Simple Skincare Series: Yes, Your Skin Actually Exfoliates Itself

Hi! I'm Salmah and I am a passionate learner about how our skin really works, and what it really needs to be healthy, beautiful and glowing. The more I learn, the more I realize that our skin is amazingly complex and complicated, which is exactly why our skincare doesn't have to be! I share true beauty tips & knowledge on my Instagram, @kiselemental, and invite everyone to join me on my journey of gratitude, honor, mindfulness and love towards healthy glowing skin!

Why You Should Allow Your Skin To Exfoliate Itself

Apart from moisturizing itself, your skin is also able to exfoliate itself! It does so in a mechanism called desquamation, where dead skin cells are shed off through enzymatic action every single night as you sleep. Specific enzymes made in your skin dissolve away desmosomes that hold cells together, allowing them to be shed off, one dead skin cell at a time!


You probably are well aware of the 28-30 day skin renewal cycle, but the truth is your skin is renewing itself much more frequently than that. In fact, your epidermis makes new skin cells every day! A new skin cell takes up about 28-30 days to reach the surface of the skin, before it sheds off.

That skin cell goes through a complex and precisely-timed journey in those 28-30 days, changing its shape and function, releasing its lipids, and fortifying its cell walls. What's even more amazing–and beautiful–is that this process of change and function is also a process of precisely-timed and controlled cell death, referred to as apoptosis. By the time the skin cell reaches the top most layer of the epidermis, the stratum corneum, it is already considered 'dead'. But this doesn't mean that it is useless! These dead skin cells are called corneocytes, and play a crucial role in our skin's protective lipid barrier, and our skin's ability to hydrate itself. The stratum corneum, although essentially made up of technically dead skin cells, also houses many important enzymatic mechanisms that are important for the repair and maintenance of a strong and functional lipid barrier, which is crucial in preventing infection and retaining moisture within the skin.

But if the corneocytes are so useful, why are they eventually shed off? Our skin continues to renew itself in order to serve its protective function as efficiently as possible. Think of our skin as a high-tech armor that is strong and impermeable; yet soft, supple and incredibly flexible. The components that make up this armor need to be constantly working in high efficiency in order to maintain the above characteristics, and new cells are generally more efficient than older cells.

Furthermore, our skin takes a beating on a daily basis–every time we graze against something; or every time we cut, scrape or bruise ourselves; even micro-tears we do not see or feel are all handled effortlessly by the skin's constant renewal, without compromising its protective function.

So for every new skin cell that is made, a dead skin cell has to be shed in order to maintain the specific thickness of the skin that determines its optimal functioning. The process of cell renewal and desquamation are two mechanisms that occur parallel to each other, peaking at night as we sleep, and are precisely timed to go hand-in-hand. Therefore, for every skin cell that is shed, a new skin cell has to be made!

This is why skin exfoliation skincare products, tools, and treatments are so popular, on the basis that the more you exfoliate your skin, the more it has to renew itself, supposedly revealing fresh and more youthful looking skin. But as some might have experienced, doing this too often or too intensely can result in inflammation, redness, increased sensitivity, and over-all imbalance in the skin.

Removing too many layers of corneocyte cells, too often, can cause more harm than good. Apart from disrupting the skin's microbiome, acid mantle, and lipid barrier that exist in the top-most layers of the epidermis, the skin's self-moisturizing and self-hydrating mechanisms are also greatly impaired. This is because in order for our skin to optimally maintain hydration, optimal amounts of Natural Moisturizing Factors (NMFs) are required. Corneocyte cells make and hold optimal amounts of NMFs, but this is a process that takes time and maturation. When we actively remove the top layers of our dead skin cells, we are removing precious matured corneocyte cell and their NMFs as well. The younger, more immature corneocyte cells that are left do not contain sufficient amounts of NMFs, thus impairing the skin's ability to retain sufficient moisture within itself.

This lack of NMF's translates to dehydrated skin, and coupled with a damaged and disrupted skin microbiome, acid mantle, and lipid barrier ultimately leads to the other symptoms of redness, inflammation, sensitivity and more pimples. What's worse, the lack of hydration makes the skin unable to repair all this damage effectively and quick enough, leading to signs of over-stressed skin, or pre-maturely aging skin. This skin, being handicapped at all its basic functions and mechanisms, is then highly dependent on moisturizers, and skin repairing creams, serums and treatments.

On the other hand, when we allow our skin to exfoliate itself naturally, we ensure the health and optimal functions of all the mechanisms and functions that exist within the epridermis, namely the skin microbiome, the acid mantle, the lipid barrier, and of course the cell renewal process. When we trust in the intimate, intricate and truly high-tech knowledge that is our skin, we allow our skin to do its thing, of which only it knows best!

However, it is important that our skin and body are healthy for the process of desquamation (as well as all other processes in the skin) to take place optimally, proof of which is clear, radiant and beautiful skin! So apart from healthy eating and lifestyle, skincare products and routines also have a great impact on the health of your skin.

The process of desquamation, our skin's innate exfoliation mechanism, is highly complex and complicated and not yet completely understood by science. From what is currently known, a simplified explanation of this process looks like this diagram below.


Or even more simply...


What is important to understand here is:

  1. The desquamation process takes place hand-in-hand with the cell renewal process.

  2. The desquamation process is based on enzymatic action, where enzymes dissolve away the bonds that holds the dead skin cells together, allowing them to be shed off seamlessly, a cell at a time.

  3. This enzymatic action is highly dependent on optimal hydration levels and pH balance (of pH5.5) within the stratum corneum.

In order to allow for the our skin to optimally exfoliate and renew itself, we need to ensure that its hydrating (AKA self-moisturizing) abilities and its pH balance are intact as much as possible.

Which brings us back to the basics of independent, healthy and happy skin previously laid out in the article about how our skin moisturises itself!

SKINJessica DeFinoComment