Why is everyone talking about the skin barrier
When it comes to your complexion, you see much more than that. Case in point: the top layer of skin, also known as the “skin barrier,” a term that has been popular on social media, among experts and in skincare marketing. It turns out that regardless of your skin type, maintaining a balanced barrier is essential to maintaining a healthy, calm, clear and hydrated complexion at any age. Here, scientists and expert dermatologists from the Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab will uncover the science and secrets of the barrier, including how to know if it is damaged or fragile and how to repair and fix symptoms.
So what exactly is the skin barrier?
Simply put, the barrier is the outermost layer of skin. “It locks in and retains moisture in the skin, but it also blocks allergens, irritants and pollutants from the environment, preventing them from penetrating the skin and causing inflammation,” explains Whitney Bowe, M.D., a New York dermatologist with the Department of Dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “The four main components that make up a healthy skin barrier are lipids, such as ceramides, fatty acids and cholesterol; the acidic mantle (responsible for the skin’s pH); the microbiome, which is composed primarily of bacteria; and the skin’s immune cells.”
What causes a weak skin barrier?
Dermatologists say the skin barrier naturally maintains a symbiotic relationship that allows your complexion to function properly (and look clear and smooth), but these culprits can damage and weaken it.
- Over-cleansing the skin. Dr. Bowe explains that cleansing the skin too aggressively or too often and using cleansers that are too harsh or too drying or too alkaline in pH can damage the barrier.
- Certain ingredients. Overuse of potentially irritating active ingredients, such as retinoids and exfoliating acids, and rough physical exfoliants, such as granular scrubs, can damage the skin’s barrier. Other common culprits are some natural or synthetic fragrances and drying alcohols, especially on sensitive skin, Dr. Bowe added.
- Environmental factors. These can include everything from low humidity to strong winds, cold weather and sun damage, says Sheila Farhang, M.D., a dermatologist and founder of Avant Dermatology & Aesthetics in Tucson, Ariz.
- Stress. What happens internally can also have an effect on the skin externally. “Overproduction of stress hormones can reduce the skin’s natural lipids, disrupt structural proteins and increase water loss,” notes Dr. Farhang.
How do you know your skin barrier is damaged?
Dermatologists say a compromised skin barrier can manifest itself in a number of ways. Here are the signs and symptoms of a weakened skin barrier
Redness and irritation
Telltale indicators include “redness, itching or burning of the skin,” Dr. Farhang explains. “Those who suffer from rosacea and eczema essentially compromise the skin barrier,” Dr. Bowe notes.
Dryness and Roughness
“When the skin barrier is disrupted, the skin becomes dry and can develop rough patches,” says Dr. Bowe.
Blemishes This could also be a clue: “I’ve seen a lot of acne sufferers overuse products and break down their barrier, and the acne gets worse,” says Dr. Farhang.
How to repair a damaged skin barrier?
The good news is that even if your skin barrier is damaged or weak, it is not useless. The skin barrier can be repaired naturally over time (if the damage is mild, it can return to equilibrium in a few hours; if the symptoms are more severe, it can take longer). Support the process with these best practices to maintain a healthy skin surface.
- Wash carefully. Use a mild cleanser (Dr. Bowe says skin shouldn’t feel clean). use cool or warm water, Dr. Farhang adds, because hot water removes the skin’s natural oils.
- Light exfoliation. Skip harsher physical exfoliants, such as gritty scrubs, that favor removing acids in a moisturizing form, such as serum, Dr. Bowe suggests.
- Replenish and repair the skin. Natural lipid moisturizers that strengthen the skin barrier by application contain nourishing ingredients such as ceramides, squalane . Formulations made with prebiotics and postbiotics can support healthy skin bacteria.
- Avoid irritants. Look for skin care products that are free of fragrances and essential oils, and “stop using anything that will burn when applied, which indicates your barrier is being compromised,” says Dr. Bowe.
Try the following GH Beauty Lab-tested award-winning and dermatologist-recommended skin barrier-friendly products.
What about the skin’s acidic protective film?
Sometimes confused with the skin barrier, the acidic outer film is “a film on the skin barrier that determines the pH of the skin, which should be weakly acidic to protect against pathogens,” says Dr. Farhang. It consists of sebum, the natural oils produced by the skin’s sebaceous glands and sweat. “Just as the skin barrier is disrupted, so too is the acidic outer film,” she explains. In addition, “as we age, the skin’s pH rises, or becomes more alkaline, which can damage the acidic outer membrane,” says GH Beauty Lab Chemist Dannusia Wink. The four tips above can also help promote a healthy skin pH.