Cell Turnover

What Is Cell Turnover and What Does It Have to Do with Acne Development

Cell Turnover
Ed Reschke Collection/Photolibrary/Getty Images

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

Cell turnover is the skin's natural exfoliation process.

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.

Speeding up cell turnover can help clear blemishes (and make your skin look brighter and smoother, too).

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.

Next steps:

Exfoliation Basics for Acne-Prone Skin

Why You Should Love Your Skin (Even When It's Breaking Out)

Everything You Need to Know About Your Skin's Pores

How To Create the Perfect Skin Care Routine for Your Blemish-Prone Skin

Sources:

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

Kircik LH.  "Adnvaces in the understanding of the pathogenesis of inflammatory acne."  J Drugs Dermatol.  2016 Jan 1;15(1):s7-s10.

Matsui T, Amagai M.  "Dissecting the formation, structure and barrier function of the stratum corneum."  Int Immunol.  2015 Jun; 27(6):269-80.

Rawlings AV.  "Molecular basis for stratum corneum maturation and moisturization."  Br J Dermatol.  2014 Sep;171 Suppl 3:19-28.

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