22 January 2022
The barrier function is the most important function of the largest organ of the body- the skin. Functionally, it exists to protect the skin from infections, toxins and dryness. The skin barrier is also responsible for skin health and how your skin looks. When your skin barrier gets compromised, you’re going to get atopic dermatitis and symptoms such as dryness and hypersensitivity.
You may have seen the term “skin barrier” pop up a lot more on social media and the internet lately; all thanks to mask wearing, home DIY acid peels and over exfoliation. This blogpost is an ode to the most important function of our skin and how you can repair your barrier for healthier and younger looking skin.
The skin barrier is also sometimes called the “acid mantle” or “moisture barrier”. As these names suggest, the skin barrier has an important role in protecting against moisture loss and keeping the skin pH balanced so that skin remains plump and in optimal health. The skin barrier is also integral in affecting the dynamics of how your skincare performs on your skin.
The outermost layer of the skin, called the stratum corneum, is essentially the skin barrier. Consisting of dead skin cells (corneocytes), the skin barrier blocks out harmful toxins and infections and irritants while locking in the skin’s moisture.
A simple way to imagine how the skin barrier looks is with the bricks and mortar analogy. In this analogy, the bricks are the corneocytes and the mortar is the mixture of lipids and ceramides that glue the cells together, forming this protective wall.
A healthy skin barrier is one that keeps skin moisturised, plump and protected against external aggressors.
Simply put, the skin has two roles- to lock in moisture and to keep out external aggressors that harm the skin, namely UV rays, pollutants and toxins, including harmful skincare. Transepidermal water loss across naturally from the skin; and the skin barrier keeps this natural balance in check so that we do not get dry skin.
Similarly, when the skin barrier function is compromised, the skin becomes more vulnerable to damage from external aggressors, causing the following symptoms.
How can you know if your skin barrier is damaged? A compromised skin barrier can present in several ways including:
• Dry, dehydrated skin and flaking
• Itchy skin
• Skin infections
• Poor wound healing
• Premature skin ageing- fine wrinkles, loss of elasticity
• Eczema flares
Although ageing and genetics cause a natural decline in the skin’s ceramide levels and barrier function, many environmental factors can harm the skin barrier.
One of the most common causes of disruption of the skin barrier is skincare habits! Overdoing and using too many active ingredients, especially acids, can weaken the barrier. Similarly, using harsh cleansers can strip the skin barrier of its natural protective oils, leaving the skin dry and hypersensitive. The use of physical exfoliants like physical scrubs are also a no-no because they too can micro-tears and physically damage the skin. UV rays from the sun can also damage skin cells and structures.
UV rays also cause a double hit to the skin by inducing inflammation; affecting the skin’s ability to recover. Harmful free radicals in air pollution and cigarette smoke also cause oxidative stress to the stratum corneum. Studies have shown that people who live in areas with higher levels of air pollution suffer from the effects of compromised skin barrier and collagen loss in the skin such as dryness, wrinkles and skin laxity.
Stress is another silent factor that affects the skin barrier. Psychological stress disrupts the balance of hormones in the body by stimulating the release of stress hormones called glucocorticoids. These stress hormones cause the skin barrier function to deteriorate by decreasing the amount of essential lipids and proteins in the epidermis. These changes disrupt barrier function and increase transepidermal water loss.
Repairing your skin barrier involves a two pronged approach- stopping or slowing the deterioration of barrier function; and strengthening the barrier.
Although exfoliation is necessary for healthy and clean skin, over-exfoliation can stress the skin barrier. If you’re a fan of chemical exfoliation with acid or physical exfoliation with some form of a brush or scrub- doing it too frequently can physically damage the skin. Use gentle acids like polyhydroxy acids (PHA) or sonic cleansers if you prefer. These are gentler on the skin for exfoliation as compared to strong acids, scrubs and loofahs. I’m a fan of the FOREO LUNA 3, a sonic cleanser that gives my skin a thorough cleanse using high tech sonic technology. You can read about this technology in Sonic Facial Cleansing Brushes: Are They Worth It? Washing your face with hot water can also strip the face of its essential oils. Use warm water instead to rinse.
Some active ingredients can also transiently weaken the skin barrier. If you’re using active ingredients like retinoids, your skin needs to adapt before you increase the potency or frequency of your active ingredients. Otherwise, effects of a weakened barrier and irritationcan occur. Similarly, using multiple active ingredients in combination can potentially intensify the damage to the skin barrier. If in doubt, play it safe. Start with lower strengths and potencies of your actives (e.g. bakuchiol instead of retinol) and talk to your doctor about what your skin really needs and can tolerate.
An active ingredient that has been shown to help with repairing the skin barrier is ceramides. Replenishing the skin with ceramides reduces water loss in the skin too. However, before you head out to pick up a ceramide containing moisturiser, note that having the right formulation counts. If the combination of ingredients or proportions is incorrect, water loss is instead increased. You can learn more about this and how to pick the right formulation of ceramide skincare in Ceramides in Skincare: A Relief for Dry and Sensitive Skin.
Another useful ingredient also improves barrier function is Niacinamide. This ingredient enhances the production of ceramides in the skin. For readers with oily or acne prone skin, niacinamide is a wonderful consideration as it also has anti-inflammatory benefits for acne. You can learn more about niacinamide and read my product reviews in this blogpost Niacinamide: A Versatile Skincare Ingredient Your Skin Will Thank You For.
Preliminary studies suggest probiotic skincare can improve barrier function in the skin. Some strains of probiotics have been found to increase the ceramide levels in the skin and reduce inflammation. According to studies, subjects with eczema and sensitive skin experience improvement in their symptoms after using probiotic skincare. Learn more about probiotics in Probiotics in Skincare and Supplements: Do They Work?
Having an optimally functioning skin barrier isn’t just hype- it is the key to having healthy, moist and glowy skin. The skin barrier does more than making the skin look bouncy and dewy- it exists to keep moisture locked in and the bad guys like toxins and infections out. If this barrier is compromised, the odds of having dry and hypersensitive skin, skin infections, poor wound healing and early signs of ageing are higher.
Repairing your skin barrier involves bumping up the components of the skin barrier and avoiding irritants and skincare which damage the skin. I hope that you have found this blogpost useful- to healthier skin barriers for all of us! If you are still experiencing symptoms of compromised skin barrier or if you are unsure about finding the right products, always ask your doctor!