The Best Exfoliators For Rosacea

According to a derm, this is how you can exfoliate your rosacea-prone skin safely.

Written by Marissa DeSantis
Elite Daily/Amazon
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Finding a skin care routine that works for you naturally involves a bit of trial and error. But throw in a condition like rosacea, and suddenly you’re facing a whole new set of challenges. Commonly used products, like exfoliators, for example, may seem like a total no-go. Yet dermatologist Audrey Kunin tells Elite Daily that it’s all about using one of the best exfoliators for rosacea, which can come in many forms, from cleansers to serums, but typically use PHAs (as opposed to AHAs or retinol) to work their exfoliating magic. “Polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) such as lactobionic acid or glucuonolactone are ideal as they are gentler to the skin yet provide exfoliation and moisture,” Dr. Kunin explains. “Gluconolactone holds four times its weight in water compared to hyaluronic acid,” she adds of just how effective PHAs can be at restoring hydration as they help with removing dead skin cells.

The Expert

Dr. Audrey Kunin, M.D., is a board-certified dermatologist. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and serves as a volunteer dermatologist for Kansas City Cares Health Clinic and The Joseph School in Haiti. Dr. Kunin is the Chief Product Officer of NovaBay Pharmaceuticals and the founder of DERMAdoctor, a skin care line developed to help find over-the-counter solutions for conditions like rosacea, eczema, and keratosis pilaris.

Which Types Of Exfoliators To Avoid

As a refresher, Dr. Kunin explains that rosacea is an inflammatory condition that’s usually genetic and “results in a constellation of symptoms such as acne blemishes, skin redness, flushing, and sometimes gritty, red, irritated eyes.” Because these symptoms can leave your skin more sensitive, Dr. Kunin says to avoid harsh active ingredients. “Be very wary of retinol, and if using AHAs, go with less concentrated levels,” she advises. “Avoid high potency salicylic acids, and vitamin C serums, which have low pH and are quite acidic.”

Also, keep in mind that skin care ingredients aren’t the only cause of flare-ups. “Consuming hot (temperature) foods/fluids, spicy foods, or alcohol can trigger flushing,” Dr. Kunin explains. “Blemishes can be triggered by stress or hormones,” she continues, adding, “Cold, dry air can exacerbate the sensitive, ruddy complexion.”

How To Exfoliate If You Have Rosacea

Even those without skin sensitivities can experience dryness and peeling if they over-exfoliate, which is why it’s especially important for those with rosacea to use exfoliators with care. First, consider your skin type in addition to the rosacea. “Everyone’s skin varies in their sensitivity,” Dr. Kunin confirms. “Those with dry, red, easily irritated skin are most at risk from exfoliation. However, anyone with oily, less irritated skin may actually benefit from mild exfoliation,” she says.

When you’re incorporating a new exfoliating product into your routine, start by using it just once a week at first. As your skin adjusts to it over time, you can work your way up to more frequent use, but Dr. Kunin says that if you have rosacea, exfoliating twice weekly is the maximum recommendation. “Absolutely avoid exfoliation if experiencing a flare-up,” she says of when you’ll want to completely steer clear of even the gentlest exfoliating products.

Shop The Best Exfoliators For Rosacea

In a hurry? Here are the best exfoliators for rosacea:

  1. Best Alternative To Retinol: DERMAdoctor Calm Cool + Corrected Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Serum
  2. Best PHA Serum For Rosacea: PCA Hydrating Serum
  3. Best PHA Treatment For Rosacea: Naturium PHA Topical Acid 12%
  4. Best PHA Cleanser For Rosacea: Hero Cosmetics Gentle Milky Cleanser
  5. Best Exfoliating Face Cream For Rosacea: NEOSTRATA Bionic Face Cream

1. A Gentle Alternative To Retinol

Bakuchiol is a wonderful plant-based exfoliator that mimics [the benefits of retinol] without the irritation,” Dr. Kunin says of this rosacea-safe ingredient that speeds up skin cell turnover. This Calm Cool + Corrected Bakuchiol Retinol Alternative Serum, from Dr. Kunin’s own line, DERMAdoctor, combines the gentle active with polyglutamic acid (a PHA) and three different mushroom extracts that provide moisturizing and anti-inflammatory benefits. Evening primrose oil, black currant seed oil, and borage seed oil give you more moisturizing benefits that can help restore your skin barrier and soothe sensitivity. The cruelty-free serum is also noncomedogenic, hypoallergenic, and free from common irritants like synthetic fragrances, synthetic dyes, and phthalates.

Key Ingredients: Bakuchiol, Polyglumatic Acid, Evening Primrose Oil, Black Currant Seed Oil, Borage Seed Oil, Mushroom Extracts Size: 1.01 oz. Fragrance-Free: Yes

Relevant Review: “This is a great product for sensitive skin. I’ve tried other products with retinol that have caused my skin to burn or feel irritated. This feels cool on the skin, and it gives the same effects I wanted to achieve using retinol. Love it!”

2. A Mild PHA Serum That’s Also Hydrating

PCA’s Hydrating Serum contains gluconolactone, a PHA, to draw moisture to the skin as it gently sloughs away dead skin cells. Niacinamide, another gentle multi-tasker, is also included in the formula to help promote brighter, smoother skin, while hyaluronic acid and aloe vera deliver hydrating and calming benefits. Because this serum is so mild, you should be able to use it daily — just don’t forget to put on a mineral sunscreen each morning, which Dr. Kunin notes is particularly important for preventing rosacea flare-ups.

Key Ingredients: Gluconolactone, Aloe Vera, Hyaluronic Acid, Niacinamide Size: 1 oz. Fragrance-Free: Yes

Relevant Review: “I have very sensitive, reactive skin that tends to be dry on my cheeks. I use this and it has taken the redness out of my cheeks. I rarely have to wear any makeup now except a quick brush of powder. [...] PCA has been the best thing that has happened to my skin for a decade.”

3. A Stronger PHA Treatment

If you’re looking for an exfoliating treatment that you can use alongside your calming and moisturizing skin care staples, try this Naturium PHA Topical Acid 12%. The highly concentrated formula uses the PHAs gluconolactone and lactobionic acid, as well as the AHA mandelic acid, to effectively exfoliate away dead skin cells. You’ll want to give this fragrance-free formula a good shake before you apply it evenly to your face, neck, and chest, then follow up with your favorite moisturizer. This treatment is on the stronger side, so stick to using it just once or twice per week, per Dr Kunin’s instructions.

Key Ingredients: Gluconolactone, Lactobionic Acid, Mandelic Acid, Hyaluronic Acid, Lingonberry Fruit Extract Size: 1 oz. Fragrance-Free: Yes

Relevant Review: “I have skin of color and rosacea and wanted a chemical exfoliator other than a BHA, and this was right on the money. After a couple months, my skin texture is so soft and smooth and hydrated. No flare ups of rosacea, just highly effective.”

4. A PHA Cleanser That’s Safe To Use More Frequently

If you’re a bit hesitant to give leave-on exfoliators a try, start with a PHA cleanser. (Since you wash cleanser right off, there’s less of a risk of it irritating your skin.) Hero Cosmetics Gentle Milky Cleanser contains gluconolactone to exfoliate, jojoba seed oil to moisturize, colloidal oatmeal to soothe, and ceramides to strengthen. Those with sensitive skin will also like that this rich cleanser is free from commonly irritating ingredients like sulfates, fragrances, and parabens. To get the full benefits, try letting the cleanser sit on your face for a minute after you massage it into your skin to give the active ingredient time to work.

Key Ingredients: Gluconolactone, Colloidal Oatmeal, Jojoba Seed Oil, Ceramides Size: 5.4 oz. Fragrance-Free: Yes

Relevant Review: “I’m 34, with rosacea, and this is a godsend product. [...] This is truly like dipping my face in something calming and clean. No reaction. It cleans well too, kind of a milky cleanser. [...] For rosacea, I pair it with the green color correcting healing balm, which works wonders. [...]”

5. A Soothing Face Cream That Also Exfoliates

“Ceramides and hyaluronic acid both help repair sensitive, challenged skin,” Dr. Kunin says of the best moisturizing ingredients to incorporate into your daily skin care routine when you have rosacea. NEOSTRATA’s Bionic Face Cream comes recommended by Dr. Kunin when you want to exfoliate because of its thicker, balm-like consistency that soothes and moisturizes. In here, gluconolactone and lactobionic acid exfoliate as they bind moisture to the skin, and ingredients like meadowfoam seed oil, algae extract, and hyaluronic acid help with restoring hydration.

Key Ingredients: Gluconolactone, Lactobionic Acid, Meadowfoam Seed Oil, Algae Extract, Hyaluronic Acid Size: 1.4 oz. Fragrance-Free: Yes

Relevant Review: “Maybe I have tried over 100 products for my rosacea prone, sensitive, red skin. Some irritated my skin and others were just OK. This one immediately calms and moisturizes my skin, toning down the redness. It feels very soothing. It’s a keeper. [...]”


Dr. Audrey Kunin, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of DERMAdoctor.