Why Dead Skin Cells Build Up and How to Get Rid of Them

September 16, 2022
By: Jackie Burns Brisman | skincare.com by L'Oréal
close up of person touching cheek

Causing everything from a dull skin tone and sallow skin to clogged pores and breakouts, dead skin cell buildup is a common skincare concern. While sloughing away dead surface skin cells through chemical and physical exfoliation is a great way to reveal a glowing, radiant complexion, it’s important to know what’s causing your skin cells to build up in the first place. Then, you can adjust your skincare routine to prevent it. Check out some of the most common causes of dead skin cells, ahead.

What Are Dead Skin Cells?

Our skin has 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). When it reaches the outer layer, or surface layer, 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 about a month to complete the desquamation process.

What Causes Dead Skin Cells?

As these older, dead skin cells are shed each day, they reveal newer, more radiant-looking skin underneath. There are a few factors, however, that can cause those dead skin cells to build up on the skin’s surface instead of being shed away.


As we age, the desquamation process slows down. We don’t shed dead skin cells at the same rate and oil production decreases. As a result, the skin can become drier and there’s a buildup of dead surface skin cells.

Lack of Proper Cleansing

Forgetting to properly cleanse your skin each night? You may have dead skin cells lingering around longer than they should. Excess oil or makeup residue can make it more difficult for the skin to shed old skin cells and create new ones. Think of it like a traffic jam: When there are too many cars on the road, things slow down, sometimes to a halt.

Not Exfoliating

Exfoliating your skin through physical or chemical exfoliation is a great way to help slough away dead skin cells. Unlike cleansing, exfoliation doesn’t need to happen every day; you should aim for once or twice a week to help give the desquamation process a boost.


For your body, look for gentle scrubs or reach for a dry brush because the skin below your chin is thicker than the skin on your face. For the face, look for formulas with ingredients like glycolic or lactic acid, which work to reveal more radiant skin. Just remember to wear broad-spectrum SPF during the daytime because chemical exfoliants can cause hypersensitivity to the sun.

Using the Wrong Moisturizer

Exfoliation and cleansing are key for helping to get rid of dead skin cell buildup, but doing them alone isn’t enough — using a good moisturizer is key. Dehydrated or dry skin is more susceptible to dead skin cell buildup. A dry complexion or rough texture 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 to help you get the most out of them.

Climate Changes

While not using the right moisturizer can cause dry skin, so can the weather. Dry, arid climates and cold, frigid temperatures lack humidity. While this may sound like a great thing for your hair, it’s not ideal for your skin. The climate can end up causing your skin to lose hydration, which can — as explained above — trap dead skin cells underneath and cause a buildup. Keep moisturizers on hand and consider sleeping with a humidifier to boost your skin’s hydration.

Skin Conditions

If you have a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis, you may experience an increased buildup of dry, dead skin cells. This 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.

Sun Exposure

The same way 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 Remove Dead Skin Cells

Based on where your dead skin cells are building up on the body, we’ve rounded up a few different ways to remove them.


STEP 1: For your face, consider chemical exfoliators like the IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores Glycolic Acid Serum. This product would be applied after cleansing. 

STEP 2: Use a thick exfoliator like the Sol de Janeiro Bum Bum Body Scrub or the Kiehl’s Gently Exfoliating Body Scrub to remove dead skin cells on the arms, legs and other places on the body.

STEP 3: Apply a lightweight moisturizer after exfoliation like the Lancôme Hydra Zen Glow Liquid Moisturizer.


STEP 4: Apply a hydrating sunscreen like the La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-in Milk SPF 100 for the body and the SkinCeuticals Daily Brightening UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 30 for the face.

la roche posay anthelios melt in sunscreen milk
Photographer: Chaunte Vaughn

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