Are Dead Skin Cells More Valuable To Our Skin Barriers Than We Think?

It’s easy to see why acids and exfoliating products are so popular now.  Exfoliants can deliver instant gratification and results.  After just one application you can reveal skin that is baby soft and glowy.  But with the growing popularity there has also been a huge surge in using them too frequently resulting in over-exfoliated and compromised skin barriers.    


It’s a popular misconception that dead skin cells AKA corneocytes serve no purpose.  While it is true that corneocytes are non-living cells, they are more dynamic in their function. 


On the surface, layers of corneocytes are tightly bound together to form the outermost layer of skin (stratum corneum).  This acts as the barrier that prevents unwanted materials from entering the body as well as loss of moisture from the body.  It also helps aid in the withstanding of free radical attacks and other stressors.       

Additionally, corneocytes are where natural moisturizing factors (NMF) are formed.  NMF is the skin’s natural built-in moisturizer made up of humectants that draw in moisture from our environment and plays a vital role in skin hydration.  Adequate hydration helps to maintain optimal barrier function, allows the enzymes that need water to perform their important skin functions, and maintains the elasticity of skin.  This makes the skin appear healthy and supple. 

Dead skin cells not only help draw in atmospheric moisture but also help to prevent moisture from evaporating from inner layers of the skin.  The lipid layer surrounding the corneocytes helps to seal the corneocyte and together they prevent the loss of NMF and subsequent loss of hydration. 

Interestingly, keeping skin well hydrated also assists in the process of desquamation, the skins natural process of shedding dead skin cells.  This process takes about 14-28 days but can take longer as we age and can shed unevenly at times.   

Exfoliation through mechanical or chemical means speeds up the process, sloughing off dead skin cells before they would naturally shed.  If too many layers of dead skin cells are shed prematurely, deeper corneocytes are exposed that may not be fully matured enough to make a proper barrier.  It is also possible that we miss out on the hydration benefits as well as the added protection that extra layers of corneocytes offer by exfoliating too frequently or harshly.    

Over-exfoliation can also leave skin more vulnerable to harmful bacteria, imbalanced oil production, increased sensitivity, irritants, and environmental stressors such as uv exposure.  Over-cleansing and using harsh cleansers can have similar consequences.


1. Increased sensitivity, burning sensations
2. Redness, irritation, inflammation
3. Dryness or flaking skin
4. Small bumps on skin or increase in acne
5. Shiny, wax-like texture which can be confused for a healthy glow
6. Skin becomes unusually oily or unusually dry


Take a break from all exfoliating products and retinoids.  Use very gentle cleansers, preferably creamy or balm based cleansers.  Take a break from actives.  Your barrier is compromised at this time and does not have the ability to block potential irritants like healthy skin would.  For the same reason, avoid fragrance and focus on products with barrier replenishing ingredients as well as ingredients that help replace lost NMF like:

-Plant oils / fatty acids
-Hyaluronic Acid
-Cholesterol / phytosterols
-Vitamin E

The Clarity Oil is a super gentle formula, contains barrier replenishing ingredients and because of its unique liquid balm-like texture works as a better occlusive than other plant oils to help prevent moisture loss.    

It’s important to note that it can take anywhere from a week to as long as a month for skin to recover from over-exfoliation and having had a compromised barrier.  During this time it’s imperative to keep your routine simple and gentle and if irritation persists see a dermatologist.     


Unfortunately there isn’t a one size fits all approach.  There are certain skin types that benefit from more frequent exfoliation such as skin suffering from hyperkeratosis. 

As we age, cell-sloughing becomes more difficult so aiding the removal of build-up of dead and damaged cells can be helpful. 

Acne-prone and congested skin can benefit from the application of BHAs such as salicylic acid.  Though keep in mind, exfoliating too often can worsen acne.  Other skin types, like dry skin would benefit from exfoliating less frequently.

Many skin care companies recommend exfoliating 2-3 times per week or even daily.  For most people 1-2 times per week or for some people even 1-2 times per month will do the trick.  I personally like to focus on barrier replenishing products alongside retinol which I find to be exfoliating enough on its own.  The best thing to do is to take a gentler approach and err on the side of caution by:

-Using less often
-Using gentler formulas
-Building up slowly over time
-Paying close attention to how your skin looks and feels in between uses

You can also use exfoliants as spot treatments instead of whole face application or use exfoliants in wash off products for a milder approach.  

Whatever you do, remember the importance of preserving the integrity of your barrier to keep skin healthy.  


Articles referenced during writing:

Rawlings, A. V., & Harding, C. R. (2004). Moisturization and skin barrier function. Dermatologic Therapy, 17(s1), 43–48.

Egelrud, T. (2000). Desquamation in the Stratum Corneum. Acta Derm Venereol, 44–45.

Murphrey, M. B., Miao, J. H., & Zito, P. M. (2020, July). Histology, Stratum Corneum. StatPearls Publishing.

Le Lamer, M., Pellerin, L., Reynier, M., Cau, L., Pendaries, V., Leprince, C., Méchin, M., Serre, G., Paul, C., & Simon, M. (2015). Defects of corneocyte structural proteins and epidermal barrier in atopic dermatitis. Biological Chemistry, 396(11), 1163–1179.

Del Rosso, J. Q., & Levin, J. (2011). The Clinical Relevance of Maintaining the Functional Integrity of the Stratum Corneum in both Healthy and Disease-affected Skin. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 22–42.