Understanding the Skin Cell Cycle for the Acne-Prone


The skin is our bodies’ largest organ, so naturally it needs a lot of upkeep to make sure it stays healthy and functioning properly. Luckily, our bodies have a built-in system to do just that: replacing new cells with the old on a regular cycle, to keep skin looking smooth and healthy. But what happens if you suffer from a skin condition, like acne? The good news is, there are things you can do to help keep a healthy skin cell cycle going. All you need is a little patience. And maybe some retinol.

What Exactly is the Skin Cell Cycle?

It’s the process in which new, healthy cells replace the dead ones after a certain period of time. Essentially, new cells are formed in the deep layers of the epidermis where they start to make their journey to the skin’s surface. By the time they get there, they’re considered completely matured and will flake off, beginning the cycle all over again with new cells1.

What’s a typical cycle length? Generally speaking, it takes about 40-56 days for the cell to make its way through the life cycle2. However, the actual length of time it takes depends on a variety of different factors, like age, hormones, stress levels and skin conditions, like acne.

How is the Skin Cycle Different for Those With Acne-Prone Skin?

Acne develops when there is a buildup of dead skin cells and sebum (the natural oil our bodies produce) inside the hair follicles. When bacteria appears as a result, it can lead to inflamed or cystic acne.

With regular functioning skin, the cycle works quite fluidly, sloughing off the dead skin cells naturally. Unfortunately, those with acne-prone skin produce more dead skin cells on average and they don’t get properly shed. The cells instead, get stuck on the skin’s surface and inside the follicle creating a clog. And we all know what happens next. Plus, the whole cycle itself tends to take longer for the acne-prone, making it all the more difficult to maintain clear skin3.

Can You Speed Up Your Skin Cycle to Help Clear Acne?

In short yes, there are a few things you can do to help get those cells to turnover quicker. Just know that results won’t happen overnight. To treat any skincare issue right, you have to be patient and diligent with your routine to see real results.

Exfoliate away: Gently exfoliating is a great way to help your skin get rid of the stubborn dead cells. Just keep it gentle, the last thing you want to do is harm your skin further and cause more irritation4.

Practice good skincare: Choose a powerful enough cleanser to really get in there and wash the day away. Just make sure your cleanser is mild and hydrating versus drying. Remember, the more you strip the skin of oil, the more it wants to produce.

Get some outside help: Retinol may work wonders as an anti-aging ingredient, but when it comes to treating acne and kicking up the skin cycle, it’s the gold standard. Why? Because it acts faster than most other products on the market.

How Does Retinol Help Accelerate the Skin Cycle?

The greatest benefit of retinol is its ability to slough off dead skin cells with the greatest of ease. This prevents pores from getting clogged, which prevents breakouts. Thus helping break the vicious cycle in the acne-prone skin cell cycle. To top it off, it also helps decrease excess oil production, attack inflammation, and smooth acne-scarring5.

How Do You Fit Retinol into Your Skincare Routine?

  1. Start small and slow: Give it a go with a small amount every other day to see how your skin feels about it. Spread it all over your face, just avoid the lip and eye area.
  2. Stay moisturized: It may sound counter to what you’ve heard about acne-prone skin, but because retinol can be drying, it’s a good idea to keep a good moisturizer handy. You’ll want to look for one that is oil-free and non-comedogenic, so it’ll hydrate without clogging your pores.
  3. Watch the sun: Retinols can make skin more sensitive to the sun’s rays6 so be sure to wear a good SPF, and maybe even a hat, as your skin heals.

When it comes to caring for your skin, whether you suffer from a condition or not, understanding how it functions is the key to maintaining it in good health. If you think retinol might be a viable option for you, speak with a dermatologist to get a proper assessment.


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  3. Antimicrobial production by perifollicular dermal preadipocytes is essential to the pathophysiology of acne.O'Neill AM, Liggins MC, Seidman JS, Do TH, Li F, Cavagnero KJ, Dokoshi T, Cheng JY, Shafiq F, Hata TR, Gudjonsson JE, Modlin RL, Gallo RL. Sci Transl Med. 2022 Feb 16;14(632):eabh1478. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.abh1478. Epub 2022 Feb 16. PMID: 35171653. Retrieved from:
  4. Goldsbury, L. (2011). Skincare: Exfoliation: Scratching the surface. PS Post Script, (Mar 2011), 44–46.
  5. Chovatiya R. Acne Treatment. JAMA.2021;326(20):2087. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.16599. Retrieved from:
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