Our skincare expert explains the importance of the outermost layer of the epidermis - and how to heal it when it is compromised.
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Be they ingredients, skin concerns or part of our skin’s physiological makeup, these are the terms that dictate the direction of beauty marketing and, in turn, the changes we as consumers make to our skincare routines.
One such term that has had the weight of the industry thrown behind it over the last couple of years is the "skin barrier".
We’re told to strengthen it, to repair it, and how its function can determine the overall health of our skin.
But what is the skin barrier? And why does it matter?
The term “skin barrier” generally refers to the uppermost layer of the epidermis (the thin, outermost layer of the skin) and is what maintains the integrity and overall health of the skin, working to protect it from damage and aggressors.
Think of it as a seal, keeping the outermost layers of the skin protected and, subsequently, healthy.
The skin barrier, when functioning at its healthiest, works to prevent transepidermal moisture loss.
It defends the skin against environmental stressors like pollution, UV rays and free radical damage, as well as ensuring the skin isn’t easily irritated by topical products, chemicals and other infectious agents.
Regardless of your skin type and concerns, a healthy, functioning skin barrier really is the key to healthy looking skin.
Dry and dehydrated skin types benefit from a strong, healthy skin barrier as it allows the skin to hold onto and lock in moisture.
Sensitive skins need a healthy skin barrier to protect the skin from anything that may cause irritation, and even acneic skin types require a healthy skin barrier as acne-causing bacteria is more likely to penetrate the skin if the barrier function is compromised.
It’s that last point that entirely transformed my personal approach to my skin’s health.
My skin typically errs towards dehydrated, but is otherwise “normal” (a word I strongly dislike, however in this instance I am using it to note that my skin is generally neither oily nor dry).
I became aware of the importance of the skin barrier for dry and dehydrated skin around three years ago and swiftly worked barrier-strengthening ingredients into my skincare routine.
However whenever a pimple, bout of congestion or hormonal breakout would arise, my instinct was always to pull away from hydrating ingredients and to instead dry the spot out with intense acids- and that’s exactly what I would do. This seemed to only aggravate things and create more spots, often leaving patches of irritation well after the spot had healed.
This irritation, I have since learned, is a sign of an impaired skin barrier.
Redness, increased skin sensitivity, dry flakey skin and acne breakouts are often signs of a compromised or impaired skin barrier.
An impaired skin barrier leaves the skin more open to aggressors and irritation, and when we consider that most common skin concerns can be linked right back to inflammation, the correlation between a healthy skin barrier and healthy skin becomes more and more clear (no pun intended).
That in mind, I began to slowly shift my approach to skincare.
When a pimple appeared, rather than working to dry it out with intense salicylic acids and astringent products (all of which absolutely do have their place), I would treat my skin in the same way that I would if my skin were flaring up from an irritation, or if it were at its most sensitive (say, after a laser treatment).
Rather than drying it out, I changed tact.
My approach was to rebuild and restore the skin barrier, delivering it with hydrating, nourishing ingredients and keeping my routine minimal.
A simple creamy cleanser, a serum, and a moisturiser, all of which were fragrance free (strong fragrances have been known to further irritate skin with a compromised barrier).
It felt counterintuitive, loading moisture on to something instinct (and marketing) had once told me needed to be dried out.
What I discovered was that the pimple healed slightly (only slightly) faster than it ordinarily would have, however it didn’t spur on nearby pimples, nor did it leave the surrounding skin looking red, dry and inflamed.
One of my primary skin concerns has long been post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (those pesky dark spots left behind after a pimple has healed), and my new approach to spot healing had left not a single dark mark in its wake.
I have maintained that approach to skin health for close to two years now, making the strength and overall function of the skin barrier the focus of my skincare routine.
To work towards a healthy skin barrier, it’s important to look for products containing really restorative ingredients.
Ceramides are my favourite ingredient for a healthy skin barrier, as ceramides really are the building blocks of healthy skin.
Hyaluronic acid is another great ingredient for a strong barrier function, given its ability to hold up to 1000 times its own weight in moisture, thus helping to prevent transepidermal water loss and increasing the skin’s ability to hold on to water.
Fatty acids are also helpful in strengthening the skin barrier as these exist naturally within the skin barrier and require replenishment, as are B group vitamins, specifically B3 (niacinamide) and B5 (panthenol) both of which hydrate and soothe the skin.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for acids, and that your entire routine should be replaced with ceramide-rich, fragrance-free formulas.
I find that my more “active” skincare products, like exfoliating agents and retinol, are complemented by products that strengthen the skin barrier, as the latter prevents the former from irritating the skin.
Dry, dehydrated, sensitive, acne-prone, oily, mature, or “normal,” skin - every skin type has a skin barrier, and the function of that barrier is truly the key to a healthy skin.