What Is Dead Skin?

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Dead skin refers to the dead skin cells that our bodies are always shedding and replacing with new cells. Our bodies shed between 30,000 and 40,000 skin cells per day. Normal cell turnover takes place about every 30 days.

This process of desquamation includes new skin cells being produced and sloughing away dead skin cells. Sometimes, however, dead skin cells don’t shed off normally. When this happens, they can build up and appear as dull, flaky skin. Understanding the causes behind this can help you find out how to resolve this issue.

Close up unhappy woman looking at acne spots in mirror - stock photo


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Dead Skin Symptoms

Dead skin cells make up the first 18 to 23 layers of your skin. When these dead skin cells don’t slough off as they should, you can be left with symptoms like dull, dry skin. Other symptoms include:

  • Dry, flaky skin
  • Itching
  • Thick, rough skin
  • Dull, scaly skin
  • Acne and breakouts

Causes

During the normal desquamation process, new skin cells are produced deep in the epidermis layer of the skin and then travel up to the surface. These new cells push the dead cells off, causing them to flake off and be replaced with new skin. When this process is slowed down or interrupted, dead skin cells build up on the skin’s surface.

Skin layers with glands (sebaceous and sweat glands). - stock vector


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Age

As we age, the epidermis layer thins and our skin cell turnover rate slows down. This is more pronounced in women and on the faces and necks. Babies and young children have that youthful glow because their cell turnover rate is so fast. This is because they are growing quickly. The cell turnover rate of a young child is about double that of an older adult’s. In fact, most adults over the age of 65 have at least one skin disorder. 

Cleaning Routine

Regularly cleansing your skin helps to remove dead skin cells that are ready to flake off. If you were to skip washing your face for a few nights in a row, it could cause a buildup of dead skin cells and oil. This could lead to acne breakouts and a dulled complexion.

Weather and Sun Exposure 

Exposure to the sun speeds up skin aging and cell death. Over time this skin damage can result in a buildup of dead skin cells on the surface. Sun damage also leads to premature signs of aging like wrinkles, age spots and loose skin. 

Dehydration

When you are dehydrated, your skin isn’t able to hang on to the moisture it needs. This leads to dry skin that can flake off and leave your skin feeling itchy and irritated. 

Underlying Skin Conditions 

Talk with your doctor if your dead skin cell buildup worsens since it could be a symptom of an underlying skin condition. 

Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition that causes red, itchy rashes over the body. Also known as atopic dermatitis, eczema is more common in children and is believed to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. 

Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that causes thick patches of dead skin cells. You may also notice lesions and redness that are irritating. While psoriasis cannot be cured completely, it can be managed well. Talk with your dermatologist about your symptoms to develop a plan.

How to Prevent Dead Skin Cell Buildup

We can’t prevent dead skin cells altogether but there are steps we can take to help them slough off regularly: 

  • Be safe in the sun: Taking simple actions to protect our skin from the sun can keep it looking fresh and smooth. Wear sunscreen any time you’ll be spending time outdoors and wear a wide-brimmed hat when you can
  • Quit smoking: Smoking speeds up skin aging and cell death
  • Eat a healthy diet: Opt for fruits and vegetables loaded with antioxidants to keep your skin glowing. Refined carbs and sugar tend to dull skin’s complexion
  • Cleanse gently: Wash your face regularly to help clear away dead skin cells. Use gentle motions and products to keep from irritating your skin

Diagnosis

The best way to address your dead skin buildup is to meet with a dermatologist who can evaluate the condition and offer a personalized treatment plan. Before your appointment, take some time to write down any questions you have for the doctor. Your provider will most likely ask you questions about how long you’ve been experiencing a buildup of dead skin cells and what treatments you have tried in the past. Your doctor will examine your skin and most likely be able to make a diagnosis from observation. 

Before recommending a treatment, your dermatologist will ask for a list of all prescription and over-the-counter products you use on your skin. Some products, like retinoid creams, can make your skin more sensitive and prone to peeling. Attempting to exfoliate after using these products could lead to irritation and breakouts. It may be helpful to write out a list of all of your products prior to your appointment to make sure you don’t forget any.

Know Your Skin Type

Dead skin cells can make your skin appear dry, but any skin type can experience a buildup of dead skin cells. Knowing your skin type will help you pick the right dead skin cell treatment for you. Most people’s skin type falls into one or more of the following types:

  • Normal skin is clear and even
  • Dry skin may appear dull and flakey
  • Oily skin often appears greasy or shiny
  • Combination has patches of both dry and oily skin
  • Sensitive skin usually appears red and irritated after exposure to products

Treatment

It is possible to safely remove dead skin cells at home; just be sure to choose a gentle exfoliation method based on your skin type. 

Mechanical Exfoliation

Mechanical exfoliation uses a tool like a dry brush or simply a washcloth to scrub away and remove dead skin cells. Mechanical exfoliants can be a great fit for those with very oily or thick skin. After cleansing your skin, gently rub a washcloth or brush over your skin in small circular motions. Apply a lotion or moisturizer when you’re finished.

Chemical Exfoliation

Chemical exfoliation uses products to dissolve dead skin cells from the skin’s surface. Chemicals such as alpha and beta hydroxy acids help to remove dead skin cells and even out the skin’s pigment. If you have dry or sensitive skin, most mechanical exfoliants will probably be too harsh for you. Opt for a gentle chemical one; your dermatologist will be able to recommend one that works for your skin type. 

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) typically come in the form of creams or lotions and often contain glycolic, lactic, or citric acids. AHAs can exfoliate the skin and help to even skin tone and reduce dark spots. They have been known to cause mild irritation and sun sensitivity, so start slow. Try using AHAs every other day as your skin gets used to it. Polyhydroxy acids have the same benefits without the irritation and are a nice option for those with sensitive skin.

Beta hydroxy acids, also known as salicylic acid, also remove dead skin cells and improve the appearance of the skin. They are also used to treat acne. These products may be less irritating than AHAs. When applying a chemical exfoliant, use a soft circular motion for about 30 seconds and then rinse it off with warm water. Avoid hot or cold water since it could be irritating to the skin. 

Exfoliation Tips

After exfoliating, it’s important to moisturize to prevent dry skin. Look for a gentle moisturizer to use each time you exfoliate, and don’t forget to apply sunscreen if you’re heading out. After clearing away the dead skin cells, the new skin will be more sensitive to sunlight and could burn easily.

When choosing an exfoliation treatment, steer clear of any products that contain large particles like course salts, sugar, beads, or nut shells. They are meant to remove dead skin cells, but these large particles can cause microtears in the skin. These tears lead to dryness, irritation, and possibly even infection.

If you suspect that you are currently experiencing a skin infection or an acne breakout, hold off on exfoliation treatments for now.

How to Remove Dead Skin on Feet

The skin on your feet is thicker and less sensitive than the skin on your face and neck. That means that you can be slightly more aggressive with dead skin removal without having to worry about irritating your skin. You may want to:

  • Exfoliate the skin on your feet with a high-quality foot scrub or body brush
  • Keep the skin on your feet moisturized with foot cream or coconut oil
  • Soak your feet in warm water and then towel dry
  • Gently massage your foot with a pumice stone (you may have experienced this while receiving a pedicure)

A Word From Verywell

It is normal for our bodies to continuously shed dead skin cells and replace them with new ones. When dead skin cells don’t flake off as they should, you may be left with dry, flaky skin. Gentle exfoliation techniques can help to remove dead skin cells and bring out brighter, healthier-looking skin. Your dermatologist can help you determine the right plan for you based on your skin type and needs.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Rodan K, Fields K, Majewski G, Falla T. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2016 Dec 14;4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp):e1152. doi: 10.1097/GOX.0000000000001152.