Sensitive skin can be a nightmare. It can be like trying to pacify a screaming baby. But it doesn’t have to be. See, sensitive skin loves to be treated with care, time and attention. Sensitive skin knows what it wants, it just doesn’t know how to tell you.
It speaks a different language.
You speak with words. Skin speaks with tingling, redness, itchiness and burning.
If you have sensitive skin and it doesn’t like what you’re doing to it. It’s going to yelp… just not in the way you would.
Exfoliation is a key danger for sensitive skin. But exfoliation is also the key to a healthy, youthful, dewy complexion. Having sensitive skin doesn’t mean you can’t exfoliate. It just means you need to be savvy about how you do it…
In this how to exfoliate sensitive skin guide you’ll learn exactly why exfoliation can irritate sensitive skin, what kind of exfoliation is best for sensitive skin and exactly how to integrate sensitive skin friendly exfoliation into your existing skincare routine.
Ready to get going? Let’s do this…
Why Exfoliate Sensitive Skin?
Humans are like snakes… we both shed skin, we shed a lot of it and we do it regularly. Shedding skin is needed, it keeps you and your skin quality healthy. Everyday you have skin cells shedding. Scientists like to call this skin cell turnover.
Today you have skin cells shedding. Just this minute one, two or three left you.
On average, all layers of your skin are shed in a monthly cycle.
Which means almost every month you have a mostly new skin barrier.
When your skin exfoliates at a healthy rate. Your skin tone is even. Your skin is hydrated. Your complexion is dewy.
Now you’re wondering how to exfoliate sensitive skin ‘eh.
Why Is It Good to Exfoliate Your Skin?
Naturally your skin exfoliates. It comes pre-programmed knowing exactly how to keep itself healthy. Trouble is, as skin becomes stressed as in the case of sensitive skin, exfoliation rates become upset. Skin sends its resources elsewhere. This is also very much true if you have a wise, experienced sensitive skin type because as skin matures, skin cell turnover rates slow.
Your skin is an amazing creature.
A creature which relies on a steady rate of exfoliation.
Think of your skin like a brick wall. Now imagine that brick wall with bricks missing. If you took a whole layer of bricks off, your brick wall would still look like a healthy, even brick wall. If, however, you took one from the left, three from the right and for good measure a chunk from the middle, your brick wall is now uneven and messy. You can also walk right through that human sized chunk in the middle.
This my friend is like your sensitive skin when it doesn’t exfoliate evenly.
It looks rough, uneven and dull because there are some places with new skin cells and many places with old skin cells. It looses hydration quickly because just like your imagined brick wall, it now has holes in it.
Bottom line: Your skin barrier cannot work effectively. It needs a helping hand. It needs a sensitive skin friendly exfoliator.
How Do You Exfoliate Your Skin?
There are 2 ways to exfoliate skin, either physically or chemically. Physical exfoliants work by rubbing away dead skin cells and chemical exfoliants work by slowly dissolving the glue which holds dead skin cells together.
There are many different types of exfoliator. If you’ve ever used a physical exfoliant on your sensitive skin, you may have tried one of these;
- A muslin cloth
- A flannel
- A Konjac sponge
- A face scrub
- Facial cleansing brush
- Homemade exfoliating scrubs with oatmeal, seeds or even salt
Physical exfoliants do what it says on the tin. They’re straight forward, easy to understand and simple to use. It’s a bit like using sandpaper with different types of physical exfoliants having different grades of sanding power. A muslin cloth is more sensitive skin friendly that a scrub with apricot seeds. A Konjac sponge is more sensitive skin friendly than a facial cleansing brush set to high power.
Some physical exfoliants are sensitive skin friendly… however how sensitive skin friendly they are depends on how you use them. And this can be a challenge. How do you exfoliate sensitive skin? Do you rub so you can barely feel it, do you press firmly or do you concentrate on those areas you think need an exfoliation boost most?
This is why physical exfoliants can be dangerous for your sensitive skin type. Sensitive skin is prone to redness and irritation and physical exfoliants with their rubbing action can directly cause both.
Most people have heard about physical (also known as mechanical) exfoliants. But most people haven’t heard about chemical exfoliants and these are the key to sensitive skin friendly exfoliation.
How to Exfoliate Sensitive Skin
Chemical exfoliants don’t work instantly. Use a physical exfoliant and it instantly removes dead skin. It also stops working after you finish using it. Chemical exfoliants are different, they work gradually. After you apply them, they continue to work… so long as you don’t wash them off ‘eh.
This makes some of them great for sensitive skin.
Firstly you don’t need to scrub i.e. your skin doesn’t get red and irritated from rubbing.
Secondly they work gradually, not in one big hit… and sensitive skin loves gradual.
— Cheryl Woodman (@HonestyForSkin) 15 September 2017
Chemical exfoliants are products which use skincare acids. A great combination, because your skin is also acidic. Chemical exfoliants come in many shapes, as toners, as serums and as moisturisers, however you can pick out a chemical exfoliant by the ingredients it’s made from, skincare acids like;
- Salicylic acid (known as a BHA – best for oily skin)
- Glycolic acid (known as an AHA – best for dry skin)
- Lactic acid
- Glucono Delta Lactone/ gluconolactone
- Mandelic acid
However, if you have a very sensitive skin type, your skin still may not be able to handle these chemical exfoliants. They may cause stinging, tingling and sensitivity. Which is why there’s a new breed of chemical exfoliant. And it’s known as NIOD NAAP or a non-acid acid precursor. It fits in as a chemical exfoliant but really it deserves a whole new exfoliant subsection… one that’s great for sensitive skin.
What is a Non-Acid Acid Precursor?
Your skin is made up from skin cells and skin glue. As skin becomes stressed or aged, skin cell glue can become a bit too good at its job, causing your skin to loose it’s healthy exfoliation rate.
Your skin cells scientifically called corneocytes are held together by skin glue and skin glue is made up from corneodesmosomes. Two types are responsible for gluing together your skin cell bricks;
Apart from sounding like something off Game of Thrones, these 2 proteins form a lock and key bond to glue together your skin barrier.
The NIOD NAAP or non-acid acid precursor uses a competing protein (or group of amino acids) called Hexanoyl Dipeptide-3 Norleucine Acetate. Imagine it as the third wheel in a love triangle. It interrupts the lock and key of your definitely past their best skin cells, allowing them to shed or peel away.
Rather than applying an acid to your skin which can sting and tingle, a non-acid acid precursor such as the NIOD NAAP (which you can find here) dissolves your skin cell bonds without being a sensitive skin tingling acid. Neat ‘eh.
Another type of non-acid acid precursor, one found in the NIOD NAAP goes by the name of Lactococcus Ferment Lysate, it’s a ferment (think of how raisins make alcohol if left warm for too long) of probiotic bacteria.
Now I bet you’ve heard of probiotics before ‘eh. They’re in your gut and adding to them helps your body to be healthy aka it sorts out your immune system.
The probiotic Lactococcus Ferment Lysate can do the same thing for your skin. It can teach it how to be healthy again and therefore restore a healthy, sensitive skin friendly exfoliation rate.
But live bacteria in skincare – now that’s crazy ‘eh. Especially when skincare is designed to stop bacteria from growing.
This is why the actual ferment used in NIOD NAPP is of dead probiotic bacteria and although they’re dead, they can still teach your skin how to be healthy. Amazing.
Lactococcus Ferment Lysate as a non-acid acid precursor activates the expression of genes which signal a healthy, youthful skin exfoliation rate and while it does it, it improves your skin barrier function – a great side skill for sensitive skin types.
…The NIOD NAAP Doesn’t Stop There
There is a 3rd sensitive skin friendly exfoliate in the mix. Once called Ethyl Linolate… now this is an ingredient I’ve talked about often, but by another name – linoleic acid.
Linoleic acid is a type of fatty acid found in oils. It’s in rosehip oil, hemp oil and evening primrose oil.
When your skin is low in linoleic acid, it starts to hoard skin cells inside of your pores making them clogged and large. If you don’t correct this, your pores just get bigger.
When you put in a top-up of linoleic acid you reset the skin cell exfoliation rate of your pores.
The type of linoleic acid used in the NIOD NAAP is special. Linoleic acid used neat can oxidise/aka go off when exposed to air which in the long-term causes skin troubles. Ethyl linolate is a type of linoleic acid which resists oxidation.
How to Use NIOD NAAP
Unlike physical exfoliants, chemical exfoliants like the NIOD NAAP are used like toner or serum. This my friend, is why they have a sensitve skin edge. They work without rubbing, tugging and scrubbing. This means you don’t accidently initiate redness, irritation and sensitivity.
NAAP is a non-acidic alternative to acid-based epidermal resurfacing. Instead of using direct acids like AHA/BHA or retinoids that are common in skincare, NAAP uses fermentation bio-derivatives and amino isolates that act as precursors to skin-compatible acids, encouraging visible radiance and surface regularity without the redness and inflammation associated with acids. NAAP was found non-irritating in an independent Human Repeat Insult Patch Test. #NIOD
Chemical exfoliants are best applied at night as some can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.
As a sensitive skin friend, you should always follow this rule.
1-2 drops of the NIOD NAAP is all you need to rub in nightly. NIOD themselves recommend using this every night, but to start off exfoliating your sensitive skin, every other night or every 2-3 nights will make a great start. Once you know how your skin reacts and depending on the exfoliating results you see, you can then decide whether to apply the NIOD NAAP more frequently.
The Best Way to Exfoliate Sensitive Skin
When you first get started exfoliating your sensitive skin with a non-acid precursor, you might be wondering exactly what to expect. Should your complexion look 10 years younger in a week? Will your skin texture be resolved? Does the effect match the smoothness of a physical scrub?
This my friend, is exactly what using a sensitive skin friendly chemical exfoliator like the NIOD NAAP should do;
- Smooth forehead texture (an area that easily gets congested)
- Visibly brighten skin
- Improve radiance aka you get dewy glow
- Resurface a rough, uneven skin tone
- Restore skin barrier function and therefore hydration
- Reduce the appearance of pores
- Stop pores from widening
- Help resolve blackheads
- Prevent spots and pimples
And that my friend, should answer all you need to know about how to exfoliate sensitive skin.
Are you already using the NIOD NAAP? How do you exfoliate your sensitive skin? Have questions for me? Let’s chat in the comments below…
Cheryl Woodman is a scientist & award winning skincare formulator who’s more friend next door than bow tie wearing professor. As creator of Honesty For Your Skin her aim is to help you care for your skin in the best ways possible. She’s founder of the natural & fragrance free skincare brand Honesty while also hosting 1 to 1 skincare coaching to help you get your best skin yet. Find out more here.