Everything You Need to Know About A Damaged Skin Barrier

Just a few short years ago, Korean beauty trends took the Western beauty world by storm, and, seemingly overnight, we all adopted a multi-step “more is more” approach to skincare that involved adding toners, essences, and double-cleansing to our daily routines. It wasn’t long before 10+ steps and products were the norm. This rise in skincare was quickly reflected in sales, with skincare sales in 2020 out-performing makeup sales for the first time in history—something that has continued into 2021. 

But what we may have neglected to consider all those years is that a one-size-fits-all (even if that ‘one size’ may be an entire bathroom cabinet full of different serums and lotions) approach to skincare is rarely the way to go. While an elaborate routine may have left some with a glowing, never-looked-better complexion, it left others—especially those with sensitive or reactive skin—with a seriously damaged and compromised skin barrier. 

Luckily, there are steps you can take to repair your skin. Below, we outline how to tell if your skin barrier is indeed damaged and what you can do about it, with tips straight from an expert dermatologist.

First and foremost, what’s a skin barrier?
The skin barrier is the outermost layer of your skin. “It provides protection of our internal organs from the outside world, [such as] irritants and allergens that we may be exposed to, as well as microbial organisms such as bacteria, viruses and fungi,” explains Dr. Monica Li, a dermatologist and Clinical Instructor at the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at University of British Columbia in Canada.

“The skin barrier helps to retain moisture at the skin surface to keep us hydrated. It also acts as a sieve to permit selective penetration of molecules, such as active ingredients within skin care products or topical prescriptions.” In other words: your skin barrier is the bouncer at the nightclub that is your skin; it makes sure the good stuff gets in and the not-so-good stuff stays out. 

How do you know if you have a compromised skin barrier?
“A compromised skin barrier can appear red, flaky, rough and dry,” explains Dr. Li. “Affected skin may feel sensitive, tight, sore and itchy. If the dryness persists or is more severe, there may be cracks on the skin that can lead to bleeding and an increased risk of skin infection from bacteria, viruses or fungi.” If that’s not enough, a damaged skin barrier can also lead to the worsening of pre-existing skin conditions, like eczema and rosacea.

Is product use the only way our skin barrier gets damaged?
Definitely not. “The skin barrier may be compromised [any time it’s] irritated, stressed or traumatized,” explains Dr. Li. “There are a number of common reasons. One is the winter season, when our skin is exposed to drier and colder weather that more easily strips moisture from our skin’s surface. The use of harsh or irritating skin care ingredients, or inappropriate use of certain skincare products (more on that below) may also lead to damaging the skin barrier.” 

What does it mean to use skincare products inappropriately
This can mean a plethora of things, ranging from using too many products to using the wrong products for your skin type. For example, rushing into a daily retinol regimen or using products that haven’t been adjusted to a pH of between 4 and 6 (to match that of the skin surface), can lead to a compromised skin barrier, explains Dr. Li. (Not sure about the pH levels of your products? Most skincare brands list pH levels on their website, so it’s worth doing a quick search before making a purchase. You can also order a set of pH testing strips, if DIY chemistry experiments are more your speed.) 

“A skincare routine should be built around the [unique] skin needs and goals of an individual. For many, a minimalistic approach is often sufficient to support a healthy skin barrier. The basics of any routine for any age, gender or ethnic background should be a moisturizer, cleanser and sunscreen.” 

So using a ton of products isn’t guaranteed to contribute to a damaged skin barrier?
Nope, but it does up your chances, simply because the greater the number of products you use, the greater the number of ingredients you’re exposing your skin to. Not only does that increase your chances of encountering an ingredient (or two or three) that your skin might react negatively to—and it could be something as simple as a certain fragrance—but the more likely you are to have negative ingredient interactions, too. Take, for example, retinol and glycolic acid: two fantastic ingredients that are clinically proven to be effective in minimizing fine lines and blemishes. Great! But when used together? Er, don’t try that at home. The combined exfoliating properties of those two ingredients can lead to redness, peeling and stinging. 

Sold on a less-is-more approach? Here’s how to repair your skin barrier if it’s been damaged. 
First, ensure that you’re using skincare products and their respective ingredients appropriately. This means not overdoing it, not mixing ingredients together aimlessly,, and following the use of any potentially drying ingredients, such as retinol or salicylic acid, with something nourishing and hydrating. “It’s a good idea to speak to a board-certified dermatologist to see which products are most effective for [your individual needs],” says Dr. Li. If your skin barrier isn’t in great shape, your dermatologist might suggest trying a skin elimination diet, and removing all but the very basics (a gentle cleanser and moisturizer, followed by SPF) and slowly adding back in one product or ingredient at a time to see how your skin reacts. 

Last but not least comes hydration, which  is key to repairing your skin barrier. You want to remove as little moisture as possible (so hold off on stripping ingredients like AHAs and retinol) and focus on adding as much moisture back into the skin as you can. Hydration will slowly but surely strengthen your skin barrier and reverse signs of damage. To do so, look for products that have ceramides and hyaluronic acid, says Dr. Li.

Products for Bringing Your Skin Back to Life:
SkinCeuticals Gentle Cleanser ($35)

Tula Super Calm Sensitive Skin Cleansing Milk ($34)

Drunk Elephant Lala Retro Whipped Cream ($60)

First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream Intense Hydration ($36)

CosRX Hyaluronic Acid Hydra Power Essence ($24) 

Osea Hyaluronic Sea Serum ($88)

Photo Credit: Delmaine Donson via iStock

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