By Andrea Jordan
Andrea Jordan is a beauty and lifestyle freelance writer covering topics from hair and skincare to family and home. She received her bachelor’s in Magazine Journalism from Temple University and you can find her work at top publications like InStyle, PopSugar, StyleCaster, Business Insider, PureWow and OprahMag.
There’s nothing sexy about the term, dead skin, but that doesn’t mean it has no purpose. Dead skin is actually necessary for healthy skin, but too much of it can wreak havoc on your complexion. The key to keeping dead skin for function and not for harm is safely removing it before it builds up. That’s where exfoliation can save the day–but sloughing off dead skin is not a simple venture.
Here, we tapped derms to get the scoop on dead skin buildup, including what causes it, signs you have it, and how to safely (!!) remove it. Read on to reveal your glow.
What is dead skin?
Dead skin may sound scary, but the truth is it’s not a bad thing. “The outermost layers of the skin are made up of dead skin cells,” says NYC-based board-certified dermatologist, Hadley King, M.D. “This is the normal structure.” In fact, every minute of every day, we naturally shed between 30,000 and 40,000 dead skin cells. Thankfully, this process is not visible to the human eye, and the epidermis constantly makes new cells to eventually replace those you lost.
King says that living skin cells are found at deeper levels of the epidermis, and those newly birthed cells migrate towards the surface of the skin as others die. In fact, the epidermis uses dead skin cells as a layer of barrier and buffer. So don’t be fooled: These dead cells have a purpose. In a perfect world, this natural shedding process would happen without a hitch, but problems may occur if this process is slowed down, halted, or even sped up. And that, folks, is what we’re discussing below.
What causes dead skin to accumulate?
Like we explained above, dead skin plays a real part in the natural cell turnover process, but if that process gets out of sorts, dead cells can accumulate and put a damper on your complexion and skin health. Things like weather, lifestyle, skin care products, age, sun exposure, and dehydration can all play a part in the buildup of dead skin cells.
Unless those cells are properly sloughed away (either naturally or manually, by exfoliation), the skin starts to appear dull, lifeless, and even sometimes flaky and dry. This is where routine exfoliation comes into play.
Signs you have dead skin buildup.
Thankfully, dead skin buildup has a few characteristics that make it easy to pinpoint. But if you’re still not sure after reading this, we recommend visiting your dermatologist to get to the root of your skin concerns.
Too many dead skin cells take away that vibrant, radiant complexion we all dream about. Dull skin is, well, lackluster. You may not notice it on day one, but dull skin is very obvious over time. It’s not bright, clear, and radiant, and it often looks blah and sallow.
Not all dry skin is flaky, but accumulation of dead skin cell can certainly make the skin look rougher. Dry skin is perhaps most obvious after cleansing or when trying to apply makeup. Read: If your face immediately feels tight after rinsing or your cosmetics look like they’re constantly pilling, you’re probably dealing with dryness.
Too many dead skin cells can clog the pores, so you may experience more congested skin. Have you ever skipped face cleansing for a day or two and noticed some buildup? Well, in addition to dirt and oil, dead skin cells begin to accumulate, too. This creates a seal over the pores and traps dirt and bacteria underneath them. It’s basically a shoe-in for pesky breakouts.
How to safely remove it.
We have good news-accumulated dead skin cells are fairly simple to remove with proper steps. Enter, exfoliation. Now, by no means should you partake in every single one of these tips daily–that would be way too harsh on your delicate skin. This list below simply compiles a slew of ways to slough away dead skin, for your face and body. When done properly and with the right cadence, we’re sure you’ll find some of these quite beneficial.
And remember: One option isn’t necessarily better than another. Choose the method that works best for you, your lifestyle, and your skin type.
Skin scrubs or manual exfoliants are probably the most commonly known exfoliation technique–and the most immediately gratifying. “Mechanical exfoliation involves physically scrubbing the skin with an abrasive,” King says. This is usually sugar, salt, shells, or beads that help slough away dead skin. King says if you choose this method, opt for a formula with small, fine particles to avoid leaving micro-tears in the skin. And go light; no need to apply tons of pressure.
“Chemical exfoliants include salicylic, glycolic, citric, or malic acids and fruit enzymes,” King says. “These acids or enzymes loosen the glue-like substance that holds cells together, allowing them to ease away.” And while applying acids to the skin may sound scary, trust us, they work wonders on the skin (just make sure you don’t overdo it).
“These are commonly alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs),” board-certified dermatologist Amy Ross, M.D says regarding exfoliating the face. “The strength of the acid can be adjusted to create safe, mild, and effective exfoliation for all skin types.” No matter which you choose, each type can help promote cellular turnover to some degree, which results in a brighter, more even complexion every single time.
Shower pouf and sponges.
These shower accessories are amongst the gentlest of exfoliation techniques, as the soft pores gently buff your skin smooth. And chances are, you likely have one of these in your arsenal already. Just be sure to hang your sponge so it can dry properly without growing any bacteria. This exfoliation technique is safe for daily use and, as an added bonus, can help your body wash lather up beautifully.
Facial sponges and scrubbers.
A shower pouf is meant for the neck down, but you can snag a softer tool for your face, too. There are a handful of facial cleansing tools and brushes out there that help to work your favorite cleanser into the skin and slough away dirt, grime, debris and, of course, dead skin.
Just know that these are not for everyone (in fact, cleansing brushes are quite controversial in the beauty space, as many believe they can strip to the skin and cause dryness). If you absolutely must use a cleansing brush, it’s best to stick to silicone tools, since they are far gentler on the skin.
This ancient Ayurvedic technique helps brush away any excess of dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. Dry brushing has been claimed to help improve circulation on the body and even doubles as a form of self-care. This exfoliation technique is best for the body (although, you can dry brush the face if you do so gently); just work from your toes to your neck to encourage lymph toward your upper torso and chest.
If you haven’t tried an exfoliating glove yet, allow us to introduce you to the buzzy shower tool. These mitts are manufactured with a variety of textures to improve circulation, slough away dead skin, and even fend off ingrown hairs. Simply slip the glove on, work in circular motions and say bye-bye to unwanted dead skin cells.
Let’s start by saying: Chemical peels aren’t for everyone. But if you’re up for the challenge, visit your local esthetician or dermatologist to find out which peel is best for your skin type. These in-office treatments use higher levels of acid to help remove accumulated dead skin cells, ease fine lines, and boost the natural radiance of the skin.
Yes, dead skin can build up on the scalp, too. If you’ve ever had an itchy, tender, dry scalp, dead skin cells may be the culprit. That’s where scalp scrubs come into play: You can find physical scrubs to manually lift debris or chemical formulas to effectively dissolve buildup. Many scalp scrubs are gentle enough for even sensitive skin, and they’re great for whenever you need a deeper cleanse.
Just be sure to use your scalp scrub sparingly (aka, it shouldn’t be part of your daily regimen). Generally, once a week is more than sufficient.
No matter which exfoliation technique you choose, don’t skip moisturizing. Exfoliation without hydration is a recipe for a weakened skin barrier. Plus, keeping the skin properly hydrated helps to avoid dead skin cells from accumulating in the first place. Invest in a quality body lotion to support the skin barrier, and if you need an extra nudge, perhaps snag a beauty supplement to support skin hydration from the inside out.*
A revolutionary, science-backed cosmeceutical*
In mindbodygreen’s cutting-edge cellular beauty+ formula, you’ll find phytoceramides to support a healthy skin barrier structure; astaxanthin to preserve a healthy collagen layer; ubiquinol CoQ10 to promote skin cell “cleanup” (aka, getting rid of debris) and rejuvenation; and polyphenol-containing pomegranate whole-fruit extract for photoprotection.* These high-quality bioactives work together to support your internal moisture levels and enhance your glow, as younger, happier skin cells reflect more light.*
Dead skin cells aren’t bad, but the accumulation of them can be. To keep your complexion in tip-top shape, find your exfoliation sweet spot and stick with it. The secret to youthful, radiant skin is to keep the natural skin process going without speeding it up or slowing it down–and a balance of exfoliation and moisture is the key to doing just that. If you’re looking for specific product recommendations, check out our list of face and body exfoliators.
A revolutionary, science-backed cosmeceutical*
A revolutionary, science-backed cosmeceutical*