Everything You Need to Know about Repairing the Skin Barrier

by nylonpink


Unless you wake up with a huge zit on your cheek, you probably don’t give much thought to your skin. Nevertheless, your skin is always hard at work, repairing itself and protecting your body—organs, bones, and everything in between.

Think about it: your skin is on constant patrol, denying access to potential problem-posers while defending what’s inside, like the essential moisture that allows your cells to regenerate in a never-ending cycle.

Too often we assign rashes, acne, irritation, and other dermatological issues to sensitive skin. However, genuinely sensitive skin is usually inherited and manifests itself in the form of psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, and other similar skin disorders.

The real cause of many of the issues that ail our skin is actually a damaged skin barrier, in which case your skin is not sensitive, only sensitized. In this ultimate guide to repairing the skin barrier, we will learn about the skin barrier, what causes the skin barrier to become damaged, and how a damaged skin barrier can be repaired. Finally, we’ll suggest some kick-ass products that can help you to restore a damaged skin barrier (or prevent your barrier from becoming damaged).

What is the skin barrier?

Located on the skin’s outermost layer, the stratum corneum (also known as the skin barrier) is what separates us from the outside world. This organ’s primary functions include helping to protect the body from foreign invaders as well as inhibiting the escape of water from our bodies.

To help you better understand the concept, think of the skin barrier as a wall of bricks. The bricks are “corneocytes”—multiple stacks of flattened cells that make up the skin barrier. Lipids are the mortar surrounding the bricks. While the cells of the stratum corneum are in fact dead, they provide a formidable obstacle to the escaping of water from our bodies. They also provide a protective shield against the entry of foreign invaders such as microbes, toxic chemicals, bacteria, and even sunburn.

If your skin barrier is healthy, you can expect a bright, smooth, clear, and even complexion. On the contrary, individuals with a damaged skin barrier may experience rashes, breakouts, broken capillaries, dryness, tightness, and other symptoms, which are often wrongly attributed to sensitive skin.

What causes the skin barrier to become damaged?

The skin barrier is relatively sensitive and can become damaged for a number of reasons.

  • Age. Your skin barrier’s effectiveness naturally weakens as you get older.
  • Emotional stress. Studies have shown that stress can cause a delay in the recovery of skin barrier function.
  • Lack of sleep. The same study indicated that sleep deprivation decreases skin barrier function recovery.
  • Environmental stress. Things such as climate change, indoor overheating or overcooling, and toxins in the air or water can all cause the skin barrier to become damaged.
  • Smoking. Smoking pulls moisture from the skin and slows down collagen production and cell metabolism, damaging the skin barrier.
  • Over-exfoliation. Exfoliation is imperative to maintaining a bright, vibrant, and healthy complexion. However, overdoing it disrupts your skin’s natural balance and causes the skin barrier to become damaged.
  • Excessive washing. Again, washing is crucial for maintaining a youthful appearance, but too much washing can actually strip your skin of its natural moisture, particularly if you use harsh soaps or wash with hot water.
  • Nutrition. The better your diet, the healthier your skin barrier. However, the consumption of spicy foods has been linked to the weakening of the skin barrier. Additionally, low-fat diets may deplete lipid strength, an integral part of the skin barrier.
  • Alcohol consumption. Alcoholic beverages can dehydrate tissues, resulting in dilated capillaries, which can lead to redness and flushing.

If you’ve not been exposed to any of these triggers and are still experiencing some complexional difficulties, you may just have a naturally weaker barrier. According to Dr. Rebecca Kazin, a dermatologist at the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery and the Johns Hopkins Department of Dermatology, more fragile barriers are often the case for individuals with rosacea, very dry skin, and those who live in harsh climates.

How can I know if my skin barrier is damaged?

A sound barrier means healthy skin. If you notice that your skin looks flaky and dry, yet you constantly have an excess of oil, you may have an improperly functioning skin barrier on your hands. Additionally, itchy, dehydrated, irritated, and overly-sensitive skin are also major signs that your barrier has been compromised.

Dr. Kazin explains, “Irritants that your barrier would otherwise block out are able to permeate the barrier when it’s damaged.” When irritants enter into the skin, you experience symptoms similar to those experienced by people with sensitive skin. However, there is a big difference between sensitive skin and sensitized skin. Whereas sensitive skin is a skin type, sensitized skin is caused by damage to the skin barrier.

How can a damaged skin barrier be repaired?

As we mentioned before, sensitive skin is inherited whereas sensitized skin is not. That’s actually really great news because it means that with some good practices, we can work to rectify the damage that we’ve created.

Lifestyle modification. Alcohol consumption is one of the main culprits inflicting damage on our skin barriers. According to Dr. Nick Lowe, a professor of dermatology based in London and Los Angeles, “Alcohol does several things to our bodies, none of them good.” When you consume alcohol, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that causes peripheral blood vessels to expand and become wider, allowing more blood to flow through our skin. This leads to red, flushed-looking skin.

So if you get a little too happy at happy hour, you may have to choose between your Flirtini-fix or clear skin.

Get some shut eye. It’s called “beauty sleep” for a reason. I kind of cringe as I write this because my sleep schedule is super out of whack, but sleep is crucial if you want to repair your barrier. At night, three paramount skin processes occur: cells get repaired, cellular energy is replenished, and cellular detox enzymes go to work.

While these processes also function during the day, they perform optimally at night. First, during the day, your skin is constantly being bombarded with UV rays, pollutants, sweat, and other damaging factors, and your skin can’t keep up. Secondly, at night, the nervous system switches from the sympathetic system to the parasympathetic system; this results in an increased blood flow to the skin, allowing restorative processes to occur more efficiently and effectively.

Wear sunscreen. If you’re like most people, you probably only apply sunscreen when you’re going to the beach or the pool, but it should become a part of your daily beauty routine. And to kill two birds with one stone (I never really understood that phrase…why would I even want to kill a bird?!), get one with SPF and antioxidants. That way, you’re protecting your skin from harmful UV rays while simultaneously defending it from environmental stressors such as pollution or smog.

Revamp your beauty routine. You may not know it, but you could be your barrier’s own worst enemy.. If you regularly over-exfoliate with harsh scrubs or use a face brush too often, you could be inadvertently weakening your skin’s natural defense system.

Skincare products manufactured with highly active ingredients such as salicylic acid can strip your skin and cause even more damage to already sensitized skin. Additionally, foaming cleansers are notorious for robbing your face of its natural moisture. Furthermore, products that contain silicones, although they may make your skin feel moisturized, aren’t actually doing you any favors. Although silicone-laden products make your face feel softer, they don’t truly moisturize it. Your skin should never feel dry or tight after cleansing

Invest in a humidifier. Harsh climates (both overly hot and excessively cold temperatures) can suck the moisture out of the air. Additionally, running heaters and lighting fireplaces during the cold, winter months can also dehumidify the air. Extreme lack of moisture in the air can cause dry and cracking skin. Investing in a humidifier is an easy way to ensure that the levels of moisture in your home are up to par.

Drink lots of water. Your skin can’t be hydrated if your body is dehydrated. It’s that simple.

Also Recommended to Protect the Skin Barrier

Humectants are essential ingredients in skincare products, especially those touting anti-aging properties. They promote the retention of moisture. Some of the most popular humectants are glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and squalene. Be on the lookout for these next time you’re purchasing a new product.

Glycerin is the most widely known humectant. It is very sticky, so it is not recommended that you apply directly onto your skin, but you may add a few drops to your moisturizer. Additionally, if used during the day, it can make your skin look shiny, so we think it’s best to use a moisturizer with added glycerin during the night.

Hyaluronic acid is usually found is serums, though it is becoming more common in creams and lotions. This ingredient is naturally derived and can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water. Hyaluronic acid is very lightweight, thin, and generally is not sticky. You can apply HA directly to damp skin, followed by a rich moisturizer.

Squalane is a compound usually derived from olives but can also be derived from shark oil. Squalane is a saturated form of squalene, one of the most common lipids produced human skin cells.

Petroleum jelly is a jack of all trades. It is an occlusive agent, which inhibits the loss of moisture. Unlike humectants which draw moisture in, occlusives keep moisture in.

Humidifiers are a great way to increase the humidity in your home. Proper levels of moisture can help to repair a damaged skin barrier or can prevent your skin barrier from becoming damaged.

We love this Cool Mist Humidifier and Essential Oil Diffuser by VicTsing. It’s adorable (it kind of looks like an upside down acorn), and not only does it humidify the air, but you can also add essential oils to create pleasant scents throughout your home. This unit can hold up to 300ml of water and produces up to 30ml of moisture per hour.

Gentle hydrating cleansers clean your face while allowing you to maintain your skin’s natural moisture.

ATOPALM's Moisturizing Facial Cleansing Foam is a luxurious foaming face wash that cleans your skin without stripping it keeping your skin barrier secure and hydrated

Sunscreens packed with antioxidants allow you to get a one-two punch on potential problem-posers. While the SPF protects against harmful UV rays from the sun, the powerful antioxidants help fight off the adverse effects caused by pollution, smog, and other toxins.

Avene Mineral Ultra-Light Hydrating Sunscreen is one of the best in its class. It is fragrance free and has an SPF of 50.

If you have long been plagued by dry, red, itchy, and acne-prone skin, it’s likely that you’ve been blaming sensitive skin. However, more often than not, your skin is not sensitive, only sensitized thanks to a damaged skin barrier.

Even if you are not a skincare fanatic with intricate and extensive beauty rituals, taking care of your skin is crucial for your overall wellbeing. Think about it. Your skin provides your body with its first layer of protection against the outside world. Damaged skin means that foreign invaders can penetrate through your body’s protective covering and wreak havoc.

Fortunately, repairing a damaged barrier is really quite simple. If you follow some of the recommendations detailed in our ultimate guide to repairing the skin barrier, you can expect to see a noticeable difference in your complexion within 10 to 14 days.

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