When you shop for skincare products, chances are high you’ve seen liberal references to your skin barrier. But your skin barrier isn’t only a cosmetic reference; it’s not a buzzword created by the health and beauty industry. Your skin barrier is a miraculous, hardworking anatomical part of your body that protects your skin—it is the literal barrier between your skin and outside elements.
Your skin is your largest—and most overlooked—organ. Your brain and heart get all the attention, but imagine yourself without skin. It’s difficult and, well, disgusting. Your skin covers and protects your body while letting it interact with the world through touch, temperature, humidity, and more. It’s brilliant.
Your skin barrier is equally impressive in its essential function. According to this journal article, the “importance of the skin barrier cannot be overemphasized. The skin barrier is important to human life.” You likely already care about the condition of your skin, but your concern might not go as deep as warranted. Here are the basic What, Why, and How you should know.
- WHAT is the skin barrier?
Your skin barrier is exactly what it sounds like: a barricade that protects your skin. It’s the outermost layers of skin cells, including, if you want to get technical, the stratum corneum. This is the hard layer on the surface that actively sheds dead skin cells. This visible layer tells you a lot about the health of your skin.
This external layer is mostly lipids, which are vital for all forms of life. The three main components are ceramides, cholesterol, and essential fatty acids. The main function of lipids is to protect and insulate, without which no cells can survive.
- WHY is your skin barrier important?
Your skin barrier has a tough job. Physically, the skin barrier is protection. It guards against threats such as infectious particles, chemicals, toxins, and allergens. Internally, the barrier helps the skin maintain homeostasis and helps regulate water and electrolyte loss from the body. For your skin barrier to do its job effectively, you have to take care of it, just like any other part of your body.
- HOW is your skin barrier damaged and repaired?
The great thing about assessing the health of your skin is that it can be pretty simple. You can see and feel whether your skin surface is rough, dull, flaky, discolored, itchy, or inflamed. A weak or damaged skin barrier is usually due to dehydration, which can make it susceptible to irritation and harmful bacteria.
Stress, harsh cleansers, over-washing, over-exfoliating, too much product, too many products, hormonal changes, skin coloring, sun, wind, alcohol, caffeine, and not consuming enough water can all contribute to skin barrier damage. In addition, your skin barrier weakens with age.
The other great thing is that it’s possible to improve your skin barrier! Dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD says studies have shown you can reverse damage, and even look 10 to 15 years younger. And treatment doesn’t need to be elaborate. For example, it can be as simple as applying sunscreen and using gentle products that contain hyaluronic acid and antioxidants (vitamins C, A, and E).
Mature skin (generally 40 years and over) may further benefit from supplementary ceramides, a primary building block of your skin barrier. Ceramides help lock in moisture, which can have an anti-aging effect.
If your skin barrier is in bad shape, e.g., irritated, inflamed, etc., change your skincare routine ASAP. If you’re using multiple products, simplify. If you’re using harsh cleansers and neglecting to moisturize, it’s time to treat your skin better. Get a gentle facial cleanser and add the appropriate serum and moisturizer made for your specific concern (e.g., acne).
When changing your skincare regimen, keep it simple, so you can spot irritants and discontinue if necessary. Use as recommended, so you don’t use too much product, which can cause further damage. Most high-quality products are effective in small amounts. Usually, less is more.
Remember to look for products that include moisture-binding humectants, such as glycerin, sorbitol, and hyaluronic acid.