Everything You Need To Know About A Damaged Skin Barrier And How To Treat It

The term "skin barrier" has become pretty popular in the past couple of years. Everyone's heard of it, social media's been flooded with posts about it, and the skincare industry is using it to advertise its products.

While most of us do our best to care for our skin, some of our good intentions are actually what's causing our skin serious harm, and yes, your 20-step skincare routine is likely one of those things.

There's nothing like the excitement of starting a brand-new skincare routine. We're excited at the prospect of having beautiful, practically flawless, glowing skin. We buy an armful of products and we set our skincare routine into motion only to wake up a few days later with skin that looks worse than ever before.

That red, flaky, and dry texture your skin develops after starting a hefty skincare routine is your skin barrier begging for mercy. We have a tendency to think more is better, but this could not be farther from the truth, especially when you suffer from a broken skin barrier. Mona Gohara, M.D., told Glizour that a simple skincare routine is of the utmost importance when it comes to repairing the skin barrier and keeping it healthy in the future. So, it might be time to ditch all those products and go back to basics for happy, healthy skin. Here's everything you need to know about a damaged skin barrier and how to treat it.

What exactly is a skin barrier?

The skin barrier goes by many names. It's often called a moisture barrier or acid mantle, for instance. In medical terms, it's referred to as the top layer of the epidermis, known as the stratum corneum, as Shari Marchbein, M.D., told Byrdie. Before you can understand the skin barrier, you must first understand the skin as a whole. 

Even though it's not visible to the naked eye, our skin consists of various layers, according to Glizour. The skin barrier is the top layer of skin that helps protect the other, deeper layers from outside elements. Things like pollution and everyday irritants are prevented from penetrating your skin thanks to your skin barrier. Mona Gohara, M.D., told Glizour that the skin barrier consists of various compounds like skin cells, proteins, and lipids. These compounds are cleverly arranged to keep the bad stuff out and the good stuff (moisture) in. "The bricks are skin cells, and the mortar is the lipids and proteins between," Gohara explains. Basically, your skin barrier is a strong wall keeping your skin's enemies out. Pretty cool.

Why your skin barrier is important

Now that you know exactly what your skin barrier is, it's natural to wonder why people are making such a big deal about it. Since the skin is comprised of many layers, why should you be focused on this one specifically?

Well, mostly because it's basically keeping you alive. It's important to note that your skin barrier isn't just important when it comes to your face; it's responsible for keeping your skin healthy in its entirety. A study published in Current Problems in Dermatology found that, without the skin barrier's protection, the body would be exposed to various pathogens and toxins, which will not only wreak havoc on your skin but also on your overall health.

If your one wish is to have skin that has a dewy and glowing appearance, you need to give some extra love to your skin barrier. In fact, Mona Gohara told Glizour that a strong skin barrier will keep your skin healthy, preventing it from developing conditions like eczema and atopic dermatitis. An unhealthy skin barrier can cause your skin to become irritated, and you can even develop conditions like rosacea and acne. You might also experience dryness, which can cause fine lines to look more pronounced, per Cosmopolitan. These conditions usually occur when your skin's transcutaneous evaporative water loss (TEWL) happens too fast. Taking care of your skin barrier will slow down this process, resulting in healthy-looking skin.

Signs your skin barrier is damaged

If your skin barrier is damaged, there will be some telltale signs that something's wrong. Speaking to Camille Styles, board-certified dermatologist Elizabeth Geddes-Bruce explained that a damaged skin barrier can manifest in many ways, but that excessive dryness is one of the main symptoms.

Your skin might appear flaky, and you might even experience itchiness and stinging. It will also feel dry and rough when you touch it. Geddes-Bruce added that experiencing breakouts and red, inflamed skin is also a telltale sign of a damaged barrier. Something else to look out for is painful stinging when you apply skincare products that don't contain any active ingredients. According to Healthline, that's a very good sign your skin barrier is in need of some serious TLC, and that doesn't mean you need to start a more rigorous skincare routine. In fact, it's quite the opposite: You'll need to opt for simple, gentle skincare.

Things that can cause damage to the skin barrier

There are various factors that can contribute to a broken skin barrier, the most common being environmental factors. We know you're thinking it, and yes, winter can really mess with your skin. Dermatologist Ranella Hirsch told Today that the general lack of moisture in the air during winter can wreak havoc on your skin barrier, and neglecting to adjust your skincare routine accordingly can do some damage. Too much sun exposure is another culprit, so stocking up on SPF isn't just a suggestion; it's a requirement, dermatologist Debra Jaliman says.

Along with colder weather, we reach for the hot water faucet. This is another mistake. Dermatologist Mary Lupo cautions that hot water is practically poison to the skin barrier. "Anytime you use hot water, you are going to literally melt these lipids that are in the skin, the natural lipids [like] fatty acids, cholesterol, triglycerides [and] ceramides," she told Today. She added that, without sufficient lipids, the skin barrier is compromised and you'll find that your skin dries out much quicker.

Last, but not least, if you're one of those people who love a good scrub, you might want to assess whether you're doing more harm than good. Over-exfoliation is a surefire way to damage your skin barrier. Hirsch blames misleading information on product labels, saying, " A lot of them say things like, 'Oh, use me twice a day!' and that's like, don't do that!"

Repair your skin barrier by simplifying your skincare routine

Dermatologist Patricia Wexler told InStyle that the best way to care for a damaged skin barrier is by cutting out harsher active products. Rather, opt for gentle cleansers and moisturizers like micellar water that's formulated specifically for sensitive skin and moisturizers that are made to treat conditions like eczema. It's also a good idea to go see your dermatologist if your skin is really acting out since they can give you a prescription to help your skin calm down quicker. Applying sunscreen is also incredibly important.

Stacy Chimento, a board-certified dermatologist, recommends you opt for products that contain moisturizing ingredients like glycerin, ceramides, and hyaluronic acid, adding that a simple routine that focuses on moisturizing is the key to getting your skin back on track. Wexler says that, as soon as your skin returns back to normal, you can start adding your favorite products back into your skincare routine, but you're advised to do so gradually.

Opt for gentler cleansers to help rebuild your skin barrier

Did you know that the pollutants we get exposed to every day can cause our skin to age prematurely? This might sound too wild to be true, but a study published in Frontiers in Pharmacology found that the pollution we are exposed to daily — especially in urban areas — can eat away at our skin barrier, causing not only premature aging but dry and itchy skin as well.

This is why it's so important to follow a skincare routine that keeps your skin barrier healthy so those pollutants don't get a chance to cause any damage.

Board-certified dermatologist Shari Machbein told Byrdie that one of the first steps to repairing your skin barrier and keeping it strong is by opting for a gentle cleanser. However, it should also pack a punch when it comes to efficacy. A gentle cleanser will help to keep your skin's natural oils and ceramides intact while removing dirt. Marchbein says that, depending on how many products you use, you might want to consider double-cleansing. Again, don't opt for harsh products; there are gentle cleansers on the market that do a great job of removing makeup and pollutants from the skin without stripping it of moisture.

If you're unsure how to proceed or have never really followed a skincare routine, it might be a good idea to make an appointment with a dermatologist that can work out a safe and effective skincare routine for you.

Let plant oils work their magic to repair your skin barrier

A study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that natural oils like almond, argan, borage, coconut, jojoba, and rosehip are most effective for skin barrier repair. The study noted that the method used to extract the oil has an impact on its quality, so that's something to pay attention to when you go shopping.

Furthermore, a study published in the American Journal of Dermatology confirmed that some natural oils commonly used for skin issues can help repair the skin barrier. As an additional benefit, some of these oils contain compounds that act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatories. Some of them can also help with itchiness. The study also notes that natural oils can be used as a complementary treatment to repair a damaged skin barrier, but that it's important to keep in mind that different oils have varying benefits. Natural oils that contain a higher ratio of oleic acid to linoleic acid will do a pretty good job of repairing your skin barrier, while very high levels of oleic acid can have the opposite effect.

Healthline recommends incorporating these natural oils into your skincare routine either by investing in moisturizers that contain them or buying the oils themselves and massaging them into your skin. Since the abovementioned studies made it clear that not all oils are created equal, it might be best to buy reputable skincare products that already contain these oils instead of buying them separately.

Work with your skin's pH instead of against it

Something else you want to pay attention to when healing your skin barrier is the acid mantle. Speaking to Everyday Health, Anthony Youn, M.D., explained that the acid mantle is a thin barrier that ensures your skin's acidity stays at a healthy level. This delicate layer can be damaged if you use products that are too harsh.

Dermatologist Cheryl Karcher explains that conditions like eczema and acne can be a result of skin that has high acid levels. If your skin's alkaline levels are too high, you'll find that it's red and flaky. You want your skin's acidity to be at the ideal level, and in order to achieve that, you need to use products that work with it, not against it.

Trevor Cates, N.D., says that the ideal pH for your skin ranges from 4.6 to 5.5. Opting for products with this pH level will ensure happy skin. Unfortunately, most skincare products in the United States don't include pH levels on their packaging. Korean beauty products do, however, so that's another option if you're looking to restore your skin's pH levels. You can also check out products' websites to see if it's listed there or give their customer service a call. If all else fails, you can always buy pH strips and test the product yourself.

Buy skincare that contains ceramides

The holy grail of skin barrier repair is probably ceramides. These fatty molecules are actually one of the compounds that make up the building blocks of your skin barrier, Marisa Garshick, M.D., told MindBodyGreen. "Specifically, ceramides serve as the glue that helps keep the skin cells together," she explained. Hadley King, M.D., says to think of ceramides as the mortar between the bricks of the wall that is your skin barrier. If the mortar starts to degenerate, the wall is weakened, and the skin becomes exposed to all the pollutants we encounter on a daily basis.

A study published in Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology found that phytoceramides are great at speeding up the healing process when you have a damaged skin barrier. This means that using products containing ceramides can prevent skin barrier damage altogether. It might be wise to use these types of products permanently to keep your skin in good shape instead of only utilizing them as a cure. Prevention is always better than trying to calm irritated skin afterward. Ceramides for the win!

Consider products with biotic ingredients

Probiotics have been all the rage for the past couple of years, and now they're making their way into skincare products.

Hadley King, M.D., explained to MindBodyGreen that biotic skincare lines can help support the skin's natural bacteria. This bacteria is essential to keeping the skin barrier healthy. King advises you opt for pre-, pro-, and postbiotic products when you go shopping for skincare next. However, it's important to know that not all biotic skincare is created equal. King warns that, even though some brands advertise their skincare as being biotic, the strains aren't always able to survive because of the preservatives used in the formulas, which means you'll simply be adding useless, dead bacteria to your skin. King advises you to do your research and make sure to opt for brands that have proven that their formulas support the probiotics it contains.

You'll also keep your skin barrier healthy by keeping your gut happy, and that starts with what you eat. A study published in Frontiers in Microbiology found that gut flora and skin flora are directly related. This means that a healthy gut can produce healthy skin, which means, technically, you can eat your way to a healthy skin barrier. Finally, something we can control.

Moisturizers containing hyaluronic acid are great for the skin barrier

Next, Ana Mansouri, M.D., told Cosmopolitan that hyaluronic acid is one of the most hydrating ingredients out there. The best part is that it rarely causes any bad side effects, according to board-certified dermatologist Lily Talakoub. This is because our bodies naturally produce this compound. Moisturizers and serums containing hyaluronic acid are a must-have when you're trying to heal a damaged skin barrier, but it's important that you use them correctly.

Mansouri explains that hyaluronic acid is a humectant; this simply means that it draws moisture (via WebMD). While this is the very reason it's so effective at moisturizing the skin, it's also the reason it can cause dryness. Yes, this might be confusing, but stick with us for a moment. According to board-certified dermatologist Julie Russak, hyaluronic acid has a very specific place in your skincare routine: You always apply it first, and your skin needs to be clean and damp when you do so. 

Then, you can follow with a moisturizer and face oil to seal it in. Failing to do this will result in the hyaluronic acid absorbing moisture from your skin and evaporating into the air. It needs moisture (damp skin moisturizer and/or face oil) to draw moisture into the skin. If it doesn't have any moisture to work with, it will simply use your skin as the source, so make sure you always apply it first and follow with a good moisturizer.

Treat any inflammation you might be experiencing

If you're dealing with a broken skin barrier, chances are your skin is inflamed. This means that your skin won't be able to tolerate skincare products as well as it usually does, according to Shari Marchbein, M.D. (via Byrdie). If you notice that you have some inflammation, skip that scrub and other active products and opt for a gentle face wash and moisturizer instead.

If your skin is very inflamed and you're dealing with conditions like acne, eczema, or rosacea, your best bet is to make an appointment with a dermatologist to help get the inflammation under control. Once that's taken care of, you'll be able to treat your damaged skin barrier with a wider variety of products, however, it's important to keep tabs on your skin daily and assess how irritated or inflamed it looks before applying products. And remember: Less is always more, so keep it simple.

Try to sleep more to keep your skin barrier happy and healthy

You can have a 10-step skincare routine, but if you don't take care of your body and overall health, your skin will suffer, and that includes your skin barrier.

A study published in Maedica concluded that the food we eat, our stress levels, the amount of sleep we get, and whether we apply our daily SPF all have a direct impact on our skin's health. Dermatologist Patricia Wexler told WebMD that our bodies work hard to repair our skin while we sleep, and in the process produce collagen, which makes the skin look plumper and, in turn, younger. Blood flow to the skin also increases while you catch some Zs, which is responsible for that healthy glow in the morning, board-certified sleep specialist Michael Breus says. Your skin can also utilize the barrier-repairing ingredients in your skincare much better when you get a good night's sleep, Wexler says.

Take intentional steps to protect your skin barrier

Dealing with a broken skin barrier can be a daunting experience, and once your skin is back on track, you'll likely be keen on keeping it that way. So, how do you go about that?

According to Dermatologist Shereene Idriss, M.D., your best bet is skipping that complicated skincare routine you've likely followed prior to damaging your skin barrier. She told Glizour that new products need to be introduced to the skin gradually. She also warns not to overdo it on skincare that contains active ingredients. "So many people are overdoing it with their skincare routines and harming themselves in the process," she said, adding, "I strongly encourage you to take the time to understand your skin issues in order to address them one by one and not all simultaneously."

Mona Gohara, M.D., recommends you opt for products that contain skin-barrier protecting ingredients like ceramides and glycerine while avoiding soapy cleansers. She also warns that most people exfoliate way more than they should. If you don't suffer from acne, a scrub should only be incorporated into your skincare routine one to three times a week, and less is probably better.

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