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Skin Care Basics: Your Skin Barrier

So many skin care concerns start with a compromised skin barrier but when I’m explaining this to clients, they never quite know what this means. I’ve written extensively about the skin in this blog post. That piece is a great foundation for understanding all the roles and functions of various things within our skin but may still be a little too complex to comprehend barrier function. Hopefully, you will find this quick and easy explainer on your skin barrier helpful.

What Your Skin Barrier Is

Your skin barrier is the outermost layer of the epidermis (your stratum corneum) and the acid mantle. The acid mantle is a very fine film comprised of amino acids, fatty acids, natural lipids and sweat. It serves as our skin’s first line of defense against bacteria, viruses, and fungi—ultimately inhibiting the damage these things may be able to do if they were to reach deeper layers of the skin. Simply put, our barriers are the most unique armor our body has.

The acid mantle is slightly acidic (hence the name) and maintains a pH of around 4.5-5.5. In addition to keeping bad things like irritants and bacteria out, it also locks in all of the good things our skin needs like moisture and natural lipids. But our barriers can still be fragile.

Certain health conditions that can alter our skin’s acidity levels (like diabetes) can make the acid mantle weak. Being in too harsh of an environment (i.e. extreme cold or heat), overexposure to UV rays, and pollution can impact proper barrier function. Misusing skin care products can also disrupt our skin barrier. When this happens, our skin reacts by exhibiting dryness, redness, increased sensitivity, inflammation, oiliness, irritation, enlarged pores, and even acne.

How to Protect Your Skin Barrier

You’re probably not going to like this advice but there are three very simple ways to protect your barrier.

  1. Just Say No to Being a Product Junkie
    Every product is not meant for you. And every product certainly isn’t meant to play well with the existing products you are using in your skin care routine. Brands don’t create skin care products to go well with products in other skin care brands they don’t own. The mixing and matching of different brands or playing chemist with these pseudo-DIY brands leads to disrupted barriers because of inconsistent pH levels. Plus, layering certain products that shouldn’t be layered is sometimes just an invitation for barrier irritation.
  2. Exfoliate Less
    Over-exfoliating is overrated. As an esthetician, I see clients who are using strong exfoliants daily. Sometimes they’ll use 2-3 and wonder why their skin is so irritated or why their breakouts only seem to be getting worse no matter what they’ve tried. It’s all the exfoliants! At most, you should be using an exfoliant only once during your AM/PM routine. It’s also important to know that a product doesn’t have to be marketed as an exfoliant to actually be one. You can also over-exfoliate if you’re excessively cleansing your face with a cleanser that includes AHAs or BHAs. If you’re unsure of which products may be exfoliating and which ones aren’t, book a consultation with me.
  3. Check-in with Your Doctor
    As mentioned earlier, certain medical conditions can alter the skin’s acidity levels. There are also specific genetic predispositions that may make your skin more prone to impaired barrier function. An annual check-in with your doctor is the best way to address any internal issues that may be impacting your skin’s barrier.

And, always wear sunscreen!

Products to Help Your Skin Barrier

If you suspect you have a damaged skin barrier, you want to look for hydrating, healing, and moisturizing products. Specifically, you want to look for humectants, ceramides, glycerin, and petrolatum. And if your routine was heavy on exfoliants, you want to switch over to more gentle products for 4-6 weeks as your skin’s barrier repairs itself.

This means following a simple routine that will include:

  • A gentle cleanser (Magic Milk is perfect for this!) that is non-stripping and nourishing helps with calming the skin and maintaining the essential lipids needed to keep the barrier functioning properly.
  • A hydrator like First Aid Beauty’s Ultra Repair Hydrating Serum is a fantastic boost of hydration that can be utilized in any routine. This particular serum was formulated with sensitized skin in mind and is always a go-to recommendation for me.
  • A rich moisturizer heavy in ceramides and essential nutrients works best for locking in hydration. Both the CeraVe and Elta MD AM/PM moisturizers are fine.
  • During the day time, you don’t want to forget the protection step with SPF. Any SPF 50 will be fine and don’t forget to reapply throughout the day using a spray.
  • At night, you want to use an occlusive as the last step in your routine. I’m a huge fan of Aquaphor but that’s just because it’s what I grew up on. CeraVe Healing Ointment, Vaseline, and almost any store brand petroleum jelly is fine.