What Is Your Skin Barrier, and Why Is It Important?

A woman laughs while wearing a towel, a person scoops moisturizer from a jar, and another woman applies moisturizer to her shoulder

Trends come and go in everything, including skin care. Lately, you’ve likely seen people online or industry experts talking about the importance of the skin barrier, but what exactly is it?

Whether you’ve noticed a brand claiming its product can protect your skin barrier or heard it mentioned in a TikTok video, you might not know exactly what that means. That’s why we reached out to dermatologists, Dr. Hadley King and Dr. Joshua Zeichner, to find out everything you need to know about the skin barrier.

What Is the Skin Barrier?

A woman applies moisturizer.

In the simplest of terms, the skin barrier is the outermost layer of your skin, which is also known as the stratum corneum. It’s comprised of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids that work together to keep it intact. Zeichner used the metaphor of a particular room in your home to describe it.

“Think of your skin like tiles on your shower floor,” Zeichner said. “The skin cells themselves are the tiles, and natural fats represent the grout. Skin barrier defects typically develop as a result of a deficiency of those fats because of genetics or environmental exposures, like cold, dry weather or over-scrubbing.”

Why Is It Important to Keep Your Skin Barrier Healthy?

A bottle of serum sits on a plum.

Now that you know what the skin barrier iswhy should you be concerned about keeping it healthy? Well, its main function is to keep moisture in your body and protect you from environmental factors that are constantly attempting to wage war on your skin.

Not only does it help protect against any sort of mechanical injury, but it also keeps the skin healthy during rough weather conditions, like low humidity, and extreme cold or heat. It also helps protect against UV radiation and pollution.

Additionally, King explained that the barrier helps ensure your skin functions properly as a whole. Not only does it prevent moisture loss, but it also signals your skin to repair itself when it’s damaged and determines its flexibility.

And yes, you’ll likely be able to tell when your skin barrier isn’t working properly. Both King and Zeichner said dry, irritated, red, itchy, or flaking skin are all signs of an impaired skin barrier. No fun, right?

What Damages the Skin Barrier?

A woman applies moisturizer to her shoulder.

By now, you know that your skin barrier can be damaged, and you’ll have some nasty consequences on your hands if it is. But how can you prevent this from happening?

King explained that, apart from natural factors, like weather or genetics, the skin care products you use can be major factors in causing damage. Detergents in soaps, like sodium lauryl sulfate, and other alkaline formulas will strip your skin of its natural oils and disturb its barrier. Ultimately, this increases water loss and damages your skin.

The other culprit is acidic products. Alpha and beta hydroxy acids, retinoids, and amino fruit acids can all change the pH of your skin. This can weaken your skin barrier and open it up to infection and environmental damage.

Now, this doesn’t mean you have to immediately throw away all serums and creams that contain exfoliating acids or retinol. The ingredients themselves are completely safe, but it’s all about how you use them.

First, you should always incorporate products that contain these ingredients into your routine slowly. Start by using them once a week, and then gradually increase the frequency over time, paying close attention to how your skin reacts. Also, avoid mixing ingredients, as that can lead to irritation.

Can You Repair Your Skin Barrier?

A woman laughs and another person scoops moisturizer from a jar.

If you believe your skin barrier has been compromised, it’ll take some time to get it back in shape, but it is possible according to King and Zeichner. Ultimately, it comes down to using products with ingredients that will restore the barrier and treat any irritation.

King recommends using products that contain glycerin and hyaluronic acid to help hydrate your skin. She also advises using ceramides and petrolatum (yep, good old Vaseline) to help restore the lipids in your skin, lock in moisture, and protect the barrier.

Zeichner seconded ceramides and petrolatum, but added that any soaps or face washes you use should also be gentle and reparative. He recommended Dove’s Beauty Bar as a good alternative to other, harsher cleansers. Unfortunately, though, if you’re genetically prone to itchy, dry skin, these steps can only do so much.

Of course, there are also prescription options to repair any skin barrier damage. However, King said they must contain 1:1:1 ratios of ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids to be effective, which can be hard to discern on the skin care market.

This is why, if you’re suffering from severe skin damage or irritation, it’s best to consult a dermatologist to discuss which prescription options would be best for your situation. After all, you don’t want to cause any further damage to your skin by using the wrong product.

The skin barrier is precisely what it sounds like: an outer layer that protects the others from damage. If the barrier is damaged, however, it can cause dryness, irritation, or worse. If you’re dealing with any such issues, it might be time to make some changes to your routine that are more “barrier friendly.”

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