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Flaky, dead skin on your face isn’t just uncomfortable, it can also get in the way of skincare and makeup application.
If you’re trying to address the issue but layers keep sloughing off with no end in sight, here are some practical ways to get rid of excess dead skin on your face.
Why do I have dead skin on my face?
Pretty much everyone deals with dry, dead, or peeling skin at some point in life. Some people have drier skin than others, which can get worse with weather changes or drops in humidity. Dry, flaky skin may also be worse during certain seasons (Proksch, 2020).
Our skin produces its own moisturizer, a substance called sebum. Anything that changes how much sebum is produced can affect skin texture. For instance, less sebum usually means drier skin, and excess sebum results in oilier skin.
The good news is, many cases of dry skin are temporary. You may have switched to a skincare product that’s causing dryness. Retinoids, such as tretinoin (see Important Safety Information), trigger a transition period (called skin purging) that can last several weeks. While adjusting to these ingredients, you might notice more dead skin on your face than usual (Leyden, 2017).
Sebum production can be thrown off by changes in the environment and hormones. Health conditions like atopic dermatitis (a type of eczema) may also cause excessive skin peeling (Prakash, 2017).
How to get rid of dead skin on your face
Before you start stripping off any dead skin on your face, it’s good to know the cause. If skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis are the source of dryness and peeling, strong skincare treatments can worsen symptoms.
For regular old dead skin, you have two options for removal: chemical or mechanical exfoliation. Let’s take a look at each type.
If you garnered from the name, this type of exfoliation uses chemicals to remove dull, dry skin. Chemical exfoliators utilize ingredients called hydroxy acids to get rid of the dead skin cells. Examples of hydroxy acids in chemical exfoliation products include alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs) (such as glycolic acid and lactic acid).
Acids like AHAs work by increasing cell turnover, which encourages dead skin cells to shed revealing brighter, younger-looking skin beneath. How effective a product is depends on the concentration. You also don’t always need to go with higher concentration to see results. Harsher products can actually do more harm than good, like making skin more sensitive to UV light (Tang, 2018).
Although you’ll find products on the market with acid concentrations of 5–10%, you’ll still see results using a milder 1–2% solution (Edison, 2021).
How to exfoliate your face safely
If you have sensitive skin or want to try a non-chemical tactic, mechanical exfoliation is another option. Mechanical exfoliation involves using a tool––like a loofah, skin brush, or sugar scrub––to remove dead skin. If you’ve ever used a washcloth to scrub your skin in the shower, that’s a type of mechanical exfoliation.
Another type is microbeads, which are added to many cleansers and exfoliating scrubs to clean and smooth skin at the same time. But be mindful of what products you buy––microbeads are plastics that commonly end up in oceans, lakes, and rivers and are harmful to marine life. There are products with nature-friendly exfoliants too.
Mechanical exfoliators essentially all do the same thing, but a tool’s texture can help you determine how strong the experience will be. For example, a dry brush has large, stiff bristles and will be harsher than a gentle exfoliating powder.
Does skin type matter?
The perk of exfoliating according to your skin type is it can save you from irritation. Whether you have dry, combination, or oily skin, everyone has dead skin on their face so the most significant factor in your exfoliating routine will be if you have regular or sensitive skin.
Those with sensitive skin should seek products with a lower concentration of AHAs or a very fine exfoliating powder. Be sure to check the label of any product you use for other ingredients that may cause irritation.
Normal type skin isn’t really dry or oily, so you may not need to exfoliate as often. Those with combination skin or who are prone to dry patches on their face may need to exfoliate more often. If you’re not sure what bucket you fall into, you can perform an at-home skin type test or seek advice from a dermatologist.
Dry patches on skin: common causes, diagnosis, treatments
How to treat dry skin on the face
To get the best results, here are some tips when exfoliating:
- Consider skin type. To avoid damaging or irritating your skin, choose an exfoliant based on your skin type.
- Choose products carefully. Certain skincare ingredients (like retinoids) are known to cause skin sensitivity that can worsen with exfoliation.
- Start slow. You can always increase how often you exfoliate. Start slow with milder methods to boost your skin health without causing irritation.
- Skip the session if you’re sunburnt. Exfoliating a sunburn will cause more irritation and may cause further damage.
- Avoid areas with acne. Exfoliating over acne isn’t only painful but is a recipe for more redness and irritation.
- Plan around big events. Even gently removing dead skin can cause redness, so you may not want to exfoliate the night before or the morning of a big event.
- Be gentle with your skin. When exfoliating, use smooth, circular motions, and don’t apply too much pressure. This applies to both chemical and manual exfoliation methods.
- Make aftercare a priority. Apply moisturizer after exfoliating to make sure your skin stays hydrated. It’s also important to wear sunscreen outdoors; many chemical exfoliant ingredients make skin more sensitive to UV light (Tang, 2018; Kornhauser, 2009).
Get advice before starting an exfoliating routine if you have health conditions that affect the face like cold sores, eczema, or psoriasis.
What is eczema? The causes, symptoms, and treatments explained
What to avoid while exfoliating
The goal while exfoliating is to remove dead skin without irritating new skin below. Exfoliating too often is an easy way to cause irritation.
If you struggle with dead skin on your face, start with a gentle exfoliation routine twice a week. Once your skin gets accustomed and it doesn’t cause irritation, you can increase the frequency and intensity if needed.
- Edison, B. L., Smith, H. A., Green, B. A., et al. (2021). 27887 Skin exfoliation with low concentrations of alpha-hydroxy acids and polyhydroxy acids when incorporated into wash-off or leave-on products using a novel abbreviated model to measure cell turnover rate. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 85(3), AB165. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2021.06.675. Retrieved from https://www.jaad.org/article/S0190-9622(21)01779-5/fulltext
- Farage, M. A. (2019). The prevalence of sensitive skin. Frontiers in Medicine, 6. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00098. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmed.2019.00098/full
- Kornhauser, A., Wei, R. R., Yamaguchi, Y., et al. (2009). The effects of topically applied glycolic acid and salicylic acid on ultraviolet radiation-induced erythema, DNA damage and sunburn cell formation in human skin. Journal of Dermatological Science, 55(1), 10–17. doi:10.1016/j.jdermsci.2009.03.011. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2791365/
- Leyden, J., Stein-Gold, L., & Weiss, J. (2017). Why Topical Retinoids Are Mainstay of Therapy for Acne. Dermatology and Therapy, 7(3), 293–304. doi:10.1007/s13555-017-0185-2. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28585191/
- Prakash, C., Bhargava, P., Tiwari, S., et al. (2017). Skin Surface pH in Acne Vulgaris: Insights from an Observational Study and Review of the Literature. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, 10(7), 33–39. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5605222/
- Proksch, E., Berardesca, E., Misery, L., et al. (2020). Dry skin management: practical approach in light of latest research on skin structure and function. The Journal of Dermatological Treatment, 31(7), 716–722. doi:10.1080/09546634.2019.1607024. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30998081/
- Tang, S. C. & Yang, J. H. (2018). Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 23(4), 863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6017965/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.