What is Your Skin Barrier and Why is Everyone Talking About It?

So why exactly is everyone talking about barrier repair right now? In addition to it being an extremely important factor in your overall skin health—more on that later—the pandemic may have something to do with the influx of interest in barrier-strengthening products.

“Barrier repair is such a huge conversation for myriad reasons,” says Sean Garrette, a licensed esthetician, Fenty Skin ambassador, and barrier-repair enthusiast. He says one reason the skin barrier is top of mind right now is because, for many, it’s more irritated than usual. “Because we’re wearing masks and facial coverings daily, a lot of us are suffering from maskne,” he says of the breakouts and irritation caused from the friction and heat of wearing a face mask.

New York dermatologist Shereene Idriss, M.D., agrees that masks are bringing irritation top of mind. She also says the pandemic has given us extra time to really pay attention to our skin. “Unlike previously, when people did not have the time or bandwidth to understand their skin and would rely on makeup to cover up, people are finally taking the time to understand how to repair their skin rather than just mask it,” she says.

What exactly is the skin barrier and its function?

Basically, your skin is composed of several different layers, and your skin barrier—also called your moisture barrier—is the outermost one. In the simplest terms, its job is to keep bad things like irritants out and good things like hydration in. Many dermatologists say to think of your skin barrier as a brick- and-mortar structure. “The bricks are skin cells, and the mortar is the lipids and proteins between,” says Mona Gohara, M.D, a dermatologist in Connecticut. “Together they keep water locked in and irritants out.”

Keeping water in your skin is your barrier’s number one job, and is key for not only dewy, bouncy skin, but overall healthy skin. Keeping your barrier strong slows down transcutaneous evaporative water loss (TEWL), which can lead to skin conditions like atopic dermatitis and eczema.

What causes a damaged skin barrier?

Your skin barrier can very easily become damaged, and those bricks become unglued. This leads to the water loss mentioned above, and your skin can become dehydrated and irritated. Most of the barrier damage comes from stripping your skin of its natural oils with harsh cleansers, acne medication, and acids.

Scrubbing too hard, waxing, and using DIY ingredients like lemon and baking soda, and on some skin types, alcohol and fragrance are also common culprits for damage. Idriss warns that over-utilizing the same ingredients in different steps of your routine—for example, a salicylic acid face wash and toner—can also contribute to dehydration. She says internal factors like stress and hormones can also lead to an impaired barrier.

Garrette says that one of the main reasons his clients experience barrier damage is because they are exfoliating way too often. It’s hard not to fall into the trap of buying six different exfoliating products, but it’s so easy to overdo it and cause sensitivity and irritation.

What are the signs of skin-barrier damage?

One of the few plus sides of a compromised barrier? It’s pretty easy to tell that that’s what you’re dealing with. Your skin will look and feel irritated overall—think redness, scaly texture, itching, and inflammation. Gohara says you can even experience rashes, while Garrette says a telltale sign of a damaged barrier is that you experience stinging and burning when applying nonactive products like cleansers or hydrating serums. An out-of-whack barrier may also lead to acne, which will only be exacerbated by more harsh treatments.

How to repair a damaged skin barrier

If the above paragraph had you scared that one too many exfoliating products would leave you red and scaly forever, that’s not the case. In fact, reversing the damage is actually a pretty straightforward process, and you’ll get your barrier back in good shape. While your first instinct may be to up your skin- care game, all three experts say less is way more here.

“Allow your skin to renew itself—skin care as simple as Vaseline or Aquaphor is all you need to get there,” says Idriss (see our guide to “slugging” for more info on that technique). “This also includes avoiding all makeup as well. The thought of this is terrifying to my patients dealing with damaged skin barriers, but the short-term disturbance of quitting it all is worth the long-term gain of clear and smooth skin.”

Vaseline Petroleum Jelly

Garrette gives his clients with impaired barriers a little more leeway but still recommends a stripped-back routine. He recommends taking two or three weeks off from all active products and ingredients like exfoliants, retinol, and even vitamin C. “Focus on healing, hydrating, nourishing, and skin-replenishing ingredients like niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, ceramides, cholesterol, beta- glucan, sodium PCA, squalane, and centella asiatica,” he says.

As for Gohara? “I always recommend the Avène Cicalfate+ Restorative Protective Cream,” she says. “It’s a rich, nourishing cream that soothes and calms damaged skin, and utilizes the brand’s proprietary C+ Restore complex, the world’s first post-biotic skin repairing active ingredient.” No matter what products you decide to use, remember to keep it simple, go for a balmy texture, and look for keywords like hydrating and soothing.

How to protect your skin barrier

In addition to repairing your barrier, you’re going to want to protect and strengthen it so it’s less susceptible to future damage. The number one secret to keeping your barrier strong and healthy? “Stop playing chemist,” says Idriss. “So many people are overdoing it with their skin-care routines and harming themselves in the process. 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.”

If you’re adding new products to your routine, introduce them one at a time, and go easy on the actives. “Slow and steady wins the race and saves your skin barrier in the process,” says Idriss.

Similarly, Gohara recommends using gentle, nonsoap cleansers and incorporating barrier-repairing ingredients like ceramides, glycerine, and centella into your daily routine. And she warns that you’re probably exfoliating much more than you should be. Unless you have extremely acne-prone skin, one to three times a week should be plenty. And of course, be thoughtful when it comes to your routine. “If your skin is too dry, or appears irritated or itchy, take a moment to identify what in your skin routine may be the culprit.”

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