What Cell Turnover Is and How It Relates to Acne Development

Cell turnover is the term used to describe the constant shedding of dead skin cells and subsequent replacement with younger cells.

Woman washing her face.
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How Cell Turnover Works

The skin naturally sheds dead skin cells through a process called desquamation. Every 28-40 days, on average, a new skin cell is "born" in the stratum germinativum, the deepest layer of the epidermis.

The cell travels up through the epidermis until it reaches the uppermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum. Once the cell reaches this layer, it is rough, dry, flaky — what we consider a "dead" skin cell. Ideally, new skin cells continue to arrive at the skin's surface, pushing older cells off from beneath. This desquamation process happens over the entire body.

Where do the old skin cells go once they have been sloughed away? They settle on your furniture, in the form of dust. Yes, that's right. Most of the dust in your home is not dirt but, rather, dead skin cells.

Our cell turnover rate (also called the cell renewal factor) changes throughout our life. Babies and young children have a faster cell turnover rate because they're growing quickly. That explains why little kids have such bright, soft, luminous-looking skin—their cell turnover rate is twice as fast as adults. They always have new skin cells on the surface.

As we age, our cell turnover rate slows down. That's why our skin never looks quite as "bright" as it did when we were younger.

Cell turnover isn't as efficient in people with acne. In those with acne, the natural desquamation process goes awry. Acne-prone skin produces more dead skin cells than is typical, and these cells aren't properly shed. This condition, called retention hyperkeratosis, is the reason regular exfoliation is so important for acne-prone skin types.

In normal functioning skin, excess dead skin cells are constantly being sloughed away naturally. In acne-prone skin, dead cells remain stuck on the skin's surface and within the follicle, creating a clog (impaction). This plug of cellular debris and excess oil forms a blackhead or, if bacteria invade, an inflamed blemish.

How Speeding up Cell Turnover Improves Acne

Because of the inability of acne-prone skin to naturally shed dead skin cells, an outside means of exfoliation is necessary to help the process along. Regular use of an exfoliant can inhibit the formation of blackheads and blemishes by keeping the follicles free of blockages.

There are many acne medications that can help speed up cell turnover. The most effective products you can get over the counter are alpha hydroxy acids, specifically glycolic acid.

For even more robust exfoliation, nothing can beat topical retinoids. These are prescription-only treatments that are very effective at clearing up mild to moderately severe acne breakouts. As an added bonus, they are good anti-agers too.

Need help treating your acne? Give your dermatologist a call.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Eady EA, Layton AM, Cove JH. A honey trap for the treatment of acne: manipulating the follicular microenvironment to control Propionibacterium acnes. Biomed Res Int. 2013;2013:679680. doi:10.1155/2013/679680

  2. Sharad J. Glycolic acid peel therapy - a current review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2013;6:281-8. doi:10.2147/CCID.S34029

Additional Reading

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.