The skin barrier is another term for the outermost layer of our skin, also known as the stratum corneum or lipid barrier. The functions of this barrier are to defend and protect the skin against pollutants, UV light, infection and irritants. Another key role is locking in hydration. If the skin barrier function is damaged or comprimised in any way it can manifest into breakouts, sensitivity and other conditions through our skin. Preventing damage, caring for and maintaining a healthy barrier function is important for the overall health of the skin. Prevention is always better than cure.
What is the skin barrier?
The skin barrier or the stratum corneum is often described as the brick wall. The tough skin cells of the skin barrier are bound together with mortar like lipids giving the structure a ‘brick’ like appearance. These cells or ‘bricks’ are made up of keratin and natural moisturisers. The lipid ‘mortar’ layer is made up of lipids which in turn are made up of fatty acids, cholesterol and ceramides. This barrier keeps out environmental toxins, pathogens and irritants as well as protecting from UV. Additionally the skin barrier keeps water in, keeping us hydrated.
To complete the whole skin barrier picture we need to remember the acid mantle, the thin film lying on top of the skin's surface that is made up of lipids mixed with amino acids from sweat. Along with the microbiome, the healthy bacteria living on the skin's surface, this is all part of the delicate matrix that creates a healthy, slightly acidic skin barrier.
Skin damage or an impaired skin barrier can allow bacteria and pollutants into the skin and water out creating havoc for our skin and bodies. A good skincare regime to take care of our skin barrier health and to further improve the skin barrier is something our skin will thank us for.
Healthy skin barrier vs. damaged barrier. With a healthy skin barrier, water stays in and irritants stay out. Skin with an impaired barrier function loses water and can't prevent irritants and bacteria from entering.
Signs of a damaged skin barrier
The signs of a compromised skin barrier are usually sensitized, dry flaky skin or redness, sometimes signs of premature ageing, inflammatory conditions, itchiness and skin damage on face. So, if your skin feels tight or rough to touch, is shiny but not oily, or even shows hyperpigmentation or redness, your skin might have an impaired barrier function. Before we deal with the question of whether skin damage is reversible it's important to be aware of how we have done the damage in the first place. We can then make a plan of how to restore skin barrier damage. So don’t stress, that can create other skin concerns! And let's go about repairing the skin barrier.
What causes skin damage
In answer to what can cause damage to the skin we need to be aware there are everyday environmental assaults that we have no control over. We can protect ourselves by using preventative products and use skin barrier repair products if we need an extra boost.
Here is a list of the main culprit stressors that cause an impaired skin barrier function and skin damage:
UV exposure. UV damage to skin is a well known environmental stressor that causes premature ageing but equally damages the skin's barrier function amongst other serious potential concerns.
Pollutants. Air pollution, tobacco smoke and other environmental stressors can increase free radical levels on your skin, impairing its functioning.
Harsh products. Products with a high ph (alkaline) can strip and damage the acid mantle barrier.
Over-washing. Especially when you are using aggressive exfoliants or scrubs.
(Active) skin care ingredients. Fragrance, essential oils and other irritants in skin care products can disrupt a healthy skin barrier function. Also the over-use or incorrect use of actives like retinol can cause damage.
Diet. A balanced diet and healthy nutrition are essential for a healthy skin. Find out what foods you should include into your clear skin diet.
Stress. The relationship between stress and skin is intricate and the effects of stress on skin can be far-reaching.
How to repair the skin barrier
When you can identify reasons contributing to a damaged skin barrier it's time to eliminate and remove any of the factors mentioned. A skin barrier cream is not enough in isolation to remedy the problem. We need more than products to repair the skin barrier, a skin barrier repair routine is needed.
It will vary from person to person when asking how long it takes to repair a skin barrier and often it's taken some time to do the damage. Restoring the skin barrier requires us to look at our lifestyle and look to skincare for a damaged barrier. A simple skin barrier repair cream can help to moisturise skin but the skin is now in need of reparative treatment as well.
Here's our checklist to get back on track, simplify your skin routine and start the healing process.
Use gentle, mild products with a suitable pH, look for products for sensitive skin.
Check the ingredients list and make sure to avoid harsh ingredients or fragrance.
Use only lukewarm water, never hot!
Avoid scrubs, use a gentle exfoliant instead.
Don't over do it with active ingredients like retinol. Instead, try anti aging ingredients like bakuchiol - a gentle alternative to retinol and suitable for sensitive skin.
Look for products with protective anti inflammatories, calming ingredients and antioxidants. CBD skin care is a great choice to naturally strengthen and protect your skin barrier.
Always use moisturiser, even if you have oily skin. It is a big misconception that oily skin does not need care - we wrote an entire blog article about why face oil is great for oily skin.
Always protect with SPF.
Once the barrier function has been damaged it may take a little time to repair and for the lipids and ceramides to be restored. But with some self care, the right skincare and healthy lifestyle choices the skin's barrier can be brought back into balance.
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About the author:
Frances Prescott is our J’TANICALS Beauty Expert. She is a leading makeup artist and facialist with over 20 years of experience in the beauty industry. She has worked on the faces of celebrities, models, sporting superstars and actors. She understands that a healthy skin is the best foundation for makeup. Having had a background as a nurse early in her career she has an awareness of health, wellness and lifestyle needing to be in balance before we even think of our skincare regime.