What Exactly Is The Skin Barrier And How Should You Take Care Of It?
If you suffer from chronically dry or sensitive skin, and typical treatments aren’t helping, perhaps it’s time to consider the skin barrier. Sometimes called the “moisture barrier,” these terms are simply the scientific way to refer to the skin’s outermost layer or the dermis. The skin barrier function refers to both the skin's ability to keep moisture locked in, as well as to keep environmental irritants (like pollution and bacteria) out. This dual purpose also explains why dry skin types, which are characterized by a compromised or damaged skin barrier function, are especially prone to sensitive skin reactions ranging from rashes and itchiness to redness, flaking, and even eczema or psoriasis.
“In between the dead cells are magnificent moisture-trapping lipids that make up the skin barrier,” says Loretta Ciraldo, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Loretta Skincare. Likening them to the glue that holds our skin cells together, she explains that our skin naturally possesses plentiful amounts of these shielding lipids in our youth, but they naturally become depleted as we age. “If we do anything that compromises the barrier, we develop more sensitive skin,” Dr. Ciraldo states, adding that people who have a wide variety of skin disorders, from eczema to psoriasis, have a compromised or damaged skin barrier. Several other factors can exacerbate this loss of lipids in the skin, including cold weather, hormonal fluctuations, and the use of lipid-lowering drugs — which, she adds, are the number one prescribed class of drugs in the United States.
Because a depleted lipid-barrier results in moisture-loss and dehydration, it also makes the signs of aging more visible. Ciraldo describes the structure of skin cells as being similar to the brick (i.e. dead skin cells) and mortar (i.e. beneficial skin oils) exterior of a building. When the mortar, so to speak, is depleted, irritating ingredients are able to get through the barrier and create reactions on the skin. The skin's reactivity and inflammation cue enzymes that breakdown collagen and elastin, literally accelerating the aging process of our skin cells.
Your skin care regimen can make or break the integrity of your skin barrier. Over-exfoliation, aggressive active ingredients, and invasive dermatological treatments (i.e. laser treatments, micro-needling, etc.) all temporarily degrade its function. Particularly during cold, winter months — when humidity is low and the use of indoor heaters leaves skin prone to flaking — Morgan Rabach, MD, dermatologist and co-founder of LM Medical, advises against the use particularly drying ingredients like salicylic acid and ethyl alcohol. “It's also a good idea to use a retinol of a lesser strength,” she notes.
On the other hand, there are also several ingredients you can incorporate into your regimen to enhance the health of your skin barrier. “Great ingredients for tending to the moisture barrier are thick moisturizers with vitamin E and ceramides, which help form the 'glue' between the different layers [of the skin],” Rabach shares. As a general rule, humectants like hyaluronic acid and polyglutamic acid help to pull moisture back into the skin while emollients keep them sealed in. Glycolipids, ceramides, and Niacinamide, to name a few more, will all help to improve the skin's barrier function. To get started, here are some skin care products to add to your regimen that will enhance the skin's barrier function for a healthier, more radiant complexion.
This clean beauty brand's collagen-protective moisturizer is key for preventing moisture loss long-term. The formula relies on hyaluronic acid to lock in moisture and two potent adaptogens — ashwagandha and reishi — to fend off environmental aggressors.
Our luxury pick uses non-comedogenic (aka non-pore clogging) oils, plumping hyaluronic acid, and high doses of a the fermented, marine enzyme thermus thermophilus, which is one of the most powerful, free radical-fighting antioxidants available. The combination boosts ceramide levels in the skin, making this skin-healing trifecta worth its weight in gold.
The dermatologist-developed skin care brand is known for concentrated active ingredients that ensure you get your money's worth. Skin-quenching hyaluronic acid, healing vitamin E, and leontopodix acid provide three powerful forms of protection for the skin's moisture barrier. Rich and nourishing — but not greasy or heavy! — it's ideal for drier types.
Cult brand Sunday Riley launched their own take on pro-barrier support. Ceramides, vitamin F, and coconut oil keep the skin's lipids in line, preventing moisture-loss that can otherwise lead to dehydration. And while the super-comforting cream goes on quick, it quickly absorbs to leave skin silky-smooth.
Holy hyaluronic acid! Two sources of hyaluronic acid smooth fine lines, while a pro-HA complex boosts the ingredient's natural levels within the skin. Finally, ceramides and niacinamide support the moisture barrier to it all in. This serum is a cult-favorite for a reason.
You can add barrier support into any regimen with a dropperful of this booster into your serum or moisturizer. The nine different oils and ceramides can also be used alone to calm stressed-out, itchy, rough, or red skin.
Dr. Ciraldo considers glycolipids to be the body's best line of defense for maintaining barrier function. Replenish them in this lightweight, lipid-packed serum that is designed specifically to strengthen skin and protect against pollution and free radical damage caused by UV rays.
It's just as important to care for the moisture barrier on the skin of your body as well — especially if you suffer from itchy or flaky skin. SkinFix is an excellent line for those that suffer from eczema, or simply skin types that are prone to sensitivities or dryness. This nourishing body cream is a dream — it's absorbs quickly to lock in moisture and comfort skin.
Gladskin fortifies the skin barrier by tending to the skin's microbiome — the balance of good bacteria that staves off imbalances that lead to eczema, itchiness, and redness. Colloidal oatmeal soothes, L-arginine eases inflammation, and proprietary Micreobalance balances the skin microbiome. After becoming popular in Europe, we can now make use of this healing moisturizer stateside, too.
For sensitive skin, try layering this facial oil beneath your moisturizer. The brightening formulation is made with lipid-rich oils, while calming CBD lends anti-inflammatory support that prevents and treats irritation.
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