Why Is Everyone Talking About Skin Barriers?

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You’ve probably heard the term “skin barrier” thrown around a lot these days. It might seem overhyped, but it’s actually worthy of all the attention, since the skin barrier is responsible for the appearance and health of your skin. “The skin barrier function of the skin is vitally important because it regulates transepidermal water loss and protects from irritants and infections,” says Greenwich, CT dermatologist Lynne Haven, MD.

To understand exactly what the skin barrier is, the brick wall analogy is a favorite of dermatologists. “I often compare the skin’s structure to that of a brick wall: the bricks are skin cells (keratinocytes), and the mortar or ‘glue’ that holds the skin cells together is composed of ceramides, lipids and cholesterol,” says New York dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD. “The skin barrier is the outermost layer of skin, and acts as your skin’s ‘brick wall,’ keeping out harmful aggressors and helping to reduce transepidermal water loss.”   

Why is the skin barrier important?

When the skin barrier is healthy and functioning properly, it acts as a layer that prevents aggressors, such as infectious agents and pollutants, from affecting our skin and bodies. It keeps out unhealthy substances, while allowing beneficial substances (like hydration and active ingredients) to pass through and be absorbed by the skin. “The skin barrier is an extremely important part of our bodies that protects us from exposure to external elements like pollutants, pathogens, etc., which could cause harm if they entered the body,” Dr. Engelman says. “The skin barrier helps keep us safe.” 

What is the acid mantle?

The acid mantle is also getting a lot of buzz. “Part of the skin barrier function is the acid mantle, a thin slightly acidic film on the surface of the skin,” explains Dr. Haven. “It is self-repairing but it’s important not to over-cleanse or over-exfoliate or irritate the skin because this could disturb the acid mantle.” It gets its name because it’s slightly acidic on the pH scale, at about 5.5. The thin layer on top of the skin is composed of lipids and amino acids, and helps fight pathogens and bad bacteria that flourish in more alkaline (high-pH) environments, blocking out unwanted substances and helping to keep moisture and other healthy substances locked into skin.

How can the skin barrier become damaged?

There are several reasons why the skin barrier may become compromised. It turns out that sometimes our skin-care products can be a major culprit and do more harm than good. “Common causes include improper use of topical products (for example, using products that are too abrasive or too harsh for your skin type), damage due to low humidity levels and harsh weather conditions (like direct sun exposure, high winds, etc.), and not providing your skin with enough hydration and nourishment,” Dr. Engelman says.

When the skin barrier is damaged, it can’t properly protect the body from external aggressors. This can lead to a number of issues, including dryness, acne and the worsening of certain skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, to name a few. “In certain skin conditions such as eczema or rosacea, the skin barrier function can easily become compromised,” Dr. Haven says. “Harsh products or environmental insults like wind or extreme cold can contribute to this. It is important to try to improve the barrier function by being gentle when cleansing and adding hydration, for example, with topical ceramides or hyaluronic acid–containing products.”

What are the signs of a damaged skin barrier?

Telltale hints of a compromised barrier: skin will look dry and may be cracking or flaking because it’s no longer able to retain moisture. “You may notice more acne breakouts, as an unhealthy skin barrier is less capable of regulating oil production and cell turnover, resulting in excess oil and clogged pores,” Dr. Engelman says.

What is the best way to treat a damaged skin barrier?

“Establish a good skin-care routine and stick to it—it doesn’t have to be complicated, but make sure you’re using high-quality products that are good for your skin type,” Dr. Engelman says. Look for ingredients like niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, shea butter and oils to gently rebalance and restore moisture to the skin.

Steer clear of harsh products and ingredients that could strip the skin barrier of its natural oils. Don’t use physical or chemical exfoliants until your skin barrier is stronger. Play it safe and avoid retinol until the skin is healed. Patients who develop acne as a consequence of a compromised skin barrier tend to reach for overly harsh products to fight breakouts, but this is a mistake. “It may be wise to first try more gentle methods of clearing your skin, like double cleansing, toning the skin, and balancing oil production with moisturizing products. Ttalk to your dermatologist before starting or stopping any treatments,” says Dr. Engelman. “Harsher acne treatments like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide and medicated topicals may further irritate and damage the skin barrier.”

In harsh weather conditions—including low-humidity, extreme temperatures and high winds—be sure to show your skin some extra love by covering it with protective clothing and reapplying moisturizer often. “If your home or work environment is dry, I recommend running a humidifier to replenish the moisture content and help protect your skin,” Dr. Engelman says. “I love the Canopy Humidifier because it’s the cleanest model available—it’s designed to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria, and is dishwasher-safe—and it’s super easy to use.”

For a good and basic skin-care routine to nourish the barrier and ensure skin gets the moisture it needs, Dr. Engelman recommends a double cleanse by washing first with a cleansing oil—she likes the glo skin beauty Cleansing Oil—followed by your face wash. Avoid anything with harsh ingredients like salicylic acid or physical exfoliating beads, which can further harm the skin barrier. CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser is a gentle option infused with hyaluronic acid and ceramides that’s safe for even the most reactive complexions. Add extra nourishment with a gentle toner—Dr. Engelman’s pick is Humphrey’s Witch Hazel Nourish: Witch Hazel and Aloe Toner—”and be sure to hydrate your skin properly with a good moisturizer,” she says. “I love Elizabeth Arden’s Eight Hour Cream Skin Protectant, as well as Lano Golden Dry Skin Miracle Salve for any areas that need extra attention.” 

If you’re struggling to heal your skin barrier, visit your dermatologist, who can provide recommendations based on your concerns and individual skin needs. 

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