How Exfoliating Can Minimize Dead Skin Cells (And Your Dust Problem)

Exfoliator

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Our body constantly sheds dead skin cells; almost 500 million a day, to be exact. So, the top layer of skin you're looking at now will be dust in a month's time. Pretty cool or strange depending on how you look at it, right? With this science in mind, where does it all end up? Well, all around you—under your bed, all over the novels on your bookshelf, and so on. As cringe as this might sound, it's actually not that bad, especially since most of our dead skin cells get washed off in the shower.

"Normally, skin cells do not need any assistance but sometimes depending on the weather, hormones or different products that are being used, they might need a little nudge to be shed," says Dr. Angela Lamb. However, if dry, flaky skin is one of your skincare concerns, think of it this way: It's a sign that new skin cells are forming, and it's your body's way of saying, "Out with the old."

There are many ways to combat flaky skin, and some of the dust bunnies under your bed. One of our suggestions is adding exfoliation to your weekly routine (and an air purifier to your bedroom). Ahead, we tapped a few experts to get the scoop, including dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara, licensed esthetician Ali Tobia, Dr. Joshua Zeichner a director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai, and Dr. Angela Lamb the director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology faculty practice.

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Mona Gohara, a board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine.
  • Ali Tobia is a licensed Aesthetician with nearly 20 years of experience.
  • Dr. Joshua Zeichner is the Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology and an Associate Professor of Dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
  • Dr. Angela Lamb is a certified dermatologist and the Director of the Westside Mount Sinai Dermatology Faculty Practice and an Associate Professor of Dermatology.

Benefits of Exfoliation

Your body sloughs off dead skin cells naturally. "Our body is always shedding skin to replace with new skin cells. However, when this process is slowed down or interrupted, dead skin cells can build up on the skin’s surface and appear dull and flaky," says Gohara.

Exfoliating also amps up the skin's ability to absorb your skincare products, says Tobia. Otherwise, you risk products just sitting on top of a layer of dead skin cells—and that doesn't sound like a good use of your favorite body oil at all. Exfoliating "not only will it brighten up your complexion, but it will also prevent any acne breakouts caused by clogged pores," says Gohara.

Bonus: If you're proactive about exfoliating regularly in the shower, you might reduce some of the dust pollutants in your house.

How Often Should You Exfoliate?

Even though you shed dead skin cells daily, there's no need to exfoliate every day. In fact, doing so could strip your skin of its natural moisture. According to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, there are two common forms of exfoliation: "Chemical exfoliation is the use of hydroxyacids to dissolve connections between cells so they can be more easily shed. Physical, or manual, exfoliation is the process of directly removing cells using a gritty surface."

For best results, exfoliate two or three times a week. If you have sensitive skin, stick with once a week.

Bottom line: Exfoliating might help reduce the amount of dust in your home, but the biggest benefit is getting to maintain smooth, healthy-looking skin. Kinda makes you forget all about the dead skin cells collecting under your bed.

Ahead we break down expert tips for removing dead skin cells—and the best products to shop for at-home exfoliation.

01 of 07

Skin Scrubs

Skin Scrub

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When it comes to exfoliation, you've got options. Scrubs are an especially popular choice. These products work their magic through "beads or particles that offer manual exfoliating benefits," explains Zeichner. Many scrubs contain beads made from silica or jojoba or powders derive from botanical sources like rice or bamboo.

Sugar or salt body scrubs are loved for buffing skin to perfection while making exfoliation feel more like an indulgence than a chore. The promise of soft, smooth skin is a pretty good motivator, too.

Coffee scrubs like Frank Body Original Coffee Scrub ($17) are nourishing because of antioxidant-rich ingredients like almond oil and protective, healing vitamin E. 

Face Scrub
St. Ives Rise & Energize Coconut & Coffee Face Scrub $6
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02 of 07

Scalp Scrubs

Salt Scrub

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One area of your body that's easy to overlook (but still contains plenty of dead skin cells) is the scalp. If you're dealing with dry flakes, a scalp scrub can be a luxurious and effective way to exfoliate. Plus, it can help cleanse and remove product and styling residue. Dual-action—what's not to love.

The Cristophe Robin Purifying Scalp Scrub with Sea Salt ($53) is a beauty cult classic for a reason. The formula works as both a shampoo and an exfoliator, leaving your hair and scalp happy after one shower.

Christophe Robin
Christophe Robin Purifying Scalp Scrub with Sea Salt $53
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03 of 07

Manual Sponges, Poufs, and Gloves

A simple fix is adding manual exfoliation to your shower routine. This method is pretty simple and can be performed using brushes, sponges, or devices, says Zeichner. Even adding a washcloth to your body routine can help shed excess skin cells.

"I use a poof myself, and it’s always my go-to suggestion for manual exfoliation, as it isn’t as harsh and doesn’t contain as much bacteria as a loofa," says Gohara. Another alternative—if you'd rather not use a sponge or poof—are exfoliating gloves. Most are machine washable, so it's easy to give them a regular cleaning.

04 of 07

Dry Brushing

Brushes

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Celebrities like Tracee Ellis Ross and Gwyneth Paltrow swear by dry brushing—an ancient Ayurvedic technique that has become a wellness phenomenon in the last few years. With a long wooden handle and stiff natural bristles, a dry brush is meant to be used to massage your entire body from your feet all the way up to your shoulders. No water needed.

"Dry brushing is another alternative if you rather not exfoliate in the shower," says Gohara. However, she notes that this method should only be done 1x a week "and on healthy, unbroken skin." It's also especially effective during dry, winter months when your skin might need a little bit of extra love.

Not only does dry brushing exfoliate, but it can also stimulate new cell growth, promote lymphatic drainage, and even temporarily minimize the look of cellulite.

05 of 07

Glycolic Acid

On the chemical front, "acids" are a skincare category you'll want to explore. According to Lamb, glycolic (AHA) and salicylic acids (BHA) are what you should look for on your ingredient lists. "Products with AHAs and BHAs are an amazing way to promote skin cell turnover. They make the top layer of the skin softer so that the cells turn over easier."

Zeichner also recommends considering your skin type when adding a chemical exfoliant to your routine. AHAs work well for aging skin concerns. SkinMedica's AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser ($47) contains both acids as well as jojoba spheres that help exfoliate skin and enhance skin texture. This gentle exfoliating cleanser helps scrub away dead skin and brighten up your complexion.

SkinMedica cleanser
SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser $47
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06 of 07

Salicylic Acid

Woman putting on mask

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The go-to for acne-prone skin? Beta Hydroxyacids (like salicylic acid) "are oil soluble and penetrate into the follicles," says Zeichner—so, they're great for anyone with high oil production. Also, "Polyhydroxy acids can be used even in people with sensitive skin because they are ultra-gentle," adds Zeichner.

Lamb likes Charlotte Tilbury's Super Radiance Resurfacing Facial ($70), which is a weekly treatment and one of her "favorite products for providing these benefits without stripping the skin of natural oils."

Charlotte Tilbury facial
Charlotte Tilbury Super Radiance Resurfacing Facial $70
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07 of 07

Peels

A chemical peel is a high-octane version of exfoliation (and is best done with a dermatologist or licenses aesthetician). "With the combination of both at-home products and in-office treatments, it can help aid in the continued improvement of the skin as exfoliated skin is much more receptive to absorb product," explains Tobia.

However, there are a few overnight peels you can buy that are gentle enough to use at home. Zeichner recommends the Bliss That’s Incredi-Peel Spa-Strength Glycolic Resurfacing Pads ($24). They contain 10% glycolic acid, which he adds "can improve skin radiance, and there’s also data showing that he can help improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles."

Bliss Pads
Bliss That's Incredi-Peel Pads $24
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FAQ
  • What are dead skin cells?

    Your skin sloughs off dead cells naturally—your body is always shedding skin to replace. However, dead skin cells can build up on the surface, which can make your skin look dull and flaky.

  • How do you remove dead skin cells?

    Dead skin cells will shed naturally, but to speed up the process, experts recommend manual or chemical exfoliants.

  • What is exfoliation?

    Exfoliants remove dead skin cells. You can use a chemical exfoliant, which often takes the form of acids (like AHAs and BHAs), which are active ingredients found in many skincare products. Physical (or manual) exfoliation is another option using a srub, sponge, or another device.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
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  2. Thiele JJ, Ekanayake-Mudiyanselage S. Vitamin E in human skin: organ-specific physiology and considerations for its use in dermatology. Mol Aspects Med. 2007;28(5-6):646-667.

  3. Henke F. [Alternative skin care: fit and revitalized with the aid of dry brushing]. Pflege Z. 2000;53(2):95-96.

  4. Kapuścińska A, Nowak I. [Use of organic acids in acne and skin discolorations therapy]. Postepy Hig Med Dosw (Online). 2015;69:374-383.

  5. Sarkar R, Garg V, Bansal S, Sethi S, Gupta C. Comparative evaluation of efficacy and tolerability of glycolic acid, salicylic mandelic acid, and phytic acid combination peels in melasma. Dermatol Surg. 2016;42(3):384-391.

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