Exfoliation Nation – Can you peel too much?

SMG Writes…I am a scientist, and would like to know the truth about the face creams that say they are rejuvenating because they remove dead cells and stimulate the new cell layers underneath to divide. This sounds downright dangerous- I was taught that skin cells only have a finite number of divisions they can undergo (natural aging) so if you use them up sooner – does this mean no skin for the last 20 years of your life? And stimulating cells to divide is one step in making cells into cancer cells. Aren’t dermatologists concerned?

Left Brian’s Exfoliating Elucidation

SMG, you raise some interesting questions. It took a lot of time scouring the scientific journals but we’ve finally found some answers.

First, face creams that say they are rejuvenating don’t really have to do anything. Rejuvenating is one of those words that don’t really mean anything but sound like they do. A lot like hypoallergenic. See this post on cosmetic claims for more on these kinds of claims. And you remove dead cells just by rubbing and washing your face. Any facial wash will remove dead cells.

Cosmetic Claims

The claim of “stimulating new cells underneath to divide” is a bit different. If you look at the claims from products like St. Ives Apricot Scrub or Aveeno Skin Brightening Daily Scrub, they never mention anything about stimulating new cell growth. In fact, a search at drugstore.com of at least 30 exfoliating products showed that none of them actually claimed to stimulate growth of cell layers underneath. This is an implied claim but not one that anyone is actually making. And for good reason because if they did, the product would be considered a drug and would be subject to FDA regulations (at least in the United States). Mass market products don`t like these kinds of regulations.

Exfoliating products like St. Ives contain little pieces of walnut shells (or some other particle) that create extra physical abrasion on the skin and pull away the superficial top layer. No need to worry about these. I even rather enjoy using these every so often. They really dazzle my dendrites.

Chemical Peels

The types of products that can actually affect the growth of cells underneath are chemical peels. These products have ingredients in them that actually take off the top layer of skin. Actually, they take off a little more than just the top layer. Ouch.

Since dermatologists are the ones prescribing chemical peels for exfoliation, it doesn’t seem like they are too concerned. And if the “experts” believe it can be done in a safe way, who is this brain to say different. Although, note that they do a procedure under controlled conditions. When you buy an over the counter product, things like dosage and application aren’t as controlled.

There are three types of chemical peel available including Alpha hydroxyl acid (AHA), Trichloracetic acid (TCA), and Phenol peels. Of these, AHAs are the mildest and also the only ones you can get in your local grocery or drug store. These AHA products have been around for a while and although the FDA has warned people that they might cause sensitivity to sun exposure, there haven’t been many problems reported beyond minor irritation. Look at this article if you would like to know more about chemical peels.

As to your question about using up your skin cells. While it is true that skin cells have a limited number of times they will divide, it is also true that you have within yourself adult stem cells that will create new skin cells. That ensures that no matter how old you get, you will always have some skin.

Beauty Brain’s Bottom line:

Chemical peels that remove skin cells and stimulate new growth are not dangerous but they can be irritating and should not be used too frequently. If you are using a product that contains AHAs, use it sparingly and watch your skin for signs of damage. If you see any, stop using it and accept your wrinkled body wrapper. We’re all going to get old someday.

And SMG, congratulations on your pursuit of a science career. The world definitely needs more scientists.