You Might Be Damaging Your Skin Barrier Without Even Realizing It

woman applying moisture cream at her face
So...What's A Skin Barrier, Anyway?Sergey Mironov - Getty Images

You've invested in all the walnut scrubs and AHA-infused cleansers that have become trendy over the past few years, and you pride yourself in your five-step skincare routine. It feels like you've got it all figured out—until your skin turns into a red, itchy, irritated, angry mess.

While exfoliating ingredients are necessary for that youthful glow, taking too many actives to the face can cause something called your skin barrier to become compromised, which contributes to irritation. (Another classic case of too much of a good thing being, well, not too great.)

Meet Our Experts: Aanand Geria, MD, board-certified dermatologist based in New Jersey, Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, board-certified cosmetic dermatologist, Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic & clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital

But what's a skin barrier anyway, and what is its overall purpose? To keep your skin looking and feeling its best, we consulted top dermatologists to walk us through exactly what your skin barrier is and what you need to do to protect (or repair) it.

What Is Your Skin Barrier, Anyway?

Our skin has multiple layers, and the skin barrier is the outermost layer of skin, says Aanand Geria, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New Jersey.

The skin barrier's purpose is to keep out harmful aggressors and maintain healthy, hydrated skin, explains Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, a board-certified cosmetic dermatologist.

Think of the skin’s structure as that of a brick wall. "Imagine that the skin cells (keratinocytes) are the bricks, and the mortar or glue that holds them together is a mix of ceramides, lipids, and cholesterol," Dr. Engelman says. "When the skin barrier is healthy and functioning properly, it acts as a layer that prevents aggressors like pollutants, infectious agents and more from affecting our skin and our bodies, while allowing beneficial substances like hydration and skincare ingredients to pass through and be absorbed by the skin."

What Causes Your Skin Barrier To Weaken?

There are a variety of factors that can affect the health of your skin barrier, says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic & clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. "Genetically, some people are predisposed to barrier disruption," he says. "In conditions like atopic dermatitis, the skin barrier naturally is weak, which contributes to the characteristic rash."

But while the genes we're born with predispose us to our skin type and how resilient our skin barrier is, how well we take care of our skin and what external factors we're exposed to also play a significant role, Dr. Engelman says.

Here are just a few triggers that can damage your skin barrier:

  • Over-exfoliating: Over-exfoliating can damage the skin barrier by stripping away the natural oils that the skin needs to help protect it from dirt and impurities, Dr. Geria says.

  • Harsh ingredients: Things like alcohol, fragrances, and overused active ingredients like L-ascorbic acid, glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids can cause damage to the skin barrier, Dr. Geria says.

  • Dry climates: Extremely hot or cold environments can cause dry, itchy patches to develop on your skin, Dr. Geria says. Cold, dry weather, can strip the skin of essential oils in a process called transepidermal water loss (TWL), which occurs when environments of less-than-optimal humidity (optimal humidity is 40-60 percent) pull moisture out of our skin and bodies through the skin barrier, Dr. Engelman says. "This leaves the skin dry and can cause redness, flaking, cracking and irritation. It also leaves the skin barrier more vulnerable to assailants like infectious agents, pollutants and more," she adds.

  • Skipping sunscreen: According to Dr. Geria, UV rays are strong enough to affect the proteins that help skin cells stick to each other. When the skin barrier is exposed to sunlight, cells in the skin barrier become weak, losing the ability to bond with other cells. "Even on cloudy days, protecting yourself by wearing daily sunscreen is essential," he advises.

How Can I Tell My Skin Barrier Is Damaged?

The outside world is public enemy number one for our skin: we're exposed to free radicals from things like pollution and the sun's UV rays on a daily basis, and our skin barrier is like the little army that works overtime to protect it. But when it's disrupted, your skin can look and feel like a hot mess.

Here are the tell-tale signs your skin barrier might be damaged, according to Dr. Geria:

  • Itchiness

  • Dullness and dehydrated skin

  • Rough, discolored patches

  • Acne and breakouts

  • Skin infections

  • Chronic skin irritation

  • Eczema or rosacea. (A genetic defect in the skin barrier typically causes these skin conditions, Dr. Geria says. But this one's a catch-22: extra damage to the skin barrier can also cause these conditions to flare up.)

How To Heal A Damaged Skin Barrier

So what happens when these aggressors hit your face is basically a breakdown of the ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol in your skin. Think back to our brick-and-mortar skin analogy: "These lipids form a mortar around the skin cells, which are like the bricks," says Dr. Geria. That's why restoring the skin with lipids is key.

First off, you'll want to eat plenty of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as oily fish (salmon, herring) as well as chia seeds, and flaxseeds. "These regulate the skin's oil production and keep it hydrated, improving the lipid barrier," Dr. Geria says. To keep the skin plump, you'll also want to eat collagen-supporting foods, particularly in the winter. "These include bone broth, eggs, citrus foods, and garlic," Dr. Geria says.

While you are what you eat, the products you put on your face also matter. The dermatologists we spoke to recommend choosing facial products with the following key ingredients for skin barrier repair:

  • Ceramides: These make up the building blocks of the skin barrier, so incorporating them into your skincare routine will help fortify and rebuild the skin barrier, Dr. Engelman says.

  • Peptides: According to Dr. Engelman, these signal the body to repair itself and boost collagen production, helping to heal and strengthen the skin barrier.

  • EGF: "EGF signals fibroblasts (cells in the skin that produce collagen and elastin) to repair the skin barrier and give skin a more youthful appearance," Dr. Engelman says.

  • Niacinamide: A form of vitamin B3, this ingredient increases the skin's hydration and improves elasticity and is excellent for warding off environmental agonists, Dr. Geria says. You can find niacinamide in serums, toners, and creams.

The cherry on top? You'll want to pair these restorative ingredients with humectants (aka ingredients that attract and hold moisture in the skin) like glycerin and hyaluronic acid, along with other gentle-yet-hydrating ingredients like vitamin E, aloe and squalane, Dr. Engelman says.

And this might go without saying, but you'll also want to completely stop all exfoliators—even acids, and retinoids—for the time being while your skin barrier heals, Dr. Geria says.

"With proper care, the skin barrier can be restored and back on track in two to four weeks, and even quicker for some," he adds. At the very least, Dr. Zeichner notes that, if your case is mild, you'll see improvements in your skin barrier within a day or two.

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