Signs Your Skin's Moisture Barrier Is Broken and How to Fix It, According to Dermatologists

Woman using face cream in the bathroom
Woman using face cream in the bathroom



  1. On This Page

    • What Is a Moisture Barrier?

    • Causes of a Broken Moisture Barrier

    • Symptoms of a Broken Moisture Barrier

    • How to Repair a Broken Moisture Barrier

Have you ever applied everything from face creams to retinols only to wake up with more irritated skin than you went to bed with? If so, there may be one key thing keeping you from achieving your desired glow: a broken moisture barrier. This buzz-worthy layer of skin is responsible for protecting you from external factors, like chemicals and bacteria, and when it's damaged your skin can become irritated. But once you identify your skin barrier is broken, you're one step closer to repairing it—which is possible with a few simple adjustments.

Related: The Truth About Skin Cycling: Will Rotating Your Routine's Most Impactful Products Really Improve Your Skin?

What Is a Moisture Barrier?

Your skin is composed of several layers, and your moisture barrier—also referred to as a skin barrier or skin moisture barrier—is the outermost one. The moisture barrier helps you retain water in your skin, which prevents it from getting dry and irritated. "The moisture barrier is essential for protecting the skin and helping to keep out harmful bacteria, environmental stressors, and other irritants," says Aanand Geria, MD, board certified dermatologist in Verona, N.J. "It's also beneficial in helping to maintain natural nutrients, oils, and moisture."

Causes of a Broken Moisture Barrier

There's no one-size-fits-all reason for a broken barrier. "A broken barrier can be caused by multiple things—outside factors such as harsh or irritating products can affect it, as well as aging, and a lack of skin care," says Nkem Ugonabo, MD, MPH, board-certified dermatologist at Unionderm.

Using Harsh Ingredients

One common reason the barrier breaks is from using abrasive products, like exfoliants or chemical peels. "Our moisture barrier can be broken if natural oils are stripped away, leaving the skin vulnerable," says Dr. Geria. "This can happen using harsh products such as cleaners, specific makeup, and acne medication. If you have sensitive skin, look for ingredients like baking soda, alcohol, and fragrances, which can cause damage to the moisture barrier."

Genetic Conditions

Genetics may also play a role in the health of your skin barrier. Conditions that cause mutations in certain proteins can decrease the "glue" between the cells in the outermost layer of skin. "People who have atopic dermatitis (eczema), psoriasis, or rosacea may be more likely to have a damaged moisture barrier," says Dr. Ugonabo.

Morning Routine: Attractive Asian Woman Applying Face Cream in her Home
Morning Routine: Attractive Asian Woman Applying Face Cream in her Home


Symptoms of a Broken Moisture Barrier

A compromised barrier can result in dry, inflamed skin. "Furthermore, it leaves your skin susceptible to irritation, injuries, microorganisms, and other insults from the environment," says Dr. Ugonabo. Because a damaged moisture barrier stems from water loss in the skin, it can also cause reduced elasticity, resulting in rough skin, accelerated aging, and formation of wrinkles overtime.

You may also find you have more breakouts when your moisture barrier is damaged. "A compromised barrier cannot protect your skin against bacteria and other harmful irritants that cause acne flare-ups," says Dr. Geria.

How to Repair a Broken Moisture Barrier

Apply Oils

Since your natural oils are depleted when your moisture barrier is broken, one way to repair it is by using a well-formulated oil at the end of your skin care routine each night. "Doing this will help provide your skin with the moisture it needs to start healing and sealing over other products that are helping to fix your moisture barrier," says Dr. Geria.

Use Products With Ceramides

A hero ingredient in skin care, ceramides are a crucial component of the top layer of skin. A depletion in ceramides can lead to breakage of the protective barrier, increasing water loss and your skin's susceptibility to environmental factors. "Using ceramides can help repair dryness and itchiness," says Dr. Geria. "Ceramide-rich moisturizers, in particular, are good at strengthening our skin's structural barrier, which are helpful if you struggle with acne."

Wear Sunscreen

Too much exposure to the sun can also cause a broken moisture barrier. "Protection from the outside from UV damage—such as UVA, UVB, UVC, environmental rays, and blue rays—is also very important," says Julie Russak, MD, FAAD, board certified dermatologist and founder of the Russak Dermatology Clinic. "Sunscreen will protect your skin from the breakage in the DNA in the keratinocyte cells themselves, which can potentially also break down the protective barrier."

Avoid Overusing Acids

While products that contain acids can help your skin, overusing them can cause damage to the moisture barrier. Alpha hydroxy acids, beta hydroxy acids, glycolic, and retinols are used to remove dead layers of the skin in order to allow healthier cells to come up to the surface. These chemical exfoliants should only be used about once or twice a week and never on the same days you apply a retinoid. "If you're constantly stripping the skin from those healthy cells that are trying to come up and repopulate the skin, eventually you will break down your barrier and actually create more harm," says Dr. Russak.

Stay Hydrated

Healing your body from the inside out by staying hydrated is also an effective way to restore your moisture barrier. "Water goes beneath our skin barrier, infusing liquids into our cells to plump them up," says Dr. Geria. "When dehydrated, we do not provide our body with the resources to protect our moisture barrier."