Skin care is one of the hottest topics on social media, with influencers on TikTok, Instagram and Reddit full of thoughts about how to get smooth, glowing, ageless skin. And there’s one term you’ll hear all of them talking about: Your skin barrier.
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But what is your skin barrier, and exactly why is it so important? Dermatologist Melissa Piliang, MD, helps you sort fact from fiction to better understand the function of your skin barrier, how to tell when it’s damaged and what you can do to repair it.
What is your skin barrier?
Before you can determine the state of your skin barrier and how to go about fixing it, you first need to know what your skin barrier is. And while the term itself sounds a little foreboding, it’s actually pretty straightforward.
“Your skin barrier is basically your outer layer of the skin,” Dr. Piliang explains. “It’s dead, not alive, and it’s made up of dead cells, lipids, proteins and fats that help protect your skin from the environment.”
The rest of your skin is a living organism. But your skin barrier’s role is to keep that living organism well-protected from things that could harm it. Think of it like armor, protecting all the delicate skin just beneath the surface. “It works to keep water in and to keep chemicals and infectious bacteria out,” she adds. “So it’s very important for our skin health.”
Your skin barrier is part of your stratum corneum, your top layer of skin. And in terms of structure, it’s often likened to a brick wall:
- Corneocytes are the tough skin cells that make up the “bricks” of your skin barrier.
- Lipids are natural fats in your skin, and in this analogy, they’re the “mortar” that fills in the gaps between corneocytes. These same lipids — like ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids — are important ingredients in skin care products.
What can damage your skin barrier?
Let’s go back to that armor analogy. Imagine your once-sturdy armor has taken some hits, and it’s not in the same shape it used to be. Maybe it’s thinner than before or the material has warped. Maybe it even has some kind of visible damage, like a hole or a tear. It once kept you fully protected, but now it leaves you vulnerable to harm.
If your skin barrier is damaged due to an underlying skin condition, you should work with a dermatologist to make sure you’re doing what’s right for your specific needs. Medical conditions associated with having a poor skin barrier include:
But sometimes, the damage comes from things you do (or don’t do) to your skin. “There are many things that can break down your skin barrier and make it not work,” Dr. Piliang notes, like:
- Using harsh chemicals or soaps.
- Over-exfoliating or scrubbing your skin.
- Not using a moisturizer.
Signs your skin barrier is damaged
In short, if you’re experiencing some sort of issue with your skin, it’s likely that your skin barrier has sustained some damage. That damage may be evident just based on the way your skin looks and feels, including:
- Dry, scaly and/or flaky skin.
- Inflammation and irritation.
- Rough patches.
- Stinging, especially when you apply skin care products.
- Tenderness or sensitivity.
How to prevent and heal damage to your skin barrier
To get (and keep) your skin barrier intact, tread lightly. “You want to be very gentle when you care for your skin,” Dr. Piliang cautions.
She shares tips for how to give your skin barrier the TLC it needs.
1. Wash with warm (but not scalding) water
While your skin barrier acts like armor for the delicate skin underneath, it’s also like a layer of fat on your skin. To better understand what that means and how it reacts to water temperature, imagine for a moment that it’s a pat of butter.
“The way I like to think about it is this: If you have butter on a knife and you put it under hot water, the butter melts away instantly,” Dr. Piliang illustrates. “The same is true when you’re cleaning your skin. Hot water washes away all those healthy natural oils.”
2. Use a soap-free cleanser
Soap sounds like a good thing, right? In reality, though, soap can strip your skin of its natural oils and wash away good bacteria, which damages your skin barrier. Soap can’t tell the difference between the good stuff and the bad stuff, so it just gets rid of it all.
Instead, Dr. Piliang suggests using a mild, soap-free cleanser (with warm water, of course). “Look for soap-free cleansers that are formulated for sensitive skin and fragrance-free,” she advises.
3. Exfoliate gently
There was a time when exfoliants with “microbeads” were all the rage — little balls of plastic that rubbed against your skin and left you feeling freshly scrubbed. But they’re actually pretty problematic, as they create tiny tears in your skin barrier (and they’re bad for the environment, too).
A chemical exfoliant with a mild, alpha hydroxy acid is your best bet, Dr. Piliang says. “And use it regularly over time. That slowly exfoliates the skin and releases your glow underneath.”
4. Don’t over-cleanse
Some TikTokkers swear by the so-called #60secondrule, saying you should cleanse your face for at least a full minute in order to reap its benefits. But Dr. Piliang says this could actually damage your skin barrier.
“The ideal way to cleanse is to massage on your cleanser and then rinse it off,” she says. “There’s no benefit to massaging it in longer, and in fact, you may do damage because the fatty layer of your skin barrier can begin to break down.”
5. Keep skin moisturized
Moisturizers nourish your skin and help replace your skin barrier and keep it healthy. “Look for products that include ceramides, fatty acids and lipids, which naturally make up a large percentage of the skin barrier,” Dr. Piliang says.
6. Wear sunscreen!
Wearing sunscreen is one of the absolute best and most important ways to protect your skin. There are lots of kinds of sunscreen, so spend a little time figuring out which one is right for you.
“The best sunscreen you can get is the one you’ll actually put on your skin,” Dr. Piliang notes. “Find a product that you like and will use and can afford, then use it every day.” (And don’t forget some of these often-overlooked sunscreen spots!)
7. Treat pimples with care
By now, you know the rules: Don’t pick! Picking at and popping pimples causes trauma to your skin and can lead to inflammation and scars.
But if you already have broken skin around a zit, don’t load up the area with a bunch of products to try to clean things up. “Back down on your acne treatments for a bit so you can focus on gentle skin care and letting it heal,” Dr. Piliang recommends.
8. Keep your skin’s pH balanced
“pH” stands for “potential hydrogen,” and in a nutshell, your pH number indicates how acidic your skin is. Skin’s normal pH is about 5.5, but if yours is higher or lower, it can throw your skin barrier out of whack.
There’s a lot of science behind your skin’s pH, which makes it tough to figure out what yours is and what products will help balance it. The best way to determine your needs is to talk to a dermatologist to see what they recommend.
Can your skin barrier be permanently damaged?
It’s no surprise that as you age, your skin ages with you. After all, anti-aging skin care products are a hot commodity.
“As we age, our skin barrier does not replace itself as well or as quickly,” Dr. Piliang confirms. That means that it just doesn’t bounce back like it used to after a day in the sun or using a harsh product.
“A young person can take a shower three times a day with hot water and soap, and in six or seven hours, their skin barrier will replace itself enough that their skin doesn’t dry out,” she explains. “Once you’re in your 50s, 60s or 70s, though, your skin barrier doesn’t replace itself as quickly.”
Your skin care routine should change with you as you age. You may need to start using different products and focusing more than ever on hydration and moisturization.
How long does it take to repair your skin barrier?
We know, we know… You’re feeling pretty impatient about this whole skin barrier thing. Why isn’t your skin gorgeous and glowing yet?! It can be hard, but wait it out, as it typically takes three or four months to start seeing the benefits of your efforts.
“It can be frustrating because you want to see the effects of your treatments immediately,” Dr. Piliang says, “but remember that it took a long time for your skin to get to this point. You have to be patient and give your products and habits time to work.”
To learn more from Dr. Piliang on related topics, listen to the Health Essentials Podcast episode, “Skin Care Tips, Tricks and Trends.” New episodes of the Health Essentials Podcast publish every Wednesday.