Dead Skin Cells 101: What Causes Dead Skin to Build Up?
Causing everything from a dull skin tone and a sallow complexion to clogged pores and breakouts, dead skin cell buildup is an all-too-common skin care concern. And while there are many ways to get rid of it, one of the best ways to keep it from coming back is to know what causes those dead skin cells to build up in the first place. Below, we’re sharing some of the most common causes of dead skin cell buildup and even a few tricks for how to remove it for more radiant, healthy-looking skin.
What Are Dead Skin Cells?
Our skin—aka our body’s largest organ—operates like well-oiled machine…quite literally, in fact. We have sebaceous glands that produce naturally hydrating oils and a built-in process that constantly produces new skin cells while shedding the old.
Skin cells—also called keratinocytes—are composed of a protein called keratin and are formed in the epidermis. During its life cycle, a skin cell travels up through the epidermis to the dermis until it reaches the skin’s outermost layer (called the stratum corneum) where the skin cell dies and is eventually shed through a process called desquamation. Every hour nearly 40,000 skin cells are shed and it takes one skin cell just about a month to complete the entire process of desquamation.
Why Do Dead Skin Cells Build Up?
As these older, dead skin cells are shed each day they reveal newer, more radiant-looking skin underneath. However, there are a few factors that can cause those dead skin cells to build up on the skin’s surface instead of being shed away.
#1 Getting Older
That monthly process of desquamation and shedding dead skin cells works like a charm when we’re young, but as we age these innate processes slow down. As we get older our skin produces less oil and the process of shedding dead skin cells to reveal healthy-looking cells decelerates causing everything from dry skin to—you guessed it—dead skin cell buildup. But, before you go blaming Father Time for yet another skin care side effect, know that there are other culprits behind dead skin cell buildup, too.
#2 Lack of Proper Cleansing
Forgetting to properly cleanse your skin each night? You may have dead skin cells lingering around longer than they should. Since our skin is constantly in a process of creating new cells and shedding old ones, if there is a blockage of excess oil, makeup, or other products, this natural process may not go as smoothly. Think of it like a traffic jam, when there are too many cars on the road, things slow down…sometimes to a halt.
#3 Not Exfoliating
Just as you need to cleanse your skin morning and night, you also need to add exfoliation into your routine—especially as you get older and the natural dead skin cell shedding process slows. Unlike cleansing, exfoliation doesn’t need to happen every day, but you should aim for a once or twice a week head-to-toe exfoliation to help give the desquamation process a boost.
For your body look for gentle scrubs or reach for a dry brush since the skin below your chin is thicker than the skin on your face and can often handle physical exfoliation better. For your complexion, consider chemical exfoliators. Look for formulas with ingredients like glycolic or lactic acid which help to eat away at that dead skin cell buildup.
Just remember to wear broad-spectrum SPF during the daytime since those new skin cells are much more photosensitive and vulnerable to sunburns.
#4 Not Using the Right Moisturizer
Exfoliation and cleansing are key for helping to get rid of dead skin cell buildup, but doing them alone isn’t going to help. After every cleanse and exfoliation session you must moisturize. By skipping moisturizer, you can dehydrate your skin and cause it to dry out. Dry skin is more susceptible to dead skin cell buildup as it can create a barrier, trapping the dead skin cells that are ready to be shed underneath. Look for moisturizers that are tailored for your skin type as this can help you get the most out of them.
#5 Climate Changes
Another common cause for dead skin cell buildup is the environment. When the air around you is dry and arid—think: desert-like climates and cold, frigid temperatures in the winter months—it lacks humidity. While this may sound like a great thing for your hair, it’s not ideal for your skin. The dry climate can end up causing your skin to lose hydration, leading to dry skin which can—as explained above—trap dead skin cells underneath and cause a buildup. Keep moisturizers on hand and consider sleeping with a humidifier during the dryer seasons.
#6 Skin Conditions
If you have a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis you may experience an increased buildup of dry, dead skin cells which can be made worse by harsh soaps, sun exposure, and low-humidity climates. If this is the reason for your dead skin cell buildup be sure to consult with a dermatologist who can give you personalized advice on how to deal with the dryness.
#7 Sun Exposure
Just as dry, arid climates can suck the moisture from your skin, so can excessive sun exposure. Do your best to stay out of the sun’s harsh rays and always apply and reapply SPF as directed to keep your skin protected.
How to Get Rid of Dead Surface Skin Cells
Now that you know what causes dead skin cells to build up, we figured you could benefit from a list of exfoliators that can help bid them farewell. Ahead, we share a roundup of the best facial scrubs, peels, and liquid toners—from the L’Oréal portfolio of brands—that can get rid of dead surface skin cells.
L’OREAL PARIS PURE-SUGAR PURIFY & UNCLOG FACE SCRUB
Treat your skin to a deep, yet gentle exfoliation with a sugar scrub that’s enhanced with real kiwi seeds. Since the scrubbing particles are made of gentle sugars (which eventually melt), you won’t have to worry about exfoliation being too harsh on your skin. Instead, you can expect dirt, oil, and other impurities to be removed from the skin, resulting in skin that feels baby-soft and comforted over time.
L’Oréal Paris Pure-Sugar Purify & Unclog Face Scrub, $12.99 MSRP
L’OREAL PARIS PURE-SUGAR NOURISH & SOFTEN FACE SCRUB
Formulated with finely-crushed cocoa, coconut oil, and rich cocoa butter, this buttery-soft sugar scrub melts into the skin for a gentle exfoliation session. After application, the skin looks more refined, feels softer and smoother, with dull skin gently polished away.
L’OREAL PARIS PURE-SUGAR SMOOTH & GLOW FACE SCRUB
Searching high and low for an exfoliator that can leave your skin feeling fresh and rejuvenated? Look no further than this sugar scrub from L’Oréal Paris. Formulated with a naturally derived blend of 3 pure sugars—acai, grapeseed, and monoi oils—this ultra-soft scrub effectively removes dirt, oil, and other impurities, and dull skin is gently polished away.
L’Oréal Paris Pure Sugar Smooth & Glow Face Scrub, $12.99 MSRP
GARNIER SKINACTIVE DEEP PORE EXFOLIATING FACE SCRUB WITH GREEN TEA
Powered by green tea, this exfoliating scrub helps decongest the skin while gently exfoliating to reduce the appearance of pores. As a result, the skin is left feeling smoother with a more refined texture. As an added bonus, the formula is made without silicones, parabens, and sulfates.
LA ROCHE-POSAY EFFACLAR ASTRINGENT
Contrary to popular belief, effective exfoliation doesn’t have to be exclusive to mechanical exfoliators. You can reap the same skin-softening benefits with a liquid toner enhanced with salicylic acid. One of our favorites is La Roche-Posay’s Effaclar Astringent—a great option if you want to improve rough skin texture and the appearance of enlarged pores.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Astringent, $23.99 MSRP
KIEHL’S NIGHTLY REFINING MICRO-PEEL CONCENTRATE
Like the idea of having your skin renew itself while you sleep? It’s time to add Kiehl’s Nightly Refining Micro-Peel Concentrate to your nightly routine then. Clinically demonstrated to help accelerate surface skin, this concentrate—formulated with sustainably-sourced Quinoa Extract—works to reveal fresher, newly radiant skin while you’re getting in that quality shut-eye.
LA ROCHE-POSAY EFFACLAR CLARIFYING SOLUTION
Those with acne-prone skin should remove excess dirt and dead skin cells with this clarifying solution enhanced with salicylic acid and glycolic acid. This gentle formula removes pore-clogging debris, all while smoothing the skin’s texture.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Clarifying Solution, $14.99 MSRP