Exfoliation vs. Cell Turnover: Let's Break Down The Difference

mbg Associate Editor By Jamie Schneider
mbg Associate Editor
Jamie Schneider is the Associate Editor at mindbodygreen, covering beauty and health. She has a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan, and her work has appeared in Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
How to Get Glowing Skin

In skin care circles, we hear the term "cell turnover" a lot. Seriously: Check any product with active ingredients meant to buff and/or brighten the skin, and chances are you'll see cell turnover on its list of purported benefits. The phrase is typically used in tandem with exfoliators, as they offer similar (read: glowy) results. So much so that you might regard them as one and the same—but they actually do slightly different things for your skin. 

Since the two are frequently said in the same breath, this slight difference is easily misunderstood. So let's dive a bit deeper into the beauty lexicon: What does cell turnover really mean? 

Exfoliation vs. cell turnover.  

"Without getting too complicated, think of exfoliation as actively removing the top dead layer of skin," says board-certified dermatologist Flora Kim, M.D., FAAD. "While cell turnover relates to a skin cell's life or maturation journey from birth to death, as the cell moves further up and up until desquamation." Essentially: Exfoliating sheds the dead skin cells, but the turnover replaces them with ones that are younger and more spry. 

That's why exfoliants tend to provide more of an immediate glow, as they're dissolving the surface layer of excess dead skin right then and there. Whereas ingredients that promote cell turnover (like retinoids) optimize the skin cell life cycle and push fresh, baby cells up to the top—when this happens, those old cells do eventually slough off, but it does take a bit more time. And since cells are slower to respond to wound healing as you age, accelerating cell turnover can give your skin the boost it needs to help decrease hyperpigmentation and fine lines, as well as stimulate collagen production.  

Although, you should know that exfoliation and cell turnover aren't mutually exclusive: Many exfoliants (like AHAs and BHAs) simultaneously encourage cell turnover in addition to sloughing off dead skin cells; and, consequently, cell turnover does lead to dead skin shedding as younger cells are pushed up to the surface. However, some exfoliants may dissolve dead skin cells at the top, but they don't exactly promote cell turnover for living cells underneath—so the nuance is important to note. 

Take enzymes, for example: "Enzymes are great for sensitive skin since they work to break down the proteins found in dead skin cells but do not cause any cellular death or turnover like acids do," double-board certified surgeon and clinical director for Rory Melynda Barnes, M.D., told us about enzymes versus acids.

In other words, cell turnover can lead to exfoliation, but exfoliation doesn't always mean you're encouraging new skin cells up to the top.

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The takeaway. 

The difference between exfoliation and cell turnover may be slight, yet it's important to understand the details. Of course, it's nice to know your beauty vocab, but it's also helpful when picking out products—considering cell turnover and exfoliation are fundamentally different, you may be tempted to play with both in your skin care routine (which is technically possible, but we recommend proceeding with caution).

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