Style/ Beauty

Why looking after your skin barrier is crucial for a healthy complexion, and the best products to protect and rebuild

Ahh, the skin barrier. It’s a phrase plastered all over our lotions and potions, it’s constantly mentioned in the press and when it comes to visiting a dermatologist, it’s really all they’ll talk about. Through constant reminders and a little bit of nagging, we know we’ve got to keep it in tact through some serious tender loving care, but does anyone out there actually know what our skin barrier is and exactly what looking after it entails?

If there’s anything we’ve learned about skincare, it’s that if we’re not quite sure why we’re doing something, it’s very unlikely we’re going to keep it up. We know we should be double cleansing twice a day, washing our makeup brushes once a week and exfoliating every few days – but that doesn’t mean we actually do. Unfortunately though, when it comes to your skin barrier, being lax at looking after it isn’t something that can easily be overlooked – especially if you’re prone to redness and breakouts.

It turns out that most skin issues can be drastically improved (and often even totally cured) if you stop looking at your skin as dry, oily or combination, and instead focus on nurturing your skin barrier.

Luckily, we’ve enlisted the help of Dr. Murad, a board-certified dermatologist and Founder of Murad skincare, and Pamela Marshall, Clinical Aesthetician and Co-Founder of Mortar & Milk to clear up any confusion and explain, in layman’s terms, why your skin barrier is so important. So, whether your skin is oily, dry, sensitive or breakout-prone, this is everything you need to know about looking after your skin barrier…

What is your skin barrier?

This seems like a good place to start. Simply put, the skin barrier is a little coat of armour that surrounds the skin to protect it from the outside world. Just like any other organ, the skin has its own way of protecting itself.  

“The skin barrier is important because it serves as the body’s first line of defence against environmental aggressors. It has a brick and mortar type of structure wherein the skin’s cells represent the bricks, and lipids naturally produced by the body represent the mortar,” says Dr Barb Paldus, Founder, Codex Beauty Labs. “Together, they form a cellular matrix which comprises the human body’s outer wall of protection.”

How is the skin barrier different from the microbiome? 

There’s been a lot of chat around the importance of the skin’s microbiome recently and with it, some confusion over the difference between the microbiome and the skin barrier. The skin’s microbiome is an ecosystem of bacteria that lives on the skin’s surface. The skin barrier the lipid matrix in our outermost layer of the skin. 

“The microbiome acts as biological shield for your skin that is integral to a strong skin barrier,” explains Rob Calcraft, Founder of Cultured Biomecare. “It also acts as a messenger that communicates with your immune system and regulates skin response and healthy skin function. Lastly, it can activate key cells and behaviour within the deeper layers of your skin that prompt skin renewal and better skin function.”

How does your skin barrier become damaged?

The bad news is that although the body is generally pretty good at protecting itself, when it comes to our skin barrier, modern life can really start to wear it down. “Stress, pollution, exposure to UV rays, blue light from devices & infrared radiation can all compromise our skin barrier. While damage can’t be reversed, it can certainly be improved, and since your cells are constantly turning over and renewing themselves, you can improve and prevent future damage. For wrinkles and a dull complexion, you want to help skin fight back against free radicals and environmental damage with antioxidants. Our skin barrier also weakens with age and generally, the whiter or paler the skin, the thinner the barrier, which means you’re more prone to sensitivity, redness and irritation,” says Dr Murad.

The other main threat to the skin barrier comes from our skincare products, starting with cleansers. “It’s important to consider that cleansers present the biggest potential downside for your skin barrier,” warns Rob. “Microbiome disruption due to surfactants and preservatives in cleansers can lead to dryness, sensitivity and redness.”

Then there’s the matter of hydration. “Moisturising your skin daily and drinking plenty of fluids is essential to supporting and protecting the skin barrier, it is essential that they absorb quickly, moisturise effectively and protect or even restore the skin barrier and its natural microbiome,” says Dr Paldus. 

What are the signs your skin barrier has been compromised?

This can be where things start to get a little confusing. Signs of a compromised skin barrier are often mistaken for other skin concerns such as acne, rosacea and sun damage. Before the situation gets too severe, it’s important to know the initial signs and be prepared to nip any issues in the bud before they worsen. Dr Murad advises: “Watch out for things such as redness, flakiness, tightness, itchiness, rough to the touch, fine lines, increased breakouts and rashes are all signs of a compromised barrier. It can appear in large or small areas over the body or face.”

Unfortunately, if your barrier isn’t given enough time and care to recuperate fully after damage, things can really start to spiral out of control. “Here’s the domino effect: when the barrier function is compromised, the dermal layers become dehydrated. When these layers are dehydrated they’ll send a message to our sebaceous glands to produce more oil. Too much oil in the pilosebaceous unit will cause the pore to swell trapping bacteria, dead skin cells and sebum inside. As they push to get out, it creates an inflammatory response (i.e. acne spot),” says Pamela.

How do you go about rebuilding and protecting your skin barrier?

It’s the £1million question. If a healthy skin barrier is so important, how the hell are we supposed to make sure nothing bad happens to it ever again? First up, hydration. Even if your skin seems to be oily, if your barrier is compromised, it’s super important to restore any lost moisture and keep hydration levels up. “Try products with ceramides and hyaluronic acid. They absorb water and surround each skin cell with lipids, making the cell more able to hang onto water. As well as lipids, you need good antioxidants and anti-inflammatories like vitamins A, C and E,” says Dr Murad.

And how do we go about protecting a healthy barrier in the future? It’s super important that you never over exfoliate. Pamela explains: “Our cell cycle is ideally 26-28 days. When turnover happens more quickly, it’s usually due to over-use of AHAs and retinol. It’s really important to use these products wisely. They’re fantastic but only in doses. Work to deeply hydrate and reduce inflammation through ingredients such as Poly Hydroxy Acids and niacinamide (B3).”

If you’re after skin barrier loving products to help rescue your compromised complexion, here’s our pick of the best out there…

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