Your skin barrier, which looks like a brick-and-mortar construction of cells and lipids, helps keep hydration and bacteria, allergens, and other things out. A robust and healthy skin barrier can help avoid breakouts, irritated skin, and premature aging. But, like the rest of your body, it needs some care. Here are five ways to keep it strong:
Keep it Hydrated
Why do you need to know the role of the skin barrier and how to repair the skin barrier on your face? The skin barrier is a wall of bricks that keeps hydration in and irritants, allergens, bacteria, and other nasty things out. But if it’s damaged, your skin loses moisture, becomes tight and flaky, and feels itchy.
The bricks are our skin cells, and the mortar is the lipid matrix, a protective layer filled with healthy fatty acids (like squalane) and ceramides to keep water in and toxins, pollutants, and pathogens out. Unfortunately, exposure to harsh cleansers and other ingredients can compromise the barrier, extreme environmental conditions, frequent chemical or mechanical exfoliation, and drying occlusive products like abrasives.
While repairing a barrier that’s already damaged is possible, it’s much easier to prevent damage in the first place. That means skipping abrasive scrubs and other exfoliators, choosing gentle cleansers and only using them three or four times a week (not to mention avoiding hot showers or baths), wearing sun protection with 30+ SPF daily, and steering clear of anything too harsh that could disturb the acid mantle or lipid barrier.
Instead, prioritize natural hydrating serums and moisturizers that include hyaluronic acid, plant oils, shea butter, or other nourishing ingredients. Look for products that specifically say they’re designed with a more substantial barrier in mind or have barrier-repair ingredients listed, like niacinamide, squalane, and panthenol. Also, skip overly harsh astringents like alcohol and opt for gentle plant-based alternatives that won’t disturb your skin’s natural pH.
Keep it Clean
The skin barrier is a complex layer with multiple functions, including regulating moisture levels, protecting the skin from external aggressors like bacteria and toxins, minimizing the effects of sun damage, and supporting cell turnover and elasticity. The skin barrier must be healthy and intact to perform its job effectively.
To do so, avoid harsh skincare ingredients and practices that can wreak havoc on the skin. Powerful astringents such as alcohol can strip the skin of its protective barrier and leave it susceptible to further harm. At the same time, exfoliants that use abrasive scrubs or chemicals can cause microtears in the wall, making it more prone to damage.
You can tell your skin barrier is damaged when it becomes dry, tight, and flaky. In addition, symptoms can include redness and sensitivity to irritation. It can also lead to flare-ups of inflammatory conditions such as rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis, all associated with barrier dysfunction.
The best way to maintain a strong skin barrier is to start with a gentle and hydrating cleanser. Choose a cleaner with a soothing ingredient, such as witch hazel, and avoid products containing sulfates, fragrance, and alpha or beta hydroxy acids that can disrupt the lipids in your barrier. Instead of chemical exfoliants, opt for a natural option such as jojoba oil or shea butter to provide gentle but effective physical exfoliation.
Keep it Moisturized
If your barrier isn’t functioning correctly, it won’t be able to lock in natural oils and moisture that keep your skin plump and happy. And if your skin is dehydrated, it won’t be able to heal itself as well, which can lead to dullness and redness, according to experts.
Whether you’ve damaged your barrier or have a sensitive one, it’s essential to tread carefully when using skincare products, especially exfoliators and harsh ingredients that can cause damage. The most common signs that your barrier is unhappy are dryness, flaking, a scaly texture, and stinging when you use products like cleansers or hydrating serums.
In addition to ditching harsh exfoliants, you can help replenish depleted lipids by using gentle moisturizers that contain skin-friendly ingredients like ceramides and glycerin, says Dr. Kanchanapoomi Levin. Opt for products with oils like rosehip seed oil, safflower oil, and sunflower seed oil, which hydrate with linoleic acid and panthenol (a vitamin B-5 derivative), which works as a healing lubricant.
Luckily, there’s a growing number of products that are specifically designed to repair and strengthen your barrier. Many of these formulas are easy to spot—they’ll include “barrier repair” or have similar labeling. Look for ingredients in the skin barrier (like ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids) and multitasking antioxidants like niacinamide to reinforce your barrier and protect against oxidative stress.
Keep it Protected
Your skin barrier is your zone defense, protecting you from skin enemies (irritants, pollution, bacteria) and keeping the good stuff in. But like any system, it needs tender loving care to function at its best.
When functioning well, your skin’s outer layer is organized into a neat brick-and-mortar pattern, with the stratum corneum cells being the bricks and the lipid matrix containing ceramides and essential fatty acids acting as the mortar. The result? This construction works beautifully to keep moisture in, irritants out, and dirt and allergens at bay.
But if your barrier isn’t in tip-top shape, it can leave you susceptible to a domino effect of skin issues. For example, suppose your wall isn’t functioning correctly. In that case, the lipids in the mortar can become disorganized and damaged, which leaves the skin more vulnerable to irritants, pollutants, and other environmental aggressors. This, in turn, can trigger your sebaceous glands to over-produce oil, leading to an imbalanced complexion, breakouts, and even eczema.
Luckily, while some factors that weaken your barrier are out of your control (age, genetics, and underlying conditions such as rosacea), you can make the most of what is in your power to fortify and nurture your skin barrier. Start by avoiding practices that damage your barrier, such as overly aggressive exfoliation and sun exposure, without a high-quality 30+ SPF sunscreen. Then choose skincare products that promote a healthy wall by looking for ingredients such as ceramides and hyaluronic acid, which can help your skin cells to hang onto water.