What Causes Dead Skin Cells to Build Up? Plus, How to Get Rid of Them

February 07, 2023
By: Jackie Burns Brisman | skincare.com by L'Oréal
close up of person touching cheek

Dead skin cell buildup is a common skincare concern, causing everything from a dull skin tone and sallow skin to clogged pores and breakouts. 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 help prevent it. Check out some of the most common causes of dead skin cells, ahead, plus our favorite products for addressing the issue.

What Are Dead Skin Cells?

“Dead skin cells, also called corneocytes, are almost skeletons of old skin cells that pile up to make the first layer of protection of the barrier of the skin,” says Dr. Stefani Kappel, a California-based board-certified dermatologist and the founder of MDAiRE™. “These cells help make up the top surface of the epidermis which we refer to as the stratum corneum.” 

According to The Cleveland Clinic, 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

What Do Dead Skin Cells Look Like?

There are a few different visible signs that you may have a build-up of dead skin cells. “The dead skin cell layer that accumulates on top, if not exfoliated, can form a lusterless, dull, dusky and dry appearance to the skin,” says Dr. Kappel. “You may have patchy pigmentation and your skin will not have that ‘full of vitality’ glow.” 

You may also notice acne or blemishes popping up if you are experiencing a dead skin cell build-up, she says. This is because the dead cells can clog your pores, preventing the sebum from being released and in turn causing it to build up and cause inflammation.   

What Causes Dead Skin Cells?

As these older, dead skin cells are shed each day, they reveal newer, more radiant-looking skin underneath. “It is natural for skin cells to die off as new skin cells are formed,” explains Dr. Kappel. “This process helps keep the outside world from entering the skin and it serves to keep out allergens, toxins, pathogens, bacteria and viruses.” 

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

Do you sometimes skimp on cleansing before bed each night? You may have dead skin cells lingering 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 and sometimes come 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 process a boost. Your dermatologist can help you determine what exfoliation schedule makes sense for your skin type. 


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. 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

Exfoliating and cleansing are essential in helping to get rid of dead skin cell buildup, but doing them alone isn’t enough — using a good moisturizer is also important. 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.

Environmental 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 it.

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 broad-spectrum 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: Use a Chemical Exfoliant on Your Face

For your face, consider chemical exfoliators like the IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores Glycolic Acid Serum. Apply it as a second step in your skincare routine after cleansing and before moisturizing. 

STEP 2: Use a Scrub on Your Body

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.


Kiehl’s Gently Exfoliating Body Scrub

STEP 3: Moisturize

Apply a lightweight moisturizer after exfoliation, like the Lancôme Hydra Zen Glow Liquid Moisturizer.

STEP 4: Apply SPF

Apply a hydrating sunscreen like for the body and something lighter, like the SkinCeuticals Daily Brightening UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 30 for the face.


SkinCeuticals Daily Brightening UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 30

Our Favorite Products for Getting Rid of Dead Skin Cells

IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores Glycolic Acid Serum

Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant, and the IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores Glycolic Acid Serum combines it with hydrating hyaluronic acid to give you smoother, more supple skin. For optimal results, apply four or five drops to your fingertips and gently press the serum into your face. Like other serums, this should be the second step in your skincare routine after cleansing.  


IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores Glycolic Acid Serum

SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight

Formulated with a 10% concentration of glycolic acid, the SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight treatment is a potent night cream that promotes skin cell turnover while you sleep. Use it and wake up with a glowing complexion.  


SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight

Youth to the People Kombucha + 10% AHA Power Exfoliant

The Youth to the People Kombucha + 10% AHA Power Exfoliant is a leave-on liquid chemical peel that works overnight to reveal brighter, smoother skin. In addition to improving the texture of your skin, this chemical exfoliant helps to even out your skin tone and reduces the appearance of dark spots. 


Youth to the People Kombucha + 10% AHA Power Exfoliant

CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion

Follow up your exfoliant with a moisturizer, like the CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion, which helps repair your skin’s natural moisture barrier overnight and locks in hydration. Formulated with hyaluronic acid and niacinamide, it calms your skin while moisturizing. 


CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion

La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Tinted Sunscreen SPF 50

The La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Tinted Sunscreen SPF 50 is a great sunscreen for everyday wear because it has a tinted matte finish and almost acts as complexion makeup. We love the lightweight feel and how it doesn’t leave a white cast.   


La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral Tinted Sunscreen SPF 50

Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Cream Hydrating Moisturizer

We love the fluffy, cloud-like texture of the Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Cream Hydrating Moisturizer. As the brand explains, it’s instantly refreshing upon application and the potent hyaluronic acid complex draws in water for lasting hydration.    


Peter Thomas Roth Water Drench Hyaluronic Cloud Cream Hydrating Moisturizer

Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen

The Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen has a cult following for a reason. The velvety, non-greasy formula glides smoothly across the skin and absorbs quickly for an invisible finish. It also doubles as a primer, so it’s perfect for wearing under makeup. 


Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen


Additional Reporting: Jordan Julian, Photo: Chaunte Vaughn

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