You might have noticed a growing popularity in barrier-strengthening products within the skincare industry recently. It’s extra important to be taking care of your skin barrier now that we are wearing face masks and coverings on a daily basis. But what exactly is your skin barrier, and what is its purpose? Keep reading to find out the key to protecting and restoring this vital part of the skin.
What is the skin barrier?
Your skin is made up of different layers, each of which performs its own important functions. The outermost layer is your skin barrier. It is often described as a ‘brick wall’ as it is made up of tough skin cells that are bound together by lipids. This barrier keeps all the harmful environmental toxins and pathogens from penetrating the skin. Essentially, it functions as a shield against the harsh external environment and unwanted bacteria.
Another essential function of the skin barrier is to retain moisture to maintain your skin’s hydration levels. It does this by preventing transepidermal water loss, which is the dehydration of the skin. Keeping water in your skin is the key to dewy, bouncy skin, as well as to having great overall skin health.
In short: the skin barrier’s job is to keep bad things like irritants out and good things like hydration in.
What causes a damaged skin barrier?
Your skin barrier can easily become damaged if you aren’t taking good care of it. If your barrier is compromised, those ‘bricks’ can become unglued and allow for irritants to enter the skin or for water loss.
The most common causes for barrier damage are:
- Harsh products that strip the skin of its natural oils
- Over-exfoliation and/or scrubbing too hard
- Over-utilising certain ingredients in your routine (for example, using retinol daily when you are a beginner)
- Using DIY ingredients that are not suitable for the skin (such as baking soda or lemon juice)
- For sensitive skin types, ingredients like alcohol and fragrance can mess with the skin barrier
- Internal factors such as stress and hormones
Most commonly, the skin barrier is damaged by exfoliating too much. It’s easy to overdo it and cause sensitivity and irritation. Check out our guide to exfoliating acids to be sure that you’re not over-exfoliating!
Another reason for a damaged barrier is from wearing face masks and coverings on a daily basis due to COVID regulations. Your skin barrier might be more irritated than usual from the friction and bacteria caused by wearing a mask. This irritation can lead to maskne and a compromised skin barrier.
How to tell if your skin barrier is compromised
If your skin barrier is damaged, it’s likely that you’ll know it – the signs are pretty easy to see. Your skin will look and feel irritated overall; think redness, dryness, itching, and generally irritated skin. A healthy skin barrier should hold onto moisture properly, so if your skin is feeling particularly dry and dehydrated (and is flaking), it’s likely that your barrier is damaged. Persistent acne and breakouts are another sign of a compromised skin barrier since it is now more susceptible to having bad bacteria penetrate it.
A good telltale sign of a damaged barrier is if you experience stinging or burning when using non-active products like gentle cleansers or hydrating serums.
Getting Your Skin Barrier Back on Track
If your skin barrier isn’t doing too great, there’s no need to worry! All it takes is a little patience, a little TLC, and consistency for it to bounce right back.
- Keep your routine simple: While your first instinct might be to up your skincare game, in this scenario, less is more. Allow your skin to renew itself by keeping things simple. Avoid all actives or harsh ingredients and stick to gentle cleansers and hydrating products. Stay away from ingredients like exfoliants, retinol and even vitamin C. You should be focusing on healing, hydrating, and nourishing the skin with your routine.
- Stay away from makeup: Avoid all makeup when trying to repair the skin barrier. Since your barrier is compromised, it’s best not to apply any products that can further irritate or clog the skin.
- Pay attention to pH: Your skin’s natural pH hovers around 5.7. While the pH of skincare products can range from 3.7 all the way to about 8.2, it’s best to stick to something that’s close to your skin’s pH when repairing your barrier.
- Find barrier-strengthening products: The goal here is to nourish the skin with essential skin barrier building blocks, such as ceramides and fatty acids. Look for ingredients such as niacinamide, ceramides, squalane and centella asiatica.
- Lock hydration in with balm: With a compromised skin barrier, you’ll want to lock in as much moisture as possible. Topping your normal routine with a jelly (such as Vaseline) creates a barrier that traps in moisture and helps your hydrating products to sink in more. The technique is simple: use your hydrating products (such as hyaluronic acid) at night, and top it all off with any occlusive, balm or jelly product. You’ll wake up to the softest skin ever, trust me.
Protecting your skin barrier
Aside from repairing your barrier, you’re going to want to protect it from possible future damage. Maintaining a strong and healthy skin barrier is one of the best things you can do for your skin. So what’s the secret to protecting your barrier? Don’t go overboard with your skincare routine.
Take the time to understand your skin and what it needs in order to address your issues. Don’t overdo it by trying and testing every single product you can get your hands on (and definitely not at the same time). If you’re adding new products to your routine, be sure to patch test and introduce them one at a time. Go easy on the actives. Slow and steady wins the race!