Healing Your Damaged Skin Barrier
A damaged skin barrier is unpleasant and can be hard to fix. What exactly is the skin barrier? Imagine it as a wall - keeping the good things in and the bad things out.
The skin barrier is basically a watertight membrane that holds the skin's outer layers together. Skin feels plump, soft, and supple when these outer layers are healthy. If these outer layers become damaged, the skin becomes dry and dull. It will lose or become incapable of holding onto vital substances like ceramides and cholesterol. This causes water loss and the skin becomes more susceptible to external aggressors.
It is not surprising that a damaged skin barrier makes it difficult to repair post-breakout and aging signs.
The Epidermis Under A Microscope
The skin has 3 major layers: epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous. However, the epidermis itself actually has about 5 different layers of cells, each with different functions.
The most important one to know about is the stratum corneum, which is the outermost layer and is made up of 10-30 thin layers of dead keratinocytes that are constantly shedding. The PH of this layer is slightly acidic (PH 4-5.5) which helps prevent bacterial growth. When a keratinocyte enters the stratum corneum, it takes about 2 weeks before that particular cell is shed.
Functions of a Healthy Moisture Barrier
The way the epidermis performs these functions is due to its structure. The external layer is primarily dead skin cells with a lipid matrix (oils) surrounding them. Think of your cells as bricks of a wall with the lipids acting like mortar.
For the skin barrier to work correctly, it is essential that the lipids in this matrix, such as ceramides and fatty acids, are in a particular proportion.
This construction works well to maintain hydration and keep bacteria, pollutants, and allergens out when the skin barrier is intact. When water is lost, so too is elasticity. The skin will look rough, dry, and flaky.
Your Skin Barrier Functions Are Divided into 5 Categories
- Permeability: the specific ratio of lipids and natural moisturizing factors prevent water from leaving the skin.
- Antimicrobial: pH and different proteins present within the sebum have antimicrobial activity. The pH of the skin is slightly acidic (between 4-6). This acid mantle creates a layer of protection against bacterial and fungal growth.
- Antioxidant: natural antioxidants as well as enzymes and high concentrations of tocopherol in the sebum work to prevent or repair oxidative damage.
- Immunity: immune cells produced in the epidermis as well as the antimicrobial effects described above.
- Photoprotection: natural antioxidants, reflective properties, melanin.
How Do I Know if My Skin Barrier is Damaged?
It can be tricky to recognize sometimes and many people initially write off their skin as just being 'dry' or 'acne-prone'. In fact, this may be barrier damage and quite fixable. When your barrier is damaged, skin conditions, such as breakouts and allergies, become more severe.
Most common signs of a damaged skin barrier:
- Itch or flaking
- Dull appearance
- Skin infections or acne breakouts
- Incomplete or slow wound healing
Dullness or Dryness: Trans-epidermal water losses increases which leaves your skin dry, tight, scaly, and/or flaky.
Redness and Inflammation: Cracks in the skin barrier permit allergens and irritants to get through, which can cause an inflammatory reaction.
Sensitivity and Allergies: Although sensitive skin is often genetic, external factors make it more sensitive. You can become sensitized to an ingredient that hasn't caused you problems in the past. This is because the ingredients proteins act as an allergen if it crosses your damaged barrier.
Acne Flare-Ups: Bacteria that cause acne can penetrate more quickly to the skin. In addition, benzoyl peroxide and other traditional acne-fighting agents can dry out the skin, leading to further damage, resulting in an unfortunate cycle. Incorrectly, acne has been viewed as a sign of poor hygiene. This led to people over-washing their faces to get rid of the pimples.
What Are The Causes of a Compromised Skin Barrier
There are both non-modifiable and modifiable causes of moisture barrier damage. Thankfully, so many of the underlying causes can be fixed or avoided!
Non-Modifiable Causes of Damage:
- Genetics can make you prone to eczema or atopic dermatitis which prevents the skin from functioning correctly and leaves it vulnerable.
- Aging is another factor you can't control. Your ability to produce oil decreases with age. It is more difficult to replenish the lipids necessary for the integrity of the skin barrier.
External Causes of Barrier Damage That Can Be Modified and Avoided
- Pollution and wind
- UV radiation
- Washing too frequently
- Washing with soaps that strip the natural lipids
- Cleaning with water that's too hot
- Over-exfoliation with acids that are too strong or too frequent
- Over-exfoliation with abrasives
- The new addition of retinol (retinol ruined my skin every time I tried it)
- Other cosmetic chemicals that are known irritants (ie. tea tree oil, ascorbic acid)
- Other health-related factors: sleep, nutrition, stress
Over-cleansing and over-exfoliation are the two most common culprits. You can tell if your skin feels tight or squeaky clean after rinsing.
Although chemical exfoliants are great at removing dead skin cells, they can also damage your barrier. Mechanical exfoliants like scrubs and other abrasives can cause tears on the skin.
Signs of over-exfoliation include burning, redness, and peeling. Typically, over-exfoliated skin might start out looking super-smooth, but that gives way to dry patches or rashes. If you're prone to sensitive skin, there is a whole list of ingredients that are likely on your 'bad list' for triggering reactions.
The indoor environment around you also plays a role in the health of your skin. Indoor factors like air conditioning and heating and humidity all contribute.
The outdoor environment is also involved. Sunlight, UV rays, and pollution can harm the integrity of the skin barrier. Free radicals are unstable molecules that will damage cells, lipids and DNA, as well as accelerate the aging process. And don’t forget the harsh winter cold and wind that some of us are faced with every year.
Repairing Skin Barrier Damage
The skin barrier won't repair itself unless you take some steps to help it. Thankfully, the steps are usually easy. You may need some skin barrier repair products, but usually you can restore and heal your barrier with time, patience, and some changes to your routine.
Should I Stop My Skincare Routine?
Skin barrier repair is possible, but if you have a severe damage, you might need to cut out a considerable portion of your routine, at least temporarily. Think of it more like starting a new routine for your healing phase.
Steps to Healing the Skin Barrier
Strip your routine down to the most gentle essentials and wait to see signs of recovery before adding anything new.
Remember, skincare is a long process, and nothing happens fast. If you're changing something, you need to give it time before deciding whether to change it again.
For example, suppose you've newly started something like retinol or an alpha hydroxy acid. In that case, you may need to stop, heal, then restart at a lower concentration or frequency.
Assess your skincare routine and determine if your skin requires a break. This is where your skin type plays a significant role: If you have oily or combination skin, it might be okay to cleanse twice a day. If you have dry skin, it might be a good idea to cleanse your skin only at night and use plain water only the rest of the time. Make sure you choose the right cleanser. A cream cleanser is more gentle on the skin than a foam. When it comes to cleansing, the pH balance of the products you use is also important.
If your barrier is damaged, temporarily stopping all exfoliation is important at first. Most people only need to exfoliate once or twice a week, so restart gradually once you’ve healed. Another recommendation is to check the strength and type of active ingredients in your products. Glycolic acid 8% is obviously stronger than 3%. Retinol is a huge problem for some people.
Always moisturize. Even if you have oily skin, a moisturizer should be a regular part of your skincare regimen. Be sure to hydrate and moisturize properly to get the most out of your products - especially in dry climates.
Sunscreen is critical, as UV exposure can cause free radical activity on your skin, which is damaging.
Consider the slugging technique with an occlusive agent at night before bed.
How Long For Damaged Skin to Heal?
Most skin barrier damage can be repaired. It's not permanent damage.
How long it takes to heal a damaged moisture barrier depends on the severity of the damage and the approach you take. In general, healing barrier damage ranges in the order of 2-6 weeks and most people can expect to see significant improvement in the 3-4 week range.
The skin barrier can be permanently damaged, though this is rare and usually related to an underlying medical condition. Even in the case of a permanent condition, simple steps and products will provide improvements. Some people do need prescription therapies like hydrocortisone cream. Be sure to see your doctor if you are worried.
The use of masks, especially in occupational settings is a special circumstance. We've written a comprehensive guide to Maskne for more information.
Key Ingredients for Skin Barrier Repair
No need to feel overwhelmed, stick to the basics.
These molecules offset trans-epidermal loss of water that may occur when your skin barrier becomes broken. Humectants are substances that bind water and maintain skin hydration.
Examples include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, beta glucan, and natural sugars like sorbitol or erythritol.
Humectants are most effective when used in combination with emollients because humectants pull moisture into the skin and emollients seal it in.
Emollients contain lipids that can coat the skin (sealing off to prevent water loss) and help repair the barrier itself (think: patching the mortar holding bricks together).
Oils and butters make skin soft and smooth. They integrate with the epidermis' lipid matrix and fill in any gaps. This is one of the main reasons we love face oils so much. Face oils have a role for all skin types and can be an integral component of any barrier healing regimen. This article about the best oils for sensitive and irritated skin is a good place to start.
Ceramides are an essential part of your skin barrier. Your own skin lipid layer contains up to 50% ceramides - lipids and fatty acids that make a healthy matrix. In cosmetics, they are generally skin-identical synthetically produced or derived from plants. A loss of your own natural ceramides (as you age) results in thinning of the skin, loss of elasticity, and sagging.
Using barrier repair products that contain ceramides will go a long way to improving the lipid matrix and restoring your healthy skin barrier functions.
Antioxidants are the second-line defense against environmental aggressors such as UV exposure and pollution. In addition, they work to protectively shield your skin and repair it once damage is done. You can find antioxidants such as vitamins E, B3, and C in a wide range of skincare products.
Active botanical ingredients can be incredibly soothing and healing for a broken skin barrier.
The key is to start slow and stick with ingredients that are known to be anti-irritants. This doesn't guarantee they'll work for you, but the chances of them helping is much higher.
Two good active botanical actives to look for skin soothing effects are allantoin and bisabolol. Bisabolol is especially good because it's oil solubility and ability to penetrate the skin layers - it is an anti-inflammatory and anti-irritant and has many benefits for damaged skin.
There are some additional treatments, such as growth factors, worth exploring. However, this increases the complexity and the costs - and usually the simple approach is all you need.
What Does Healthy Skin Look Like?
A healthy skin barrier is key to radiant skin and achieving a healthy glow. Healthy, hydrated skin is smooth, plump, and radiant. When it comes to products, often less is more! We’re big fans of the skinimalism movement.
Have Realistic Expectations
Being kind to yourself means realizing what normal skin looks like.
Healthy and normal skin does not mean flawless or pore-free. It is essential to treat your skin with respect and not strip it of its natural pigment and pores. Glass skin is not possible.
There is nothing wrong with seeking to improve the appearance of your skin, but the quest can go too far and do more damage if your expectations are not set for a realistic result.
If you have significant inflammation or acne, be sure to consult a dermatologist or your primary care physician. Conditions like rosacea, eczema, and acne all have medical therapies that are very effective. Once your underlying condition has been managed, you will often tolerate a wider variety of products. For sensitive skin, however, it is better to use less, especially fragrances.
Take Care of Yourself
Your skin is the largest organ of your body, but the truth is that it is an integral part of your entire body. Your overall health and skin health will be affected by what you eat and how well you sleep.
The lines between self-care, skincare and beauty care have blurred. Don’t underestimate the importance of a balanced diet, good hydration, high quality sleep, and stress reduction activities.
Your skin barrier is your best friend. It protects you from the bad stuff in the world and holds onto valuable, essential water. Unfortunately, our skin barrier is affected by our external environment and skincare routines. The new wave of skin-barrier-friendly skincare products is an opportunity for a skincare reset, with a new focus on curating an available, gentle, effective, and enjoyable routine.
Looking for more information and a step-by-step guide?
Download our free e-Book which includes effective and affordable drugstore product recommendations.
You can also check out our award-winning face oil specifically designed for irritable skin.
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