Skincare junkies, you can relax: we’re not about to add another product to your complicated routine. In case you don’t know already, keratolytic agents are some of the most common skincare ingredients. They address everything from pimples to age spots, in oily and dry skin alike.
So do you need a keratolytic agent in your skincare routine? The short answer is yes, says our founder, Sandra Lee, MD (aka Dr. Pimple Popper). To learn exactly what that means, read on.
Article Quick Links
- 01.What is a keratolytic?
- 02.How do keratolytics work?
- 03.What do keratolytic agents do for your skin?
- 04.Which keratolytics should you use in your skincare routine?
What is a keratolytic?
For simplicity’s sake, most dermatologists typically refer to any agents that loosen the bonds holding dead skin cells together as a keratolytics. This includes common active ingredients like:
- Alpha hydroxy acids
- Beta hydroxy acid
We’re not going to get too scientific here, but those “bonds” — technically called desmosomes — aren’t actually made of keratin. Some of the ingredients typically referred to as keratolytics actually do soften keratin, while others work primarily by weakening the desmosomes. Either way, you end up with less keratin.
How do keratolytics work?
Technicalities aside, it’s helpful here to think of keratolytics mainly as acting to eliminate corneocytes (your outer skin cells), which ends up decreasing the amount of keratin (the protein inside them). Keratolytics work in a variety of ways, making them well-suited to treat a number of skin concerns. Highlights include:
- Softening keratin and/or other structural proteins
- Disrupting the bonds between corneocytes
- Breaking down intercellular lipids
- Stimulating cell turnover
- Increasing the amount of moisture in the skin
- Reducing swelling and redness
What do keratolytic agents do for your skin?
Now that you know how they work, let’s go over the benefits keratolytics have for your skin. These ingredients are commonly hyped by derms and skincare professionals alike, and with good reason: they’re versatile — addressing concerns from acne to keratosis pilaris to aging — and they’re readily available over the counter.
Though each keratolytic agent has its own unique properties, general skin benefits of these ingredients include:
- Loosening dry, scaly, or thickened skin
- Exfoliating outer layers
- Unclogging pores
- Improving skin’s natural hydration/moisture content
- Evening skin tone
- Minimizing fine lines
- Reducing hyperpigmentation
- Curbing the production of excess skin cells
Which keratolytics should you use in your skincare routine?
If you’re into skincare, chances are, you’re already using a keratolytic in your routine. Here’s a roundup of Dr. Lee’s favorite keratolytic agents, and where to find them in her SLMD line:
- Salicylic acid: a top choice for treating acne and/or clogged pores, since it’s oil soluble and can penetrate into trapped oil and dead skin. Try: Salicylic Acid Cleanser, Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment, Spot Check.
- Benzoyl peroxide: kills acne-causing bacteria while also having a keratolytic effect to diminish pore-clogging dead skin. Try: BP Lotion, BP Acne Spot Treatment, BP Body Wash.
- Sulfur: a natural mineral that inhibits C. acnes bacteria while also gently sloughing away dull skin. Try: Sulfur Lotion, Clear Out Purifying Treatment Mask.
- Retinol: works at the cellular level to support cell turnover, minimizing skin cell buildup and evening skin tone appearance. Try: Retinol Serum.
- Glycolic acid: ideal for dull skin and managing dry, rough skin (including keratosis pilaris) because it exfoliates and increases hydrating factors. Try: AHA/BHA Swipes, Glycolic Acid Body Scrub.
- Lactic acid: a gentle yet effective alpha hydroxy acid that works for both dry skin and signs of aging. Try: Body Smoothing System.
- Urea: Helps increase hydration while softening and smoothing skin. Try: All Bright Niacinamide Toner.
How do dermatologists use keratolytics?
Dermatologists recommend keratolytics to treat and manage a host of common and clinical skin concerns, like:
- Keratosis pilaris
- Premature aging
- Seborrheic dermatitis
Dr. Lee's Last Word
Keratolytic agents work to help speed up the shedding of dead cells that build up on the surface of your skin. I recommend using ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and retinol because they work for a variety of skin concerns, like acne, keratosis pilaris, and signs of aging.