How To Protect and Fix Your Skin Barrier

Photo: Anna Efetova/Getty Images

“Perfect skin is wasted on children. Where are you going looking so dewy, Aidan? The sandbox? Fucking circle time? Gimme it.” Remember this viral skin-care meme from a few years ago? We could all do with some more bouncy collagen and stretchy elastin. But the one attribute of baby skin that grown adults should be after is that optimally functioning skin barrier — one of the prime reasons baby skin is plump, smooth, radiant, and soft to the touch.

The skin barrier, or stratum corneum, is the outermost layer of dead skin cells and the topmost layer of the epidermis. It exists to shield us from the outside world, keeping out external aggressors and irritants and sealing in vital moisture. “A common analogy for the epidermis is a brick and mortar structure. As cells (the bricks) from the basal layer of the epidermis mature, they manufacture and secrete lipids (the mortar) which helps lock in moisture,” says Dr. Beibei Du-Harpur, a London-based dermatologist.

Unfortunately, these older skin cells that pile up tend to contribute to skin dullness. Which is why an entire array of products and tools, including chemical exfoliants (like the notoriously glorious P50), physical scrubs, peels, dermaplaning, microdermabrasion devices, and even good old-fashioned washcloths, exist to get rid of them. Sloughing these cells off reveals fresher, younger, sexier cells beneath. So we’ve been burning, scrubbing, and scraping off the top layer of our skin to look glowier, dewier, juicier. Makes total sense.

Unless you’re a skin-care professional. “The act of speeding up cell turnover with exfoliants and retinoids is a delicate balance between removing mature corneocytes (an essential part of the skin barrier) to facilitate a glowy appearance and not doing it so much that the epidermis and brick wall is fundamentally compromised,” says Du-Harpur. Basically, she’s advocating moderation, a theory we didn’t want to hear circa 2010, when we were prancing around like shiny ponies, retinol face writ large on our taut, reflective visages.

Now, however, it’s a different story. Peak retinol/P50/Red Peel has been achieved, but we’ve collectively blown our barriers in the process. “When the protective barrier gets damaged, it creates small, invisible cracks in the skin. Through these cracks, moisture that should be sealed inside escapes and irritants enter more easily, making skin tight, dry, and more sensitive,” says aesthetician Renée Rouleau. Signs of a damaged barrier are varied and include redness, peeling and flaking, and skin that feels dry, tight, sensitive, and itchy and that stings or burns when products are applied. Crepiness and fine lines are more pronounced, and you may experience eczema or increased breakouts.

More of us are experiencing sensitive skin than ever before. According to this research report, over the last two decades, surveys on sensitive skin have been conducted in over 20 different countries on five continents, demonstrating that people with sensitive skin represent over half the population. “Self-reported skin sensitivity is definitely on the rise, and the explosion of skin care as a hobby during the pandemic has definitely led to people struggling to find a balanced regime,” says Du-Harpur.

According to Rouleau, we’ve been needlessly needling our skin barriers, a.k.a. moisture barrier or acid mantle, for a long time. “I have been seeing this for the last ten years or so, it’s just a result of different types of products and devices.” She started noticing it with clients who used the Clarisonic, which was promoted for twice-a-day use. The popular sonic cleansing brush’s physical exfoliation was way too much for many people’s barriers, causing visible redness and irritation. Then came the exfoliating acid wave, which was when some of Rouleau’s overenthusiastic clients came in with acid burns. In the past few years, acid toners have become commonplace and a part of many skin-care enthusiasts’ daily or twice-daily routines, causing an uptick in irritation. “Lately, damaged barriers have increased because a lot of people are now adding a prescription retinoid into their routine. The side effect is a compromised moisture barrier, resulting in dryness,” she says.

Living in a dry climate or having a genetic predisposition to eczema or psoriasis can also be contributors to barrier damage. A skin-care routine with a lot of steps and active ingredients doesn’t help either. For instance, topical vitamin C products that contain ascorbic acid as the active ingredient are potential irritants — this form of vitamin C needs to be formulated at a low pH between 2.6 to 3.2 to penetrate the skin effectively. Rouleau has a laundry list of barrier stressors, including alcohol and smoking, as well as skin-care products with synthetic fragrances or high concentrations of essential oils.

Fixing the problem is easy: You can just stop using so much stuff. Exfoliants, retinol, and irritating ingredients like vitamin C are out. After you eliminate what’s causing the issue, a compromised barrier should take between two and four weeks to heal. Adopt a morning routine of washing with lukewarm water, followed by a moisturizer with barrier-supporting emollients, humectants, and occlusives plus ceramides and niacinamide. For the evening, a gentle cleansing to remove makeup and sunscreen followed by moisturizing with hydrating and barrier-supporting ingredients is all your skin needs.

“Look for specific ingredients that mimic the natural lipids found in your skin. Just because a moisturizer feels rich and greasy on the skin doesn’t necessarily mean that it will offer repair,” says Rouleau. Her recommendations include a product with 4 percent niacinamide or one with ceramides, essential fatty acids and omegas. Plant oils that are rich in fatty acids (such as carrot, borage, evening primrose, sunflower, soybean, safflower, jojoba, sweet almond, canola, and sesame) are beneficial.

Trendy new product launches these days are also mindful of barrier health, and are building protection and repair into their brand’s DNA. Superegg, a vegan skin-care line launched by creative director Erica Choi, has a nutritional cocktail of strengthening and protecting ingredients in its moisturizer. Essential humectants and emollients like vitamin B5, vitamin E, glycerin, ceramides, plant oils, and soothing centella asiatica keep the skin’s protective barrier healthy and optimally functioning.

In a strange twist, all the pros green-light a TikTok trend that can help. Slugging, or slathering the skin with a non-reactive occlusive like petroleum jelly or coconut oil to seal in moisture, should help most damaged barriers. “Damaged or broken skin needs moisture to facilitate healing; the skin’s repair cells work much quicker and more effectively in moist environments. If the skin compromise is significant, I prefer petrolatum-based ointments,” says Chicago-based dermatologist Omer Ibrahim. Slugging might not be the best choice for the acne-prone, and in that case, Ibrahim suggests a regular, cream-based moisturizer. “Look for creams containing fats such as triglycerides, phospholipids, or ceramides that help moisturize the skin and lock in the skin’s water content.”

If you take away just one piece of advice, it’s to do less. Pare down your routine to basic essentials only. Maybe baby steps are the path to baby skin?

This barrier warrior is the OG repair cream. It’s fragrance-free and contains a cocktail of ceramides and petroleum to repair and protect. Dr. Beibei Du-Harpur likes that it has a slightly lighter finish than other heavy-duty protective creams. Grab one the next time you see it at your drugstore — it’s newfound popularity on TikTok means it’s often sold out.

Derms swear by this vegan, cruelty-free, and fragrance-free soother loaded with tamanu, safflower and rosehip oils, plus niacinamide, a barrier-repairing powerhouse.

Photo: Retailer

This Avène balm has a more occlusive texture (perfect for your slugging needs) and also contains their own patented actives which include ceramides and fatty acids, so it gets Du-Harpur’s seal of approval.

Niacinamide, a friend to defunct skin barriers everywhere, is one of the heroes of this solid formula along with ceramides and cholesterol.

Photo: Retailer

“Instead of trying to solve skin issues or reversing damage after irritation, Korean culture cares for skin in a gentle, consistent way, taking care of it before it needs to be treated,” says Superegg’s founder Erica Choi. This moisturizer is a great choice for maintaining a healthy barrier.

Every product is independently selected by our editors. Things you buy through our links may earn us a commission.

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