The best exfoliants for sensitive skin: which are the most gentle?

Exfoliation is actually more complicated (and important) than just giving your face a scrub every now and then. Knowing how the exfoliant is doing it’s job and how gentle or harsh it is on your skin is really important. Using the wrong exfoliant can make your skin red and angry, doing more harm than good and exfoliating too often can make your skin more sensitive to the sun and other treatments.

Want that clear bright, even-toned glow? Using the right exfoliant can make your skin clear and bright, minimising the appearance of fine lines and skin impurities. Exfoliating the right way, with the right exfoliant at the right frequency can achieve the skin you have always wanted.

In this article, we hope to provide you with information on the different types of exfoliants and how often to exfoliate to achieve the best results.

But first, lets talk about why we need to exfoliate in the first place.

Our skin’s natural ability to regenerate largely slows with age. For those of us the 'wrong' side of 30, our regeneration cycle could take a month instead of as little as a week when we were kids. This means fewer of the younger, healthier skin cells are pushing through to the surface, leaving more dead skin cells in place. Sun damage and hormones can extend this cycle even further. Dead skin is scaly, thickened, discolored and rough (think of your heels pre-pedi), contributes to the appearance of lines and wrinkles and can cause clogged pores, skin bumps, and impurities.

Exfoliation speeds up this natural process getting rid of dead skin cells to make way for the new, healthy, younger cells. We intervene by removing the dead cells, so the process and cycle of skin renewal can happen more frequently. Exfoliation is an often forgotten, but highly important step in anyone’s skin routine and should not be underestimated.

The process of exfoliation seems pretty simple, right? Unfortunately, it isn't. There are many ways to exfoliate and some are harsh and can lead sensitive skin to become aggravated, while others are gentle but might not be that effective. In saying that, there are some exfoliants which are gentle, yet highly effective, giving you the best of both worlds. We will touch on those a bit later.

We have compiled the following list of ‘types’ of facial exfoliants, ranking them in from mildest (gentle) to harshest.

  1. Washing face with cleanser and washcloth: the fibers in the materials can act as a mild exfoliant, gently removing some of your dead cells.
  2. Minerals (fine particle clay-based exfoliant, such as BOA exfoliant)
  3. Scrubs (harshness depends on particle type: polyethylene microbeads, walnut shells, sugar and salt scrubs). These scrubs are very popular. The risk with scrubs is that they can create microscopic tears in your skin. They don’t discriminate between the dead and healthy cells, and will (often) harshly remove the top layer of your skin cells, healthy or not.
  4. Salicylic acid
  5. Enzyme peels (Subtilisin based)
  6. Glycolic acid/Lactic acid (low concentration can be used on a weekly basis)
  7. Home dermabrasion (Aluminum oxide small particles, small)
  8. Professional chemical peels (higher acid concentration) often done as part of a facial
  9. Professional Dermabrasion (Aluminum oxide medium particles) and/or (Diamond particles, coarse grit). We are also starting to see ‘at home’ dermabrasion kits which would be a milder, more gentle version of dermabrasion conducted at a clinic.

In terms of frequency (please keep in mind this is a general observation and varies based on individual's skin condition and also the concentration of the treatments such as AHAs and BHAs), the rule of thumb looks like this: items 1-2 can be used daily, 3-5 weekly, 6 monthly, and 7-9 should be at the direction of your dermatologist.

exfoliant cream skin cream clay mask

The other thing to note is the ability of the exfoliator to discriminate between dead and healthy skin. Indiscriminately removing healthy skin cells can leave your skin aggravated and extra sensitive to any creams and serums you may put on after your exfoliation. Your skin may also be more sensitive to the sun, resulting in sun damage.

BOA Smart Natural exfoliant, for example, is a unique natural clay exfoliant that has the ability to discriminate between dead and healthy skin, meaning it only takes away the dead skin cells and leaves the healthy skin in place. It is also self-regulating so you can keep exfoliating until all the dead skin has been removed. After that, the product stops working. There is never a risk of removing healthy skin with BOA. You can exfoliate every day with BOA if you like – you just might not remove as much one day as the next. The beauty of the product is that it is a customized exfoliator, tailored to your skin.  It knows exactly where your dead skin cells are on any chosen day - and it gets rid of them, almost like magic.

See the BOA effect in the image below:

best exfoliant dead skin cells

BOA is also one of the exfoliants we classify as highly effective, yet gentle. It will give you a deep exfoliation, but because it is only removing the dead cells and leaving the healthy cells alone, it is incredibly gentle on your skin.

 boa smart natural exfoliant best exfoliator dead cells


WANT TO TRY BOA? As a thank you for reading our blog, please use code 'BOAACADEMY' for 10% OFF your BOA products.

We are so confident you'll love BOA, all purchases are eligible for our 30-day money-back guarantee. 

The BOA Skin Academy Blog hopes to bring you educational, insightful and interesting reading material on the topics of skincare, beauty, rituals, self-care and wellness. All topics are chosen and written by the BOA team, with credits where credit is due. If you have a suggestion for a topic or a question about what we have written, we would love for you to get in touch. Please email us at and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

For all our BOA customers, please leave a review on our website for a discount on your future purchases.