What it is and why it’s important.
The skin barrier is the outermost layer of your skin, otherwise known as the epidermis.
People like to describe the skin barrier as brick and mortar: the brick being corneocytes (dead skin cells on the surface of your skin that shed as a natural part of the skin’s turnover process, also known as desquamation) and the mortar being lipids (lipids fill the spaces between corneocytes and are made up of ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids). This brick and mortar structure is very important in keeping your skin at a balanced pH. Our skin is naturally acidic, ideally around 5.5, about as acidic as black coffee. Higher acidity is associated with oily or acne-prone skin, while a more alkaline pH level is associated with dryness, redness, and inflammation. The brick and mortar of our skin also protects us from things like outside pollutants, irritants, bacteria, and offers some protection against UV exposure. When the skin barrier is damaged that protection is lowered which can lead to short term irritation and even longer term damage like exasperated skin conditions (acne, eczema, dermatitis, etc) and loss of elasticity (premature aging and aging skin). A healthy skin barrier also protects you from something called transepidermal water loss, which is the evaporation of water from the skin’s surface. Transepidermal water loss can cause skin to feel tight and dehydrated.
How does the skin barrier become damaged in the first place?
Most damage comes from what we’re doing to our skin and putting on our skin.
- Over-exfoliating e.g., glycolic acid, salicylic acid, face and body scrubs, using cleansing brushes, being too rough with makeup wipes or washcloths
- Overuse of retinoids or retinol.
- Acne products like benzoyl peroxide
- Overuse of drying clay or charcoal masks
- Over-washing your skin or using a cleanser that is too drying for your skin
- Exposure to environmental irritants, like pollution and cigarette smoke
- Exposure to extreme temperatures or climates
- Medications that can cause skin thinning or dryness
How to know if your skin barrier is damaged:
- Your skin feels tight
- Your skin feels red, itchy, and/or generally irritated
- Products you normally use with no problem begin to sting or burn your skin
- Rough skin texture
- Skin rash
- Your skin problems become exasperated e.g., acne becomes more inflamed, rosacea flares, etc
Some ways to help repair a damaged skin barrier.
- Cut back on or temporarily stop using facial scrubs and exfoliants
- Skip that morning cleanse while your skin heals and only cleanse at night to remove sunscreen/makeup
- Be gentle with your skin (don’t tug or pull when removing makeup/cleansing, avoid using abrasive shaving tools or makeup brushes)
- Go back to a basic skincare routine that supports barrier function e.g., use products that have ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids listed in the ingredients
- Moisturize your skin while it’s still damp to help minimize and prevent transepidermal water loss
- Avoid using extreme temperatures when washing your face and body (not too cold, not scorching hot)
- Use a humidifier
- See a dermatologist, especially if you are experiencing prolonged skin issues. A dermatologist will be able to diagnose and treat any skin conditions you might have.