Desquamation Process and the Outer Layer of Skin

Desquamation is the natural process in which skin cells are created, sloughed away, and replaced.The desquamation process happens in the outermost layer of the skin called the epidermis. The epidermis itself has four unique layers. Each of these layers plays a role in desquamation.

Woman looking in mirror
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Skin Cells are Born

Sometimes called cell turnover, desquamation happens every second of the day, without you even noticing.

New skin cells are created in the stratum germinativum, which is the deepest layer of the epidermis. This layer is also called the basal layer.

Skin cells begin their life as a single layer of thick, column-shaped cells. These cells are responsible for creating every cell of your skin.

The cells in this layer divide. Half of them stay behind in the stratum germinativum. The other cells begin their migration to the skin's surface.

Keratin Is Made

Their next stop is the stratum spinosum. Here, the skin cells change from their column-like shape to a shape that is more like a polygon.

The stratum spinosum is also called the "spiny layer" because those polygon-shaped cells do look rather spiny if you were to see them under a microscope.

It's also here in the spiny layer where the skin cells begin to make keratin, the tough, fibrous proteins that make up the main structure of the skin. (Keratin is the main constituent of your hair and nails, too.)

Cells Flatten Out

The skin cells continue to push upward from the stratum spinosum and arrive in the stratum granulosum.In this layer, the cells begin to flatten out. They have also lost their nucleus. 

This layer is also called the "granular layer." Want to guess why? Yes, because here the cells take on a grainy appearance.

Cells Reach the Surface, Then Slough Off

The skin cells have reached their final destination — the stratum corneum. Once the cells arrive at this uppermost layer of the skin they are essentially dead.

The cells in the stratum corneum are very flat and tightly packed. These flat, dead cells continuously fall away as newer cells push their way to the surface. In this way, your skin is constantly renewing itself.

Where do all of those dead skin cells go? You might be surprised to know that most of the dust in your home is actually made up of dead skin cells.

The entire desquamation process, from cell birth to sloughing away, takes approximately 14 to 28 days.

Role of Abnormal Desquamation in Acne

It's believed that in people with acne, this desquamation process goes awry. Dead skin cells hang around longer than they should, clogging pores and contributing to breakouts.This is why exfoliating treatments help improve the skin.

6 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. Has C. Peeling skin disorders: a paradigm for skin desquamation.Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 2018;138(8):1689-1691. doi: 10.1016/j.jid.2018.05.020

  2. National Cancer Institute Seer Training Modules. Layers of the Skin.

  3. The Cleveland Clinic. Epidermis.

  4. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Nourishing Hair, Skin & Nails Supplement Study (Derm Aid).

  5. Thiboutot D, Del Rosso JQ. Acne vulgaris and the epidermal barrier: is acne vulgaris associated with inherent epidermal abnormalities that cause impairment of barrier functions? Do any topical acne therapies alter the structural and/or functional integrity of the epidermal barrier? J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2013;6(2):18-24. PMID: 23441236

  6. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to safely exfoliate at home.

Additional Reading
  • Gerson, Joel; Ph.D.. Standard Textbook for Professional Estheticians. 8th edition. Albany, NY: Milady Publishing, 1999.

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