel For Sensitive Skin
Another rinse-off option, this COSRX Low PH Goodnight Soft Peeling Gel differs from traditional cleansers in that it was designed to create a peeling effect (don’t worry though, that’s not your skin shedding!). The PHA lactobionic acid breaks down impurities on your skin while cellulose works like a gentle physical exfoliant to help remove debris and dead skin cells (it also creates those tiny clumps when it comes into contact with oil on your skin). To restore hydration, you’ll find rose water and multiple forms of hyaluronic acid in here, as well as the multi-tasking ingredient niacinamide, which helps with everything from fading unwanted hyperpigmentation to calming irritation.
Active Ingredient: Cellulose, Lactobionic Acid Key Ingredients: Glycerin, Rose Flower Water, Niacinamide, Hyaluronic Acid Size: 4.05 oz. Fragrance-Free: Yes
Relevant Review: “This is one of the most effective and affordable peeling gels I've tried. I started using retinol, and my skin was peeling badly, so I got this peeling gel to get rid of the [dead skin]. Bottom line: I use it once a week. It peeled the dead skin off very gently and didn't irritate my skin at all. My skin was extremely sensitive, and this peeling gel did not make it worse. Highly recommend it and will repurchase it!”
3. Best Chemical Peel For Sensitive Skin That’s Acne-Prone
Like the AHA glycolic acid, salicylic acid in higher concentrations can also be irritating. However, the BHA is also great for treating acne as it’s able to penetrate deep into your pores to dislodge acne-causing oil and debris. For sensitive skin, Paula’s Choice developed this Calm 1% BHA Sensitive Skin Exfoliant that soothes and hydrates skin as it exfoliates with a low concentration of salicylic acid. The gel-cream formula is so gentle that even those with rosacea-prone skin can use it, and it contains prebiotic ingredients, allantoin, and mushroom extract to help calm redness and protect your skin’s microbiome. You can apply this in the morning or evening, but the brand notes that either way, you’ll want to be sure to use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 each day because salicylic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun (as can all chemical exfoliants).
Active Ingredient: Salicylic Acid Key Ingredients: Allantoin, Prebiotics, Glycerin, Mushroom Extract Size: 3.3 oz. Fragrance-Free: Yes
Relevant Review: “The 2% BHA Liquid is rightfully popular but can be a little strong. The former 1% Calm caused stinging around the eyes. This new formula however is absolutely perfect, especially for someone with oily yet sensitive skin."
4. Best Chemical Peel Toner For Sensitive Skin
If you prefer to use a toner that you can apply after your usual cleanser, Glow Recipe’s Watermelon Glow Pore-Tight Toner combines two gentle chemical exfoliators with multiple moisturizing and soothing ingredients. To clear pores of the dead skin and oil that can make them appear larger, the toner uses the PHA gluconolactone and the BHA willow bark extract, which you can think of as a gentler version of salicylic acid. Then, to balance out your skin and keep it hydrated, the formula also contains hyaluronic acid and glycerin, as well as watermelon, cactus, cucumber, and licorice extracts to soothe and provide even more moisture. While this is designed to be left on your skin and followed up with a serum and moisturizer, you can let the toner sit on your skin for a few minutes and then rinse it off if you’re concerned about it being too harsh at first.
Active Ingredients: Gluconolactone, Willow Bark Extract Key Ingredients: Cactus Extract, Watermelon Fruit Extract, Glycerin, Hyaluronic Acid, Cucumber Fruit Extract, Licorice Root Extract Size: 5 oz. Fragrance-Free: No
Relevant Review: “I have dry and very sensitive skin but this works for me, without irritations. It moisturizes well and leaves skin soft and smooth. I would highly recommend it.”
5. Best Chemical Peel Pads For Sensitive Skin
Dr. Dennis Gross is known for its best-selling peel pads, and the brand’s Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel was created to bring those same resurfacing benefits to dry and sensitive skin types. The two-step treatment comes with individually packaged and labeled pads to make the application process completely seamless. The first pad is saturated with lactic and mandelic acids and willow bark extract to exfoliate dead skin cells, and the second pad is packed with moisturizing and calming ingredients like hyaluronic acid, colloidal oatmeal, chamomile extract, and centella asiatica to combat signs of irritation. While the brand says that these can be used daily, you’ll want to start by using the treatment one to two times weekly and gradually increasing depending on your skin’s tolerance and needs.
Active Ingredients: Lactic Acid, Mandelic Acid, Willow Bark Extract Key Ingredients: Chamomile Extract, Hyaluronic Acid, Colloidal Oatmeal, Centella Asiatica Extract Size: 30 Treatments Fragrance-Free: Yes
Relevant Review: “I was hesitant about purchasing this because I have extremely sensitive skin and was also diagnosed with rosacea last yr so I have to be very careful what I use on my skin. This stuff is fantastic! I started using every other day and am now able to use daily. My skin has never looked better. It’s so smooth and bright now and I’ve experienced no irritation at all. Love this stuff! Worth every penny!”
6. You May Also Like: This Post-Peel Moisturizer For Sensitive Skin
Keeping skin hydrated is also important when it comes to improving textural concerns like roughness. Dr. Henry especially likes this SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator, which includes five types of hyaluronic acid to immediately plump up your skin by drawing in more moisture. The lightweight formula also includes ingredients like glycerin, grape flower extract, and vitamin E to lock in said moisture and leave your skin feeling smooth, while SkinMedica’s peptide complex further helps to plump up skin as it stimulates collagen production. You can use this morning and night, and it’s also fragrance-free and noncomedogenic for those who are sensitive to scents or prone to breakouts.
Key Ingredients: Glycerin, Hyaluronic Acid, Grape Flower Extract, Peptide Complex Size: 2 oz. Fragrance-Free: Yes
Relevant Review: “Love this product. Been using after a face peel and it works great.”
Dr. Michelle Henry, M.D., board-certified dermatologist