Through the history of skincare, we’ve been told to exfoliate and cleanse to reduce acne, dullness and pigmentation. We used scrubs, relied on toners, applied peels and tried hard to make our skin cells regenerate quicker and better. But all that exfoliating led to more exfoliating, and we realised we were actually causing more of the dullness and acne we wanted to avoid. We were tearing down the very security blanket— the skin barrier — instead of building it back up.

What is the skin barrier and what happens when it breaks down?

The skin barrier is the outermost layer of your skin. A healthy one keeps irritants out, while securing natural oils and moisture levels in. The acid mantle – a slightly acidic film on the top most layer of your skin, is an important component. Lamellar sheets made of natural oils, sweat, amino acids, cholesterol and enzymes—when it’s at the right pH—protects the skin from bacteria, viruses and external invaders.

Dermatologists like to consider skin cells as bricks, and lipids and proteins as the mortar that holds it all together. If the barrier is affected, and the lipid matrix doesn’t hold up (causing cracks and gaps), it doesn’t act like one. It allows irritants to get in, which can weaken it and prevent it from functioning properly.

You’ll know you’ve messed up your skin barrier when your skin suddenly feels drier, redder, irritated and prone to acne. It doesn’t make sense—your skin is flaky, but you’re breaking out all the time? It’s because when your skin is dehydrated, your skin cells direct the sebaceous glands to compensate by producing more sebum. This can cause pores to swell, shutting in dead skin cells, bacteria and oil inside, causing inflammatory zits. Rosacea, eczema and dermatitis are conditions that could crop up, because the skin is not able to protect itself and fight for balance and stability. Another tell-tale sign? Everything stings. If applying regular products (like a cleanser) feels painful or tingly, it could be due to a disrupted barrier.

What is damaging the skin barrier?

It could be by your own doing. Skincare is a great servant, but a terrible master. If you use products too overzealously, or pick formulas that are too harsh, you could be inadvertently forming all those cracks and messing with the pH of the acid mantle. Different skins can handle different things, but formulas containing drying alcohols, synthetic fragrance or essential oils can be stripping to many. Overcleansing and over exfoliating can be culprits too. if you’re using too many active ingredients like acids or retinols, you could be slowly breaking down the skin barrier instead of fortifying it.

It could be your techniques and tools too. Vibrating face brushes, abrasive wash cloths and at-home microdermabrasion blades could be contributing to the problem, as could practices like waxing.

Want to know what combinations of actives and potentially destroy your skin barrier? Read our article about how NOT to layer actives!

Image courtesy: Paula’s Choice Skincare

Oops! How can you fix it?

Fixing it is easy: just do the least. Phase out all active ingredients, like retinol, Vitamin C and acids out, so you can let your barrier heal for at least 3-4 weeks. Instead, focus on three simple steps—cleansing, moisturising and protecting. Use ingredients that’ll hydrate and nourish like hyaluronic acid, sodium PCA, cica, squalane, ceramides and fatty acids.

Wash your face with a super gentle face wash (look for one that doesn’t foam or have too many surfactants). Then, follow with formulas that have barrier-supporting humectants, emollients and occlusives. It is best to follow that order—a humectant can offset transepidermal moisture loss, an emollient can soften and mollify dry skin. An occlusive will seal it all in and let the skin underneath regenerate and heal. Sunscreen is a must in the day—it protects the skin and prevents scarring or dark spots left behind from acne or flaky bits.

Now that you’ve fixed it, how can you prevent it in the first place? Stop playing chemist. Too many active ingredients will only harm your skin. Add in a new formulas slowly, checking that they work with the rest of the products already in your repertoire. Most importantly, address each skin issue one by one instead of hitting them all at once.

Think you could have damaged your skin barrier? Get in touch with us through the WhatsApp button and we will gladly help you through it!