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.
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 wellbeing.
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 becomes 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 — 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 type 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:
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:
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:
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 skin care routine. Our guide to caring for your 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.