Here’s Why Your ‘Skin Barrier’ *Actually* Matters
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If, like me, you bought into the recent trends of over-exfoliation and layering active ingredients in recent years, then chances are you’ve already had to learn the hard way exactly what the skin barrier is and why it’s so important.
It’s true that acids, retinoids, and at-home peels are amazing ways to target concerns like dull skin, uneven texture, and hyperpigmentation, but go too far (and, as both an aesthetician and a beauty editor, even I have fallen foul of this) and you’ll be faced with some pretty unpleasant side effects.
Increased redness, sensitivity, irritation, dryness, and tight dehydrated skin are all signs that you’ve overdone it with your skincare and that your skin barrier is damaged, and the change of season is typically a time when many of us suffer with this.
And this issue doesn’t discriminate by skin type. Even if you have acne-prone or oily skin, you may notice dryness, flaking or more breakouts than normal.
Sound familiar? Don’t worry, we’ve got all the info you need to be able to figure out how to repair your skin barrier and prevent damage from reoccurring. But first, with the help of dermatologist Sonia Khorana and esthetician Katie Onyejekwe, let’s get the lowdown on exactly what the skin barrier is.
What is the skin barrier?
“Our skin is made of up layers, each of which performs significant functions in protecting our body,” explains Khorana. “The outermost layer is called the stratum corneum – it’s the layer that is in contact with the outside world, hence why it’s referred to as a barrier.”
The skin barrier essentially protects your body from the outside environment. It prevents the good things (like moisture) from escaping while defending the body from aggressors (such as irritants or bacteria).
“The skin barrier is made up of old hardened skin cells that act as a shield, and around those cells is a combination of lipids (ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids) binding them together,” adds Onyejekwe.
“Think of your cells as bricks and the lipids like cement, creating a wall to keep the bad stuff out and good stuff in.”
Reasons why the skin barrier is important
- It protects your body from environmental stressors, like pollution and UV radiation
- It helps regulate water loss to maintain hydration and water content
- It protects against bacteria, infections, or irritants
- It reduces skin sensitivity, meaning skin is better able to deal with active ingredients
What are the signs of a damaged skin barrier?
For me, the first red flag that my skin barrier is damaged is that I start to experience redness and tingling after using certain products. The culprits are usually those with active ingredients like retinoids or vitamin C.
Other signs that your skin barrier is compromised include skin feeling tight or dry after cleansing, an increase in overall redness and sensitivity, and patches of dry, rough skin. You may also see some breakouts.
Onyejekwe identifies a damaged skin barrier in her clients with skin that looks visibly sore and that struggles to retain water. “People also tend to find that products they’ve gotten along fine with previously have started to cause a stinging, burning sensation,” she adds.
If your barrier is more seriously damaged, you could even develop conditions like eczema, rosacea, acne, and even perioral dermatitis – with symptoms including a sore red rash around your nose and mouth.
Common culprits that can affect the skin barrier
Both Khorana and Onyejekwe point towards an over-use of skincare as the reason behind an increase in their clients presenting with compromised skin barriers and sensitive skin.
“We’ve seen lots of new products and devices being launched on the market and people are using cleansing devices regularly at home and often using these twice per day – a level of physical exfoliation that can be very damaging to the skin,” explains Khorana.
“I have also seen clients at home using exfoliating acids daily or even twice daily and attempting at home peels and needling devices.”
“A lot of people are encountering damage through the overuse of actives such as exfoliants and retinoids,” adds Onyejekwe.
“In a world where the beauty consumer is becoming savvier and drawn to high-strength products, some are doing too much and using them too often, or using multiples of the same type of product in their routine.”
Since colder climates, harsh winds, and central heating can also impact the skin barrier, these concerns are much more likely to arise during the winter months. So if these habits sound familiar and you’ve noticed a recent change in your skin’s sensitivity, then now might be a good time to start simplifying your skincare routine.
One of our *favourite* celebrity dermatologists, Dr Sam Bunting, advises her own clients to think back to how their skin reacted to actives last autumn and winter to determine what changes they might need to make to their skincare routine this year to avoid compromising their barrier.
Take a look at the (sometimes surprising) most common culprits of a compromised barrier.
- Overuse of actives
- A disrupted skin microbiome – essentially the skin’s flora and fauna, similar to the biome in our stomach, latest research shows that the skin’s microbiome plays an important part in protecting our skin barrier. Again, using overly-harsh products can play a part here.
- Central heating
- An unbalanced skin pH (also known as your acid mantle and often disturbed by the use of overly-harsh products)
- Colder weather
- Stress – it’s no secret that stress has a pretty negative effect on our health, and now scientists have found it can even disrupt our skin barrier (as anyone who’s ever had a breakout while dealing with a broken heart will already know)
6 steps to help repair your skin barrier
Unless you have chronically-dry skin or suffer from a dermatological condition, your skin will do a pretty impressive job of repairing its barrier naturally. There are steps you can take to speed up the process- and avoid any repeat problems- though.
1. Cut active ingredients (like vitamin C, retinoids, and exfoliating acids) out of your routine and go back to basics (a simple, gentle cleanser, moisturiser, and SPF).
2. Be gentle with your skin and avoid physical exfoliation. If you do want to continue exfoliating your skin, do so no more than once or twice a week.
3. Reduce exposure to hot water when cleansing, which can further strip the skin and exacerbate redness. Use lukewarm water instead.
4. Always apply sunscreen, no matter what the weather – and avoid excessive sun exposure.
5. Focus on rehydrating and moisturising your skin. Use hydrating serums and thick creams, and consider introducing an oil into your evening skincare routine.
6. When you’re ready to reintroduce active ingredients into your routine, do so slowly. Listen to your skin – it will tell you when you are overdoing it.
Ingredients to look out for
While looking at your current skincare lineup- or if you’re buying anything new- to protect your skin barrier, there are some ingredients that can help more than others. Here are some of the best.
- Glycerin – holds moisture in
- Ceramides – they rebuild and restore the skin barrier
- Paraffin – this is an ‘occlusive’, moisturising ingredients which typically forms a protective layer over the skin to lock in hydration
- Squalane – another occlusive that deeply nourishes and protects skin, helping to boost skin hydration and skin barrier function
- Hyaluronic acid – this humectant (ingredients which attract water from the air to the skin) hydrates skin
- Lactic acid – one study found that concentrations of up to 12% could treat dry skin
- Niacinamide – promotes the production of ceramides
- Cica – calms redness
- Panthenol – reduces water loss
- Aloe vera – soothes irritated skin
- Colloidal oatmeal – locks in moisture and can strengthen the skin barrier
- Beeswax – another occlusive that is both non pore-clogging and can help with skin barrier recovery
- Plant oils – plant oils like argan oil and soybean have been found to be able to repair the skin barrier
The best skin barrier products
I’ve listed some of my own all-time favourites for both protecting and repairing my skin barrier- many of which include some of the great ingredients above- here. I regularly turn to each of them for their gentle formulations and ability to soothe irritated skin in a hurry.
Since moisturising the skin effectively is one of the quickest ways to repair your skin barrier, ensure that the face creams you’re currently using are up to scratch. Onyejekwe advises choosing a moisturiser that contains ingredients such as ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids as these will help to rebuild your skin’s lipids.
Try Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Skin Barrier Cream (£38 on Beauty Bay UK or $41 on Beauty Bay US), Sunday Riley ICE Ceramide Moisturising Cream (£60 on Sephora UK or $65 on Ulta US), or CeraVe Moisturising Facial Lotion (£13 on Cult Beauty UK or $17.94 on Cult Beauty US) – all really basic (in a good way) moisturisers that are packed with nourishing and skin barrier-supporting ingredients.
Oils and balms
If your skin is feeling particularly dry, consider using an oil or balm as the final step in your skincare routine, after moisturiser.
Squalane-based products like Skin Rocks The Support Oil (£60 on Space NK UK or $75 on Space NK US) and By Beauty Bay Overnight Balm (£10 on Beauty Bay UK or $10 on Beauty Bay US) will help to seal moisture into the skin and prevent it from escaping.
Aside from moisturising your skin, it’s really important to make some tweaks to your cleansing habits, too. “When the skin barrier is impaired, it will struggle to retain water so using a really stripping cleanser will only worsen the issue,” explains Onyejekwe.
If a foam or gel cleanser leaves your skin feeling tight or try, replace it with a nourishing cream cleanser instead.
Glow Recipe’s Avocado Ceramide Moisture Barrier Cleanser (£25 on Cult Beauty or $28 on glowrecipe.com) or Skin Rocks The Cream Cleanser (£32 on Space NK UK or $40 on Space NK US) are both designed with damaged skin barriers in mind, so are formulated to cleanse skin and remove makeup without stripping moisture.
PRO TIP: When your skin is dry or dehydrated, experts recommend applying your moisturiser to damp (rather than dry) skin to help lock in moisture.
It’s easy to see why searches for ‘skin barrier’ are increasing. A strong skin barrier *really* is essential to achieving healthy skin, no matter what your skin type or skin concerns.
If you’ve noticed your skin feeling sensitive, getting easily irritated, or looking red, then chances are your skin barrier is compromised. Follow the tips and advice above to get your skin back on track and to be aware of any skin barrier-related issues that may arise.
Oh, and don’t be scared of using exfoliant products and active ingredients in the future! They’re incredibly effective, but it’s important that your skin is strong and healthy enough to let them work their magic without causing any unwanted side effects.
Meet the experts
Sonia Khorana is a GP with a special interest in medical and cosmetic dermatology. She’s passionate about helping people feel more confident in their skin and regularly shares her knowledge on Instagram.