Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP, MD
Written by Apostrophe Team
Last updated 11/3/2022
Just like your hair, nails, and other parts of your body, your skin constantly renews itself to repair damage and protect your body from bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens.
Usually referred to as epidermal turnover, the process your skin uses to renew itself is complex and fascinating. New skin cells are produced deep inside your skin, with these new cells rising to the surface over time to replace old ones.
Epidermal turnover plays a major role in keeping your skin healthy and maintaining its smooth, youthful appearance.
Unfortunately, this process often leaves behind an unwanted byproduct in the form of dead skin cells.
Over time, these skin cells can accumulate on your face and other parts of your body, leading to acne breakouts, premature aging, and other unpleasant effects.
Below, we’ve explained how the epidermal turnover process works, as well as how it often leads to the buildup of dead skin cells. We’ve also shared proven, science-based tactics and products that you can use to remove dead skin cells and maintain your skin.
Dead skin cells are a byproduct of your skin’s natural repair and renewal process, known as epidermal turnover.
As you age, your epidermal turnover process slows down, meaning it may take your skin longer to produce new cells and replace old ones.
When dead skin cells mix with sebum (a type of oil that’s produced and secreted by your sebaceous glands), they can cause whiteheads, blackheads, and other types of acne.
Exfoliating (the process of removing dead cells from the outermost layers of your skin) is helpful for keeping your skin smooth and soft. However, it’s important to do it carefully to avoid damaging your skin.
Numerous over-the-counter products and prescription medications can help to remove dead skin cells.
Several cosmetic procedures, such as chemical peeling, can remove large amounts of dead skin cells at once.
Your skin acts as your body’s outermost layer of defense against bacteria, viruses, UV radiation, and other environmental sources of damage.
It also works around the clock to protect you from temperature-related damage. When you’re in an environment that’s very hot or very cold, your skin steps in to regulate your temperature and prevent you from becoming dehydrated.
Beyond its role as a defense against external threats, your skin plays a key role in storing vital nutrients and producing hormones that are essential for your health and well-being.
Just like a building exposed to the elements requires a fresh coat of paint every few years, your skin needs to be repaired when it encounters damage. Conveniently, your skin repairs itself via a process called epidermal turnover.
Over the course of four to eight weeks, new cells produced in the lower layers of your skin travel to the surface to replace old ones.
As the new cells reach the surface, the old, dead skin cells detach from your body and are shed over time. Simple things like rubbing your skin or applying any other kind of pressure all help to detach and remove dead skin cells from your body.
Since dead skins are light and extremely small, your body’s exfoliation process isn’t something that you’ll notice throughout the day.
For the most part, your skin is highly effective at timing the creation of new skin cells to coincide with the shedding of old ones.
However, some factors can affect this process. For example, applying pressure to your skin can speed up your body’s creation of new skin cells, resulting in the formation of calluses and other thickened skin in certain parts of your body.
Age may play a role in dead skin cell buildup. For example, research has found that your body’s rate of desquamation, or skin shedding, tends to slow down as you get older, keeping dead skin cells on the surface of your skin for longer before they’re shed.
As these dead cells build up, they can affect the texture and appearance of your face. They can also — as we’ve talked about below — clog your hair follicles, contributing to everything from mild acne to serious breakouts and blemishes.
Dead skin cells can play a major role in the development of acne, particularly if you also have oily skin.
Acne forms when sebum (a type of natural oil that’s produced by your sebaceous glands) and dead skin cells mix and build up inside your hair follicles, or pores. This blocks the hair follicle, causing a type of acne lesion called a comedone to develop.
Comedones can be open or closed. When they’re open, they’re referred to as blackheads due to their dark color. When they’re closed, they’re referred to as whiteheads.
When bacteria become trapped inside a hair follicle that’s clogged with sebum and dead skin cells, it can develop into an inflamed, painful acne lesion.
By stripping away dead skin cells through exfoliation, not only can you improve your skin’s look and texture — but you may also reduce your risk of experiencing acne breakouts.
There are several ways to remove dead skin cells from your face. The first, and simplest, is to use an over-the-counter exfoliating cleanser or face wash. These products use mild chemicals to strip away dead skin cells and clean your face.
The second way is to exfoliate your skin manually using a washcloth, dry brush, or other types of manual exfoliating device. This method has its advantages, but it’s generally not ideal for every skin type.
Finally, if you have moderate to severe acne or simply want to exfoliate for anti-aging purposes, you may want to look at cosmetic exfoliating procedures. We’ve talked about all of these options in more detail below.
Many over-the-counter skin care products can dissolve and strip away the dead skin cells that accumulate on your face. You can find these in most drug stores, usually labeled as exfoliating cleansers or face washes.
Ingredients to look for in over-the-counter exfoliants include:
Alpha-hydroxy acids. Alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are organic acids that strip away dead skin cells. Common AHAs include glycolic acid, tartaric acid, lactic acid, and citric acid. Research shows that AHAs can help to reduce fine lines and wrinkles, moisturize your skin and increase your skin’s production of collagen, an important fibrous protein. Alpha-hydroxy acids work by interfering with the ionic bonding that binds your skin cells together. This causes your skin to shed dead cells, improving its texture and promoting the creation of new skin cells as part of your epidermal turnover cycle. Many over-the-counter exfoliating cleansers and other products include small amounts of alpha-hydroxy acids, usually at a relatively low concentration. Some products use a combination of different alpha-hydroxy acids and other ingredients. Alpha-hydroxy acids are effective at removing dead skin cells, but they may cause skin irritation. Because of this, it’s best to start with a mild exfoliating cleanser and carefully follow the instructions to avoid applying it too frequently.
Beta-hydroxy acids. Beta-hydroxy acids, or BHAs, are popular ingredients in cleansers, face washes, and other skin care products. One of the most common beta-hydroxy acids is salicylic acid. Like alpha-hydroxy acids, beta-hydroxy acids are generally used in over-the-counter skincare products at low concentrations. For typical daily use, a cleanser or face wash with a 1-2 percent beta-hydroxy acid concentration is generally considered ideal. BHAs work similarly to AHAs. However, they’re less likely to cause skin irritation, making them worth considering if you have sensitive skin that becomes inflamed easily.
Using an over-the-counter exfoliating cleanser or facial wash is simple. Most can be applied in a minute or two while you shower or wash your face in the morning. We’ve talked more about how you can do this in our full guide to washing your face.
If you’d prefer not to use a cleanser or facial wash to exfoliate your skin, you can strip away old cells manually using a dry brush, powder, or through mechanical exfoliation methods.
The easiest method of mechanical exfoliation is cleaning your skin with a washcloth. To do this, wash your face using your regular facial wash. After you finish, gently wipe your skin dry with a washcloth, making a circular motion to strip away dead skin cells.
Exfoliating with a washcloth is okay for many people, but scrubbing may lead to irritation if you have sensitive skin. Try to be as gentle as possible, especially if your skin has a tendency to become irritated easily.
Another way to strip away dead skin cells by hand is by using a dry brush. Dry brushing strips away dead skin cells physically. It also helps to unclog hair follicles, which may help to reduce your risk of developing acne.
The best time to dry brush is just before you shower or bathe. Just like with other mechanical exfoliation methods, make sure that you stick to light, gentle strokes to avoid damaging your skin.
It’s worth noting that while dry brushing is an effective way to exfoliate, many common health claims made about dry brushing — such as that it can reduce cellulite or improve digestion — aren’t supported by any scientific research.
Finally, you can also strip away dead skin cells using powder exfoliants. Designed to mix with water, these powders are applied directly to your skin as a fine paste that removes dead skin cells and unclogs your hair follicles.
Exfoliating powders are available online, as well as from most local drug stores, cosmetic and beauty supply stores, and other vendors.
Several cosmetic procedures are used to remove dead skin cells, rejuvenate the skin and make common blemishes less visible. Options include:
Chemical peeling. Chemical peeling, or chemexfoliation, is a cosmetic procedure that involves stripping away the outermost layer of your skin using an acid-based chemical peeling agent. Many of the peeling agents used for chemical peeling are alpha and beta-hydroxy acids similar to those used in over-the-counter skin care products. For clinical chemical peels, these acids are used for short periods at a much higher concentration. Research shows that chemical peeling helps to improve the appearance of the skin and reduce the appearance of many common skin imperfections. In 2016 alone, more than 1.3 million chemical peels were performed in the United States. Chemical peeling can vary in price depending on the depth of the peeling procedure. On average, you can expect to pay hundreds of dollars for a typical chemical peel.
Dermabrasion. Dermabrasion is a surgical procedure that involves removing the outer layer of your skin using a special rotating device. During the process, your skin will be numbed, meaning you typically won’t feel any significant pain or discomfort. In addition to stripping away the outermost layer of skin cells, dermabrasion can help to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, lighten scars and make other signs of aging less visible.
Dermaplaning. Similar to dermabrasion, dermaplaning is a surgical procedure in which the outermost layers of your skin, which contain dead skin cells, are removed. Instead of a rotating device, dermaplaning is performed using a small, hand-held device called a dermatome that skims the surface layer of your skin to strip away skin cells and improve its texture.
Removing dead skin cells is usually a good thing. However, exfoliating too aggressively or often can irritate your skin and may increase your risk of experiencing issues like acne.
To exfoliate without damaging your skin, make sure to:
Try several exfoliation methods. Everyone’s skin is different, meaning there’s no “best” method of exfoliation for every skin type. Try a variety of different exfoliation methods, from applying over-the-counter products to simply wiping your face with a washcloth, then stick with the one that gives you the best results with the fewest issues.
Start small and gentle. Avoid overusing skincare products, especially those that strip away dead skin cells. For topical exfoliants, only ever use the amount suggested by the manufacturer. After you finish, gently rinse your skin using warm water. If you exfoliate with a washcloth, use light strokes and as little pressure as possible to avoid irritating your skin. Avoid using exfoliating products if your skin is sunburned, irritated, or if you have open cuts or other damage.
Be careful combining exfoliants with other skin care products. Many common skin care products, including topical acne treatments and anti-aging products, can cause dry skin, irritation, and other side effects that may worsen when you exfoliate. If you’re prescribed medication for acne or other skin issues, make sure that you talk to your healthcare provider before using an exfoliant.
If you notice dry skin, apply moisturizer after you exfoliate. Many exfoliants can dry out your skin, often significantly. This can cause irritation and may increase your risk of dealing with acne breakouts. If you notice that your skin is dry after you remove dead skin cells, make sure to apply moisturizer immediately after. This will help to trap water in your skin and reduce your risk of dryness, irritation, and acne.
Removing your dead skin cells has numerous benefits, from improving your skin’s appearance and texture to reducing your risk of developing acne.
It’s also a simple process. You can exfoliate at home with a washcloth or dry brush, or by using over-the-counter products such as facial washes, cleansers or exfoliating powder.
If you have lots of dead skin cells or feel it’s time to rejuvenate your skin, cosmetic procedures such as chemical peeling or dermabrasion can produce a real, noticeable improvement in your skin’s appearance and texture.
Everyone’s skin is unique, making it important to take a personalized approach to your skincare routine. Our guide to skin type talks about how you can identify your specific skin type and choose the right products to slow down aging, prevent acne, and more.
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