Cell turnover is the continuous process of shedding dead skin cells and subsequently replacing them with younger cells.
This process is the holy grail of healthy skin because the process makes skin firmer and gets rid of fine lines and wrinkles more quickly. If you don’t work on cellular turnover, you get a buildup, and it’s like a traffic jam at the surface of the skin. That stagnation can lead to issues such as acne, hyperpigmentation, milia, and uneven texture.
In order to understand why this cell turnover is critical to dealing with these issues—and to overall skin health, in general—let’s kick it back to high-school biology and break things down a bit further. Every cell in your body has a life cycle, and in the case of adult skin cells, that cycle lasts about 28 days. (It slows down when you get older, but more on that later). New skin cells are born in the deepest layer of your dermis, called the basal layer. As they mature, they move through the epidermis toward the skin’s surface. At some point during this process, they lose their nuclei, which means they’re no longer active, living cells. They become a thickened layer of dead cells, and over time, they slough off.
When these old cells fall off, the new ones rise to the surface to take their place. As the top guy at the surface dies off, it makes space for the plump guy at the bottom to say ‘my turn,’ and replace him at the top. And when those plump baby skin cells gets to the top, it’s goodbye to dull skin and hello to a healthy, radiant complexion.
While your skin can handle the cell turnover process just fine on its own–eventually, the new skin cells will push up on their own and the old ones will fall off—there are certain things you can do to make it happen more quickly. This is where exfoliation comes in. Your skin is going to go through cell turnover whether you exfoliate or not, but what ends up happening is the cells are detached from the skin and start to pile up on top of each other. But unlike a snake shedding its skin, we don’t just crawl out and leave a big long peel behind.
You can help your skin “shed” more quickly with either with chemical or mechanical exfoliants, which get the job done in different ways. If you disturb the process, cellular turnover gets encouraged. Chemical exfoliants such as AHA’s interact with the bonds between the dead cells and the skin, which helps loosen the cells and encourges them to fall off. Mechanical exfoliants (think: scrubs) rub the top layer of skin hard enough to physically remove the dead skin cells. In both cases, those dewy new cells will come out on top.
The real gold-standard ingredient for cell turnover, though, is retinol. Retinol puts the whole process on fast-forward. It makes the progression of the cells through the skin and the sloughing of the top layer happen a little bit faster. Cell turnover slows down as you get older, which contributes to changes that we see in aging skin. This is why so many skin experts recommend putting a high quality retinol into your routine from your 20s.
And aging isn’t all they can help with. Retinol is highly recommended for acneic skin, because a lot of what’s clogging pores—and creating pimples—are those dead skin cells hanging out on the on the surface of your skin. When you make cell turnover happen a little faster, it opens those pores.
Our favourite treatments for increasing cellular turnover are Hydra Facial MD, Timeless Retinol Peel or 6% PCA Retinol Peel.
At home retinols we highly recommend are Aspect doctor Exfola A, Refine or PCA Ageing Refining. Ask your Mooi Skin therapist for more information on what best suits your skin.