What’s the Big Deal About Cell Turnover?
Your skin is amazing. It is the largest organ in your body, makes up about 15% of your total body weight, and is a host to millions of bacteria that are part of your body’s microbiota.
The most obvious function of your skin is, of course, to protect your organs from outside elements, such as harmful UV rays from the sun and from physical trauma. But your skin serves other important functions, as well.
Thanks to your skin, you can sense all kinds of physical stimuli, maintain a regular body temperature, and even create vitamin D. In addition, your skin produces the color and texture that give you a unique appearance.
Your genetics, diet, exercise, and personal habits are imprinted in the appearance of your skin. While this may be good news for some, for those of us who like to bask in the sun, indulge in sweets, and try to get by on a few hours of sleep, this may not be a welcome thought.
Thankfully, your skin is a miraculous organ that renews itself about every month. This process is referred to as skin cell turnover and happens without you having to really do anything.
However, it is possible to speed up the process to get skin that is even more fresh, dewy, and smooth. Before getting into the several ways you can increase cell turnover, let’s dive into your skin’s anatomy to understand how this process occurs in the first place.
The Structure of the Skin
Your skin is made up of three primary layers: the subcutis, the dermis, and the epidermis.
The subcutis is the deepest layer of the skin. It is the skin’s “fatty” layer and is mostly made up of lipids, connective tissue, and large blood vessels and nerves. This part of the skin can serve as a cushion, which helps to prevent your body from physical injury.
Due to its high fat content, this layer gives your skin it’s supple look. Of course, the amount of fat located in this layer depends on where it is located. The backs of your hands have a very thin subcutis, whereas the soles of your feet have a relatively thick one.
The dermis is the middle layer of the skin and contains hair follicles and oil glands, in addition to sweat glands, blood vessels, and nerve endings. This layer of the skin is actually the thickest.
The dermis contains specialized cells called fibroblasts, which produce collagen and elastin, the two proteins that make your skin resilient and elastic. As such, this layer of the skin gives your body the structure it needs to hold its shape.
This is the uppermost layer of the skin and probably the one we’re most interested in.
This layer is made up of cells that produce keratin, a protein that also makes up your hair and nails. When new cells are produced at the bottom of the epidermis, they get pushed up and replace the older skin cells at the surface.
Once cells reach the top layer, they are rough, dry, and flaky — essentially what we refer to as “dead” skin cells. This is what we refer to as cell turnover.
This process occurs throughout the entire body (not just the face) and lasts, on average, about a month.
So, What’s the Big Deal?
Now that you know the science behind cell turnover, you might be wondering why it’s so important to know about it. It is an automatic process, after all.
While you don’t really have to do anything for your skin to go through the process of cell turnover, our cell turnover rate changes throughout our life.
Babies have the fastest cell turnover rates because they’re growing quickly. For this reason, infants that get injured aren’t left with scars on their bodies and tend to have bright, soft skin.
However, as we age, our skin cell turnover rate tends to decrease. It is for this reason that we notice that our skin isn’t as soft and bright as it used to be.
In addition, for those with certain skin conditions, skin cell turnover isn’t as efficient. For example, people with acne produce more dead skin cells than is typical, which don’t get properly shed.
An excess of dead skin cells can prevent oil from leaving the pores, which can lead to an accumulation of sebum in the pore. This can also lead to blemishes.
There are several other reasons your skin’s turnover rate might be impaired. It is important to understand how your skin functions so that you can understand the reasons why your skin might look dull or flaky, or why you tend to break out.
How to Speed Up Cell Turnover
Exfoliation works by removing the dead skin cells on top of your skin. When you exfoliate your skin, your body creates new cells to compensate. Exfoliation can be either physical or chemical.
Physical exfoliation is probably the most common and approachable method. It usually involves the use of some physical abrasive, such as a salt or sugar scrub, a dry brush, or even a microdermabrasion tool.
This can be quick, efficient, and if done right, cause little risk of irritation. However, physical exfoliation is definitely not recommended for those with acne as it can irritate the blemishes and make them worse.
In addition, it is possible to do damage with a physical scrub if applied too harshly, so make sure to be gentle when scrubbing or dry-brushing your skin.
Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, sounds a little intimidating. It does involve the use of chemicals, after all, which work by dissolving the top layer of your skin that contains dead skin cells. However, it doesn’t need to be scary! You have probably tried chemical exfoliation without even knowing it.
For example, salicylic acid, which is found in most acne face and body washes, is considered to be a chemical exfoliant. Other well-known chemical exfoliants include lactic acid and glycolic acid, which can be very gentle if used in low-strength serums and creams.
For best and most dramatic results, it is best to get chemical exfoliation done with a professional dermatologist or esthetician.
Topical Vitamin A
This ingredient is otherwise known as retinol and is considered the golden standard in increasing cell turnover. The product’s main ingredient, vitamin A, penetrates deep into skin cells and signals to your cells to produce at a faster rate.
When cell turnover is increased, pores are less likely to be clogged, which is why this product is so highly recommended for those with clogged pores and blemishes. As an added bonus, topical vitamin A has been shown to increase collagen production, which decreases wrinkling and improves skin elasticity.
Promoting the Skin’s Health
In addition to getting rid of dead skin cells and stimulating new cell production, another thing you can do to increase your cell turnover rate is to nourish your skin with ingredients proven to restore your skin’s health. When your skin receives the proper amount of proteins, antioxidants, and growth factors, it can function as it was meant to and do the job of cell turnover all on its own.
It’s especially important to maintain your skin’s health if using products that can make your skin more sensitive, which is what exfoliators and vitamin A have been shown to do.
Even if you are achieving amazing results with the above methods, make sure that your skin receives the nutrients that it needs to continually repair itself. And of course, always wear SPF protection to prevent further damage!
In sum, skin cell turnover is the process through which your skin creates new cells to replace older ones. Because your skin is exposed to UV radiation, harsh weather, all kinds of skin conditions, and even physical injuries, increasing skin cell turnover is very important.
Using a physical or chemical exfoliator or a topical vitamin A product can give you skin that is more clear, supple, and radiant.