Acting as a protective shield between the skin and the outside world, the skin barrier – or stratum corneum – is made up of skin cells, lipids and fatty acids and protects the skin’s microbiome from damaging pollution, irritants and bacteria whilst also trapping in moisture and preventing transepidermal water loss.
When the skin barrier is healthy and functioning at optimal capacity, the skin is firm, smooth and radiant. But when even one strain in our skin microbiome overgrows and starts to crowd out others, this;’ leads to an imbalance, and that’s when problems begin to emerge.
These problems can manifest themselves in many ways, including acne, eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis. It can even accelerate ageing in the skin leading to fine lines and wrinkles and loss of elasticity.
So how exactly can you tell if your skin barrier has been compromised, and how can you nurture it for happier, healthier skin?
What are the signs that your barrier has been compromised?
If your skin suddenly becomes red, tight, itchy, flaky or rough, or if it develops fine lines, breakouts or rashes, it could be because your skin barrier is crying out for help. When the skin barrier is compromised, we lose moisture through the skin, and the dermal layers become dehydrated. You may experience sensitivity reactions to products, sunlight, and even foods because your skin isn’t behaving as it usually does – keeping the bad things out and the good things in.
What can you do to strengthen your skin barrier?
If your skin feels out-of-sorts, take your skincare back to basics. Stop applying active ingredients and, instead, focus on creamy cleansers formulated to soothe and hydrate. It would be best to look for products with very few ingredients and nothing that’s going to irritate.
In terms of moisturisers, look for those rich in ingredients such as ceramides, squalene, and glycerin, focusing on boosting hydration levels in the deeper layers of the skin to repair and restore the skin barrier.
Keeping things simple, the only other product you should be using is your broad-spectrum sunscreen. If the skin is quite irritated, use a mineral sunscreen, as it tends to be better tolerated in skin that’s misbehaving.
For many people, when it comes to repairing an impaired barrier, the approach of stopping and resetting can be the most practical way forward. And then, rebuild your routine slowly, starting with the least complicated products possible, one product at a time.
If your skin is very inflamed, or if it’s red itchy and sore, you may require a topical steroid to shut down the inflammation. Only then can we slowly introduce some new elements to your regime.
This is why it’s often wise to get some help with skincare regime building. Even just a one-off appointment can really help you have the confidence to move forward, building an effective routine for your skin to get the most out of your products safely.
How can you keep your barrier balanced?
When it comes to looking after your skin barrier, prevention is better than cure. Here are my top skin health habits for keeping your complexion looking its best and minimising damage:
• Don’t use makeup wipes. They may seem convenient, but steer clear of them. Makeup wipes are packed with alcohol, synthetics and fragrance, which will only irritate your skin, causing sensitivity and redness. They also don’t do a great job of removing make-up, grime and pollution from your skin. Carrying out a proper cleanse will lead to healthier skin in the long term.
• Always cleanse with lukewarm water. Water that’s too hot or cold dries out the skin and causes irritation.
• Don’t overdo it when using active ingredients like retinol, AHAs, and BHAs or acne treatments. The belief that slathering on active ingredients will speed up results is one that I repeatedly see in patients when they come to see me for the first time. All you’re doing is irritating the skin and damaging the epidermis. So, start by applying active products once or twice a week to build up your skin’s tolerance gradually.
• Protect your skin from the sun every day. Sun exposure is one of the major causes of a damaged skin barrier. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or greater alongside a good quality antioxidant serum.
• Don’t use abrasive scrubs as they can cause micro-tears to the skin’s surface. Instead, use a gentle chemical exfoliant such as retinol or glycolic acid.