How cell turnover works and how exfoliation improves it

“Cell Turnover” - a term that is often thrown around in the skin-care and beauty world. Today we would like to quickly explain what cell turnover is, why it is important for our skin and how exfoliation can improve it. We also wanted to dedicate a paragraph to over-exfoliation - how to recognize its signs and to treat it - and to the ingredients to look for in exfoliant.


Before getting into the “what it is” let’s quickly go over our skin composition.

The outermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum, consists of 15 layers of corneocytes - basically what we call “dead skin cells”. The very last fews layers get shed every day, usually at the same rate as newer and deeper layers get created: “Every day, one new generation of a cell layer in the millions replaces the other, 19,500,000 per square inch, materializing in the deeper stratum corneum and the old layer of corneocytes flake off the skin’s exterior. During a lifetime, this shedding phenomenon fills an area the size of about six football fields!”*

This delicate balance between deeper layers creation and outer layers shedding takes approximately 14 days in babies, 28 days in adults, and it slows down up to 40 days in people over the age of 50.


Beside being a natural and healthy process that naturally occurs in our body, aesthetically-wise the result of physiological cell turnover is simply what we call a “more youthful look” and a “luminous complexion”.

Having a cell turnover that is naturally slow, or that has slowed down due to UV ray damage, dehydrated or oily skin, winter cold injury, genetics, or skin disorders can lead to multiple unpleasant side effects.

First and foremost: signs of aging. This is because younger and healthier cells are still buried under older and grey-looking cells lying on the skin surface. Noticeable signs of an imbalanced cell turnover rhythm are wrinkles, sagging and thinning skin, lack of elasticity and tone.

Another very common sign of a slow or imbalanced cell turnover is acne. Sometimes dead cells, which should gradually get to the skin surface, get stuck in the pore or follicle together with sebum, dust and bacteria. This ultimately leads to pimples and clogged pores.

However slow cell turnover is often visually associated with dull and lackluster complexion, due to newer skin cells being covered under layers of dead ones.


If the bond between corneocytes of the outermost layers of stratum corneum cannot dissolve naturally, regular exfoliation will act as a breaking agent and boost your cell turnover.

The benefits of implementing a scrub or chemical exfoliation into your skin-care regimen are many, especially if you keep regularly exfoliating every month.

In fact, exfoliation aids with microcirculation which will then help produce healthier new skin cells. Exfoliation also stimulates collagen synthesis, which improves tone and texture of the skin. Granular exfoliation helps unclog pores, so that they can shrink and get visibly tighter and smaller.
In general, removing the outer layer of dead cells is like removing a film off of your skin: consequently, the skin-care products that you apply after exfoliating will work better, faster and will provide longer-lasting results.



Knowing this last mentioned benefit can lead to over-exfoliation. Some people may think that it only makes sense to exfoliate a little bit every day before applying other products. And why not scrubbing harder and with coarser grains to increase our chances or opening up the skin for the next product’s active ingredients?

Unfortunately, by going down this unhealthy practice,  there is a high risk of incurring in irritation, redness, inflamed skin, breakouts and increased sensitivity to other skin-care products that you have always used without them causing any discomfort. 

Another very insidious and notably “false-friend” sign of over-exfoliation is waxy skin. Waxy skin can sometimes pass for glossy skin; so imagine you are over-exfoliating every day for a week and by the seventh day you notice an opaque glow and your skin feels smooth. Basically what you are really seeing, is your skin being stripped down of all its protective and nourishing elements: the opaque glow is due to lack of ceramides and surface lipids, and the smoothness you feel is of the deeper layers of the stratum corneum, which you have prematurely exposed to air, therefore to bacteria, pollution and UV rays.

Recovering from over-exfoliation is pretty easy: first, resist the urge to scrub, and hide your exfoliators, of any kind (even the foamy ones, and yes, even retinol); wash the day and night off with a mild cleanser, and then apply a facial moisturizer for sensitive skin; lastly, use specific product on spots that might have gotten irritated and red with rich, hydrating and emollient products.


The ingredients that are used to create the exfoliator agents matters, not only in terms of efficiency, but also in terms of gentleness/roughness to your skin. Let’s look into some exfoliator agents that are often used in scrubs or chemical peelings.

Pumice stone, whether this be powdered or used in crystals, remains a very strong natural element to be used as a scrub ingredient. This allows for a microdermabrasion-like effect which buffs the skin and removes dullness and fine lines. Even pores appear tighter. Due to its abrasive effect, people with sensitive skin should go for scrubs with very fine or very diluted pumice stone powder.

People who suffer from sensitive skin might find their skin better appreciating chemical exfoliators, even though the “chemical” part of the term may sound dangerous. Contrary to this, the chemical exfoliators that you find on the market are usually very gentle; their stronger or milder effect depends on the active ingredient percentage.

For example, Lactic acid is often the first choice of those with a sensitive skin type. You don’t have to purchase a lactic acid-based exfoliator; look for skin-care products that list it amongst their ingredients.

Glycolic Acid, on the other hand, is much stronger than Lactic acid and is perfect for bringing to the skin surface deep congestions that cause clogged pores. For a more targeted action on acne-related problems, Salicylic acid is what you are looking for as it is able to dissolve into the skin’s naturally produced oils and penetrate deeper into the skin.

We talked more in depth about acids used in skin-care in this blog “Don't be afraid of acids! Three acids that your skin will love!”. Check it out for more information about how you can use acids in your skin-care routine.

Naturalia Sintesi’s products that can help you exfoliate your skin:

We hope we were able to provide you with useful information and tips about cell turnover and exfoliation. Stay tuned for more blogs on how we can improve, heal and perfect our skin in our everyday life.


*Quotation from Christine Heathman

Skin Exfoliation (


Naturalia Sintesi UK, combining Nature and Science for better results.