Suggestions for gentle exfoliation
May 19, 2013 1:59 AM   Subscribe

I'm noticing some dead skin just hanging around on my face. It's especially obvious when applying foundation. I'd like to scrub this off, but my skin is quite sensitive and prior exfoliation attempts (St. Ives, Clean & Clear) have been irritating. Can you suggest any products or methods that would make for a really gentle exfoliation? Thanks!
posted by mossicle to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (39 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I use baking soda to exfoliate - not really sure whether your skin would find that more or less irritating. Depending on how thick you make the mixture it might work for you. You can either make a white paste and rub it gently on your face for thirty seconds or so, or you can use just a little baking soda and dissolve it into the water you use when you wash your face. Maybe test with a patch of skin first so you can see whether your face finds it irritating or not.
posted by luciernaga at 2:07 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sometimes just the act of massaging in a good quality moisturizer will be enough to smooth away any dead skin. Just moisturize, with little circle motions on the parts you want to exfoliate, and then let everything soak in over night. Wash your face gently, maybe just with water, in the morning. Often if your face is being flaky it's because it needs more oil and actually using the sort of facial cleansers that advertize as exfoliants will just exacerbate the situation.
posted by Mizu at 2:08 AM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

You could try hot cloth cleansing whereby the mechanical cleansing with cloth actually would help take off any dead skin.

You could also look into chemical exfoliation - not the peeling kits, just a daily cleanser which helps resurface the skin. These are often marketed at women of 35+ but I started to use them before then but not as my normal daily cleanser, just a couple of times a week. You'd be looking at AHAs or BHAs as active ingredient for example.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:08 AM on May 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also, you are moisturising, right?
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:10 AM on May 19, 2013

Funny you should ask! The marvelous Sali Hughes of The Guardian has a column on just this topic this week. It's here.
posted by shibori at 2:12 AM on May 19, 2013

I do moisturize, though admittedly I may be under-moisturizing in fear of the oil slick my face inevitably becomes. I think part of the reason for the dead skin may be the acne gel I'm using - it has benzoyl peroxide and retinoids in it.
posted by mossicle at 2:35 AM on May 19, 2013

I have firm views on skin care. Have you tried avoiding all soaps, potions and lotions for 3 months. In my experience this can cure a lot of problems permanently.
posted by BenPens at 2:40 AM on May 19, 2013

For oily, acne prone skin that is sensitive and dry at the surface to the point where it cracks and becomes flaky (sounds like a total contradiction you'd think but oily skin can totally be dehydrated) you'd want to find a concentrated moisturizer that is more gel or fluid like. Use it daily and there will be less dry spots.
For stubborn flaky skin use a bit of shea butter (or something with similar thickness), let it sit on it for a little bit and then use a washcloth/towel to rub over the spot.
posted by travelwithcats at 2:50 AM on May 19, 2013

I really like the Olay exfoliating brush I got at Target (it has soft bristles that spin.) It feels soft but thorough. The cleanser included with the kit feels good too but you could use cold cream on the brush instead.

St. Ives is horrible stuff, I don't know how it's still on the market. Those apricot pit pieces scratch!
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:14 AM on May 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have extremely sensitive skin. Any exfoliation leaves some irritation, but I use the hot facecloth method. Leave it on your face for a minute or two, then use it to wipe away the excess skin. Also, have you tried Burt's Bees exfoliating scrub? It works for the really dry areas, but it does irritate some.
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 3:35 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do moisturize, though admittedly I may be under-moisturizing in fear of the oil slick my face inevitably becomes. I think part of the reason for the dead skin may be the acne gel I'm using - it has benzoyl peroxide and retinoids in it.

I do have oily skin that tends towards blocked pores, blackheads and spots and I am outside the age range where you expect to deal with these so I can relate. I could never use benzoyl peroxide without getting flaky and no amount of 'adjustment period' would ever make me less flaky. So in my lay person's view I think the acne gel is probably your problem.

Both my suggestions actually reduce blocked pores as well, which was the main reason I started to use both. Turns out that thoroughly but gently degunking my pores results in much clearer skin than I have ever had in my adult life. When a spot comes up I dab salicylic acid gel on it and that's it.

I do moisturise with a very gentle gel moisturiser, which doesn't contain an SPF but as I'm not outside for more than 10 minutes on my average working day I can rely on the SPF in my foundation for those ten minutes. If I am going to be outside its a very light sun screen with high SPF, no additional moisturiser. If you do end up using AHAs/BHAs sun protection is essential because all that removing of dead skin leaves your skin much more vulnerable to sun damage.

With this regime my skin is still oily but also very supple and smooth and fairly clear. I address the oiliness with blotting papers throughout the day. On balance I'd rather be a bit shiny than both shiny and flaky (and as the two are not mutually exclusive you inevitably end up both shiny and flaky!) so this works for me. Clearly it may not work for you depending on preferences/extent of your acne.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:45 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding the suggestion for salicylic acid. You may want to explore chemical exfoliant formulas that would work in the long term and not just on application which can be abrasive for some skins, which is how the mechanical exfoliants, like the ones you've used, worked. Other terms you can look out for would be lactic acid, alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), and beta hydroxy acid (BHA).
posted by cendawanita at 4:46 AM on May 19, 2013

I am a big fan of Philosophy's Microdelivery Peel. It's expensive, but you can get a free sample at Sephora to see if it works for you. It's a very gentle mechanical scrub - the beads are very, very tiny in comparison to St. Ives - followed by a gentle foaming/warming chemical exfoliant. It's not painful on my hypersensitive Irish skin, but it does redden me for a while, so I do it at night. The next morning my skin is flat out amazing. I probably do this once every two weeks or so, and one kit lasts me about 9 months.
posted by apparently at 4:49 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some people have success with either the olive oil or coconut oil cleansing system, all natural with stuff you have in your kitchen or can pick up easily. Look them up on the 'net. Maybe harsher methods put your skin into overdrive, causing the shedding (flakiness)...
posted by Lornalulu at 5:03 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Acne meds and pimple creams dry skin out like no other. It may seem counter-intuitive but it can be pretty important to moisturize while you are using them. Reduces dryness and flaking a little at least.

You mentioned you hold back on the moisturizer cause you don't want your skin to get oily. Maybe try 100% aloe vera gel? It's lightweight, intensely moisturizing, smells nice, and even my extremely resistant to skin products husband has used it on his face for sunburns (and had no problem with it).
posted by donut_princess at 5:14 AM on May 19, 2013

Cheap and effective. You can use it with a gentle cleanser or even just water. Soft bristles, no irritation.
posted by picklebird at 5:29 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I use Dermalogica's Daily Microfoliant. A little goes a long way, and it's the only physical one that doesn't irritate my oily yet sensitive skin.

When I'm not pregnant, I use a moisturizer with alpha hydroxy in it.

As always, don't forget your sunscreen when using exfoliants. At least SPF 30.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:31 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Labratoire Remde Sweep is the most incredible, gentle, magical exfoliating cream I have ever encountered. It expensive, but a tube typically lasts me for many months of near daily use.

When I'm not using Sweep, I could never exfoliate daily. That's how gentle Sweep is. Oh man. It's so good. I'm kind of getting emotional about it.
posted by waterisfinite at 7:14 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Buf-Puf. I've used one for years, usually with a mild soap (like Neutrogena). It does an awesome job of exfoliating, which keeps oily skin and potential break-outs under control.
posted by DrGail at 7:20 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant has been incredible for me. I can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by HotToddy at 7:47 AM on May 19, 2013

I know you said no St. Ives, but I'm hoping/assuming you just meant their ubiquitous apricot scrub, which feels like a Brillo pad embedded with gravel.

My skin is also very sensitive and prone to irritation, and I can't recommend any products for exfoliation more than St. Ives Naturally Clear Green Tea Scrub.
The exfoliation is super gentle -- the texture is almost creamy -- and the salicylic acid makes it an all-in-one wash. Also, it costs ~$4. I use it with the little 'Scrublet' thing from L'Oreal's Go 360 Clean (didn't care for the product, love the little do-dad), and have no idea if this makes any difference whatsoever.
posted by divined by radio at 8:02 AM on May 19, 2013

I think part of the reason for the dead skin may be the acne gel I'm using - it has benzoyl peroxide and retinoids in it.

Retinoids are a strong chemical exfoliator. I would not use a physical exfoliator when I was using a strong chemical exfoliator - it would be too much for my skin. That gel also sounds extremely drying - and overdrying your skin can cause it to overproduce oil. So, I'd definitely step up the moisturizing and see how that works. I love Mandom Barrier Repair Serum - it's very lightweight feeling and won't make you feel oily, but deeply hydrating. I buy mine at a local Japanese store, but it's available on Ebay & Amazon too.
posted by insectosaurus at 8:25 AM on May 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Dr. Hauschka's Cleansing Cream. Worth. Every. Penny.
posted by orange (sherbet) rabbit at 8:27 AM on May 19, 2013

Get rid of the benzoil peroxide. What it is doing is drying out your skin without really doing anything for the oil problem. I would try washing with just a good castille soap twice a day, moisturizing lightly if needed, and rinsing with water a few times a day to keep everything clear.

Another option is to mix up a solution of baking soda and water (like a tablespoon per cup) and using that as sort of a pre wash. It will soften the oils and make them easier to wash away. But be careful with this, since using it for too long (like letting it soak in) can make the skin burn. It will be nice and clean and clear, but a little sunburnt feeling. If that happens, back off whatever you were doing by 25%.
posted by gjc at 9:23 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

r/SkincareAddiction is your new BFF. Go stalk that subreddit and especially check out the sidebarred discussion.

It sounds like physical exfoliation is too rough for your skin, especially the St Ives Apricot Pit Scrub, which is too rough for basically everybody. Don't scrub your face with anything harsher than a soft washcloth. Try gentle chemical exfoliation instead—gentle, don't start out immediately with hardcore acid peels and such; work your way up to those if you really need them, and preferably check with a dermatologist first.

The SkincareAddiction consensus (including me!) really likes the St Ives Scrub-Free Exfoliating pads, which use lactic acid, and the Stridex Maximum Strength pads "in the red box," which use 2% salicylic acid.

Be really diligent about using a good sensitive-skin sunscreen on your face, because all this treatment will make the skin more vulnerable to crispy red sun damage. IIRC chemical sunscreens may be more likely to cause skin irritation but physical sunscreens may be more likely to clog pores/cause breakouts, so it could take experimenting with several to find what works—but sunscreen is still absolutely necessary.
posted by nicebookrack at 10:21 AM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

BTW, PSA: Baking soda can burn your skin.
posted by nicebookrack at 10:22 AM on May 19, 2013

I'm like you with sensitive skin that breaks out at the thought of most products in the drug or department store, but I also get a lot of dead skin buildup and need to exfoliate.

I use this Earth Therapeutics complexion pad - it seems expensive for a little pad but I replace them every few months and it works fine. Also this pad seems higher quality and less abrasive on my skin than cheaper ones. I use One With Nature dead sea salt/mud soaps with the pad. I exfoliate with this everyday and moisturize with jojoba oil. Works like a charm.
posted by fromageball at 11:01 AM on May 19, 2013

Benzol peroxide can be very drying/irritating - I think you found your culprit. You need a good non-oily moisturizer to start.

There are some good "chemical" exfoliators that are gentle. I use Phytomer's Peeling Vegetal, which is gentle enough for my sensitive skin.
posted by radioamy at 11:49 AM on May 19, 2013

Oatmeal mask! Add a little water to a couple spoonfuls of oatmeal and mush it into a paste. Spread paste on face (it will be messy). Wait a few minutes to dry. Wipe crumby bits off so they don't go down the drain, then rinse. This is a bit drying, but it works beautifully and doesn't have any sketchy ingredients.

Also, you might want to try washing with a gentler cleanser such as a natural soap or using the oil cleansing method (look it up). Drying out your skin leads to it creating more oil to compensate. You only want to be washing to get rid of actual dirt (meaning as infrequently as you can get away with).
posted by Comet Bug at 12:03 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I use honey to wash my face instead of a cleanser - real, raw honey it is a very effective exfoliant and treatment for acne. This works excellently for me, but as always, it's advisable to test it out on a small patch of skin first.
posted by luciernaga at 1:12 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

LUSH Angels on Bare Skin is a gentle, all-natural exfoliating cleanser that smells like lavender. I highly recommend you test it out at a local LUSH shop!
posted by exquisite_deluxe at 1:45 PM on May 19, 2013

I use Alpha Hydrox 10% AHA (glycolic acid) lotion and mix it with moisturizer to dilute it. The instructions say to use it daily and wait 30 minutes before putting anything else on the skin, but that's way too harsh for me. I use the AHA/moisturizer combo twice a week. I also use the warm cloth method that koahiatamadl mentioned above because the acid doesn't make the dead cells just disappear. You don't have to massage with the cloth, just gently wipe your face.
posted by wryly at 2:12 PM on May 19, 2013

Yeah, that Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant is the bomb. I love it.

That said, I found that a warm washcloth worked just as well, if used regularly with just water. Get a pack of 10 from IKEA for a pittance.
posted by Salamander at 6:29 PM on May 19, 2013

I use a face cloth (washcloth) dripping with hot water (in the shower, but over a sink will work fine)*. That's it. It works great and I have nice skin.

*I had no idea it was a "method". I just like to be as product-free as possible.
posted by deborah at 6:59 PM on May 19, 2013

Oatmeal mask! Add a little water to a couple spoonfuls of oatmeal and mush it into a paste. Spread paste on face (it will be messy). Wait a few minutes to dry. Wipe crumby bits off so they don't go down the drain, then rinse. This is a bit drying, but it works beautifully and doesn't have any sketchy ingredients.

Beware: I have the same kind of skin the OP describes, and anything oatmeal based tears my skin apart.

Flaky skin isn't necessarily a sign that exfoliation is needed. It can be a sign that the skin is being damaged somehow. Instead of extra bits that need to go away, the flakes are the remains of the top layer of skin that should still be intact.

The dry/greasy skin problem can often be due to clogged pores. The natural oils are prevented from reaching the skin in a timely manner, and they dry out and get sticky. Instead of being a nice light oil, they are more like a wax or a grease and stay in one place. So you get a greasy nose and a dry cheek.
posted by gjc at 8:07 PM on May 19, 2013

Twice a week I use Caudalie Gentle Buffing Cream -- it's the only product I'm willing to spend a bit more on, because it really is gentle and effective. You might be able to get a sample of it at Sephora -- that's what I did, and now I buy the full-size product regularly.
posted by wisekaren at 5:54 AM on May 20, 2013

I recently went to see the dermatologist about this! My face was feeling really rough and dry. I had been attempting to exfoliate it with scrubs and wash cloths it to try to rub off the roughness, but it turns out that was just aggravating it more. I have sensitive skin. She recommended I use a glycolic acid fash wash (Glytone), which will gently exfoliate without aggravating your skin. I've been using it for about 3 weeks now and it's really helping! Also, make sure to moisturize plenty. I started using CeraVe moisture, which my dermatologist also recommends.
posted by orangek8 at 1:32 PM on May 20, 2013

I had success using 2% salicylic acid (from Paula's Choice) and 2% benzoyl peroxide (from After getting a prescription for spironolactone, I dropped the benzoyl peroxide. I will not give up the salicylic acid. It's the only thing I've used that has caused other people to comment on a change in my skin. It sounded gimmicky and expensive, but I gave the clarisonic a try, and I think it really did help exfoliate and make my skin look better.
posted by pizzazz at 3:17 PM on May 20, 2013

Clarisonic Mia and generic Cetaphil twice a week -- swear by them.
posted by Neneh at 3:51 PM on May 20, 2013

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