Exfoliation and Desquamation of Skin

The key to glowing skin is desquamation and exfoliation of the epidermis. Exfoliation and desquamation of skin occur when cells from the top outer layer of the skin known as the stratum corneum is removed.

Layers of the Epidermis:

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Here is a visual of the desquamation process in the epidermis removing pigmented skin cells from the skin in the natural keratinization process. (The large cell is a melanocyte)

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Removing cells from the outermost layer of the epidermis (known as the stratum corneum ) triggers stem cells in the basal layer to begin dividing and making new cells. Normal desquamation is necessary to keep skin smooth, radiant and glowing.  Dehydrated skin has impaired exfoliation. Exfoliators can be used to speed up the desquamation of the skin, but overuse of exfoliators can cause skin dehydration and inflammation.  It is important to follow a balanced dermatologist-recommended skincare routine that is customized for your skin type needs so that your skin desquamation process is maximized but you do not over-exfoliate.

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What is the Difference Between Exfoliation and Desquamation?

Exfoliation and desquamation both result in the same endpoint- the removal of cells from the outermost layer of the stratum corneum of the epidermis.  The difference in desquamation and exfoliation is how the outermost dead layer of SC skin cells is removed. Desquamation is a natural process while exfoliation depends upon the use of exfoliators. To understand the difference between exfoliation and desquamation, you must also learn the definition of keratinization.

Definition of Keratinization

The meaning of keratinization is the process of skin cells being “born” from stem cells in the basal layer of the epidermis and maturing and moving up to the top layer of the skin known as the stratum corneum. The word comes from the skin protein keratin that is made by the epidermal skin cells (called keratinocytes). Keratin is a structural protein found in skin, hair and nails that provides strength. Different layers of the skin make different types of keratin. The word keratinization comes from the fact that as the keratinocyte skin cells mature, the type of keratin they make changes. 

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Definition of Desquamation

“Squam” means “skin cell” and comes from the Latin word “squama” meaning “the scale of the fish” (because scaly skin looks like fish skin). Desquamate is the word used to describe when cells flake or scale off of the skin. Desquamation is the naturally occurring process when the attachments between skin cells that hold them together are dissolved by enzymes. This loosens the attachments between skin cells and allows them to “desquamate” into the environment. Desquamation is a natural unaided process.

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Definition of Exfoliation

Exfoliation is when exfoliators are used to enhance desquamation. To understand the difference between exfoliation and desquamation click here.  Exfoliators such as scrubs, hydroxyacids, microdermabrasion and facial brushes help loosen cell attachments to speed the desquamation process.

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Is Too Much Exfoliation Bad for the Skin? Can you Exfoliate Too Much?

We are often asked, “What is the meaning of over-exfoliation?” If you read above, you know that exfoliation is when agents such as scrubs, retinoids, hydroxyacids, peels and microdermabrasion are used to loosen attachments between cells. This smooths the surface of the skin making the skin glow. Too much exfoliation leaves the skin weaker and unprotected because too many of the cell attachments have been loosened or removed. Too much exfoliation decreases the skin’s protection and can lead to acne, skin bumps, and skin sensitivity.

If too much exfoliation is used, too many of the cellular attachments between cells are loosened.  This decreases the skin’s protective abilities. When you over-exfoliate skin, the skin is injured due to increased entry of allergen, microbes and irritants that can slide between skin cells into the skin. Too much exfoliation leads to inflammation and interruption of keratinization. This is why acne can occur after too much exfoliation. Inflammation can speed aging and cause an uneven skin tone and should be avoided.

IMPORTANT SKIN TIP: Too much exfoliation can lead to acne, sensitive skin, uneven skin tone and increased aging.

Signs of Over-Exfoliation of the Skin 

Skin is over-exfoliated if you are using a type of exfoliator and you experience pink areas with scales, stinging, skin sensitivity to touch and unexplained acne break out after exfoliating. If you have acne, you should avoid mechanical exfoliation such as scrubs which tend to cause breakouts and make it more likely that you will become irritated from your acne medications  (If you have acne, retinoids will give you exfoliation as will hydroxy acids and salicylic acids that are used to treat acne. You do not need a scrub if you have acne). Over-exfoliated skin in acne patients is very common because patients often feel that acne is caused by unclean skin and they think exfoliating will help acne.  This is why you need to know your Baumann Skin Type® before you buy any skincare products (especially exfoliators) because it is very easy to over-exfoliate dry sensitive skin.


Controlling exfoliation with skincare products can give you glowing healthy skin, but you need to make sure you are using the correct skincare routine steps for your Baumann Skin Type.

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