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Our skin is the largest organ of the body, and it protects us from external aggressors like pollution and UV rays. The outermost layer, known as the skin barrier, prevents harmful substances from entering and keeps skin hydrated. However, it can become damaged from harsh skincare products, environmental stressors, and underlying skin conditions. This, in turn, leads to dryness, irritation, and inflammation. In this blog, we’ll discuss the causes and signs of a broken skin barrier and provide tips to repair and maintain it.

What is Your Skin Barrier?

The skin barrier, also known as the “epidermal barrier” or “stratum corneum,” is the outermost layer of the skin.

Your skin barrier plays a crucial role in maintaining the overall health and integrity of your skin. It is a complex structure of cells, lipids, and natural moisturizing factors. Together, they create a physical barrier against moisture loss, harmful microorganisms, allergens, and irritants. Additionally, the skin barrier regulates temperature, protects against UV radiation, and defends against environmental stressors. In short, your skin barrier is the first line of defense from your external environment.

Broken Skin Barrier Signs

When your skin barrier is damaged, you will notice a change to your skin’s texture and feel.

Some of the most common signs of a damaged skin barrier are:

  • Dry and flakey skin: One of the most noticeable signs of a broken skin barrier is excessive dryness and flakiness. A damaged skin barrier fails to retain moisture effectively. This leads to dehydration of the skin. As a result, the skin may appear rough and can develop visible flakes or patches.
  • Redness and inflammation: A weakened skin barrier can result in increased skin sensitivity and vulnerability to irritants. When the barrier function is compromised, it allows irritants, allergens, and environmental pollutants to penetrate the skin more easily, triggering an inflammatory response. This can manifest as skin redness, sensitivity, and overall irritation.
  • Acne and breakouts: A damaged skin barrier is more prone to acne and breakouts. When the barrier is compromised,  bacteria, dirt, and excess oils can penetrate the skin, which clogs pores and causes acne.
  • Tight and itchy skin: Tight and itchy skin can be an uncomfortable symptom of a broken skin barrier. When the barrier is impaired, the skin becomes more susceptible to external irritants which can trigger this discomfort.
  • Stinging and burning: You might notice products that were previously well-tolerated may suddenly cause stinging and burning upon application. Even gentle skincare products can trigger stinging and burning sensations.

Close up of broken skin barrier on woman's faceWhat Causes a Damaged Skin Barrier?

Your skin is a delicate organ, and there can be many reasons why its barrier is broken or compromised. Understanding the underlying causes is crucial in preventing and addressing the issue effectively.

Here are some factors that can contribute to skin damage:

  • Over Exfoliation: Excessive or aggressive exfoliation can strip away the protective layer of dead skin cells and disrupt the skin barrier. Scrubbing too vigorously or frequently, or using harsh chemical exfoliants too often, can damage the skin’s surface.
  • Harsh Skincare Products: Certain skincare products containing harsh ingredients like sulfates, fragrances, alcohol, and preservatives can irritate and damage the skin barrier.
  • Environmental Factors: Extreme temperatures, low humidity, pollution, and harsh weather conditions like cold, dry air and excessive sun exposure can damage the skin’s protective layer by causing moisture loss.
  • Chronic Skin Conditions: Skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis are characterized by a compromised skin barrier. The skin’s natural defense system is already impaired, so it is more susceptible to external irritants and allergens.
  • Genetic Predisposition: Certain genetic factors can affect the production and distribution of natural skin lipids, which are crucial for maintaining a healthy barrier function. This can make the skin more vulnerable to dryness and dehydration.
  • Age-related Changes: As we age, the skin’s barrier function naturally weakens. The production of essential skin components, such as collagen and ceramides, decreases, leading to a compromised barrier.
  • Hormonal Imbalances: Hormonal fluctuations, such as those that occur during puberty, pregnancy, or menopause, can disrupt the skin barrier. These imbalances can affect sebum production, hydration levels, and skin cell turnover.
  • Unhealthy Lifestyle Habits: Certain lifestyle habits, such as a poor diet, lack of sleep, excessive stress, and smoking, can contribute to a compromised skin barrier.

How to Fix a Broken Skin Barrier

If you suspect your skin barrier is broken, there are steps you can take to repair and replenish it.

The most important thing is to go back to the basics when it comes to a damaged skin barrier. You should remove active ingredients from your routine and switch to gentle products until your skin has time to heal.

Other tips for repairing a compromised skin barrier are:

  • Use a gentle cleanser: Avoid harsh cleansing ingredients such as sulfates and instead choose mild, pH-balanced and/or cream cleansers that won’t strip the skin.
  • Choose the right ingredients: Look for products containing aloe vera, chamomile, centella asiatica, or colloidal oatmeal, which have anti-inflammatory properties, as well as hydrating and moisturizing ingredients such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin.
  • Avoid active ingredients: Stop using products that contain active ingredients such as AHAs or BHAs, Vitamin C, retinols, or essential oils until your skin has had a chance to heal.
  • Use cool water: Hot water can strip away the skin’s natural oils and exacerbate a compromised barrier. When cleansing or showering, use lukewarm water instead.
  • Apply products to damp skin: Hydrating and moisturizing products work best on damp skin. After washing, gently pat your skin dry with a soft towel, leaving a bit of moisture to aid in absorption of other products.
  • Avoid environmental stressors: Shield your skin from harsh environmental factors that can worsen a compromised skin barrier. Use sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection to prevent damage from UV rays. In cold weather, protect your skin with scarves, hats, and gloves. Consider using a humidifier in dry environments to help maintain adequate moisture levels.
  • Use petroleum jelly: Petroleum jelly is a great product for healing a broken skin barrier. Apply a thin layer over your other products before bed to seal in hydration and moisture, and protect the skin from irritants as you sleep.

Remember, healing your skin barrier takes time so be patient and consistent with your skincare routine. Consistently follow the recommended steps and use gentle, barrier-supporting products. It may take a few weeks or even months to see significant improvement, but with time, you should notice healthier, more resilient skin.

Skin Supporting Ingredients

If you’re prone to damaging your skin barrier, or use products that contain active ingredients such as Tretinoin, AHAs, or BHAs it’s important to build a skincare routine that supports and heals your skin.

Keep an eye out for some of the following ingredients in your skincare products to promote a healthy and happy barrier:

  • Ceramides: Ceramides are lipids naturally present in the skin and play a vital role in maintaining healthy skin. They help to retain moisture, strengthen the skin’s protective barrier, and prevent water loss.
  • Hyaluronic Acid: Hyaluronic acid is a hydrating ingredient that attracts and retains moisture in the skin. It helps to improve skin hydration, plumpness, and elasticity, which in turn supports a healthy skin barrier. Look for products that contain hyaluronic acid to provide long-lasting hydration and apply these products to damp skin for best results.
  • Centella Asiatica: When it comes to the skin barrier, Centella Asiatica , also known as Gotu Kola or Cica, offers multiple benefits. It contains active compounds, including asiaticoside, madecassoside, and asiatic acid, which can reduce redness, inflammation, and irritation in the skin.
  • Fatty Acids: Essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, are crucial for maintaining a healthy skin barrier. These fatty acids help strengthen the skin’s natural lipid barrier, promote moisture retention, and reduce inflammation. Look for ingredients like linoleic acid and linolenic acid in your skincare products.
  • Peptides: Peptides are amino acid chains that support the production of collagen and elastin in the skin. They can help improve the skin’s elasticity and strengthen the skin barrier. Peptides also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which can aid in repairing and protecting the skin.
  • Antioxidants: Antioxidants, like vitamin E and green tea extract, help protect the skin from free radicals and oxidative stress. They can strengthen the skin barrier by neutralizing damaging molecules and reducing inflammation.