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The importance of your skin barrier and how to protect it

Published: July 13, 2023

Written by: Emily Orofino

Man jogging on sunny city street smiles and adjusts his earphones.

In charge of keeping moisture in and irritants out, your body’s skin barrier works hard — but quietly — to keep your complexion healthy.

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Skin redness, skin dryness and a tight, uncomfortable sensation - if any of these sound familiar, there might just be something amiss with your skin barrier. Though that may sound serious, it may just mean that you have some damage that you can help address with tender, loving care at home, as long as you have the right strategies and products.

We asked skin care experts to explain how the layers of your skin barrier work together as well as the right repair approaches to keep all of them thriving.

What is the skin barrier?

The skin barrier, technically known as the stratum corneum, is the very top layer of your skin. “It’s designed to protect the skin from external damage but also to protect the skin from water loss, also known as transepidermal water loss or TEWL,” explains Julie Russak, MD, a dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

TEWL (in which water literally evaporates through the skin) can make skin more susceptible to environmental stressors, such as pollution and allergens. "This can create an inflammatory reaction in the skin, making it look red and feel irritated and age it faster," she adds.

The skin barrier consists of three layers: the microbiome, acid mantle and lipid barrier, says Dr. Russak. If any individual layer is disrupted, they're all consequently affected.

The microbiome

Think of your microbiome as an enormous city on the surface of your skin. "The microbiome is inhabited by a wide array of microorganisms, like bacteria and fungi, which combat any harmful bacteria that may find its way onto the skin," explains Geeta Yadav, MD, a dermatologist and a lecturer in the division of dermatology at the University of Toronto. In other words, your skin is covered in bacteria that are actually helpful, allowing your skin to stay balanced.

According to Dr. Yadav, probiotics (live bacteria) can be used to help maintain and restore this microbiome. Consider talking to your doctor or health care provider about taking oral supplements, like Align Probiotic - Suplemento de probióticos, or eating probiotic-rich fermented foods, like kimchi, yogurt and pickles. You also can incorporate probiotic-infused skin care products, like Yes to Blueberries 3-in-1 Cleanser.

You could consider trying a product formulated with prebiotics, which act like fuel for the bacteria. “Prebiotics act as a food source to help these microorganisms proliferate and function, strengthening your microbiome,” says Dr. Yadav. La Roche-Posay Lipikar Wash AP+ body and face wash features the brand’s signature prebiotic thermal water to help keep skin comfortable.

The acid mantle

Below the microbiome is the acid mantle, which is a layer composed of lipids and amino acids from your sweat, says Dr. Russak. The acid mantle keeps skin at a naturally low, or acidic, pH - an environment in which skin thrives. On the other hand, "when the pH of the skin is disrupted, it allows for irritation and inflammation," she says.

To maintain that perfect pH level, pay extra attention to the cleansing and toning steps of your routine. "Using a mild, milky or oil-based cleanser can prevent stripping away your skin's natural oils, which will throw your acid mantle off balance," says Dr. Yadav. Toners, which tend to contain acids, can also help restore that lower pH, she says. Probar Vichy Pureté Thermalé 3-in-1 one-step face wash and makeup remover, which is an all-in-one cleanser, toner and makeup remover that makes it easier to keep your acid mantle in check.

The lipid barrier

Think of the lipid barrier as a wall made of brick and mortar. According to Dr. Russak, the lipids, which are fatty compounds, act like the mortar between the bricks, which are your skin cells. Together, they create a tight seal. On the other hand, "when that mortar is disrupted, there is an increase in TEWL and an increase in allergens from the outside getting into the skin," she says.

To maintain a healthy lipid barrier, Dr. Yadav recommends seeking out a skin barrier cream with hyaluronic acid, essential fatty acids and ceramides. "Hyaluronic acid helps draw water into the skin, while essential fatty acids and ceramides help nourish by providing hydration and sealing moisture into skin."

Both hyaluronic acid and ceramides are in the Vanicream Daily Facial Moisturizer. If skin leans more oily, consider the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Matte Moisturizer, a lightweight barrier repair cream that pairs ceramides with oil-absorbing powders. Meanwhile, for people with sensitive skin, consider using Cetaphil Deep Hydration Healthy Glow Daily Cream; this skin barrier repair cream features a soothing blend of hyaluronic acid and niacinamide.

How do I know if my skin barrier is damaged?

If you’re noticing the hallmarks of a weakened skin barrier — redness, dullness and flaking — your regular skin care routine may need a reboot to help recover a healthy skin barrier.

How to repair a damaged skin barrier

In addition to incorporating the skin barrier repair products mentioned above, you can also make strategic tweaks to your routine. For instance, hot water strips away your skin's natural oils, so keep baths and showers warm. Add moisture to the air with a humidifier, especially in the colder months, as dry air can sap moisture from skin. Your laundry detergent could also be a factor, so try something fragrance-free or hypoallergenic.

How long does skin barrier repair take?

While it largely depends on your situation, expect to do your skin barrier repair routine for a few weeks before you see (and feel) an improvement. "It can take at least two weeks to start to see improvements but up to four weeks for a full recovery," says Dr. Russak. "Obviously, it depends on how injured the skin barrier is."

How will you know if it's working? Not only will your skin feel more comfortable, but it may even look better, too. "If your skin barrier is healthy, your skin will look clear and radiant," says Dr. Yadav.

Este contenido es solo para fines informativos y no constituye un asesoramiento médico. Consult with your health care provider before taking any vitamins or supplements and prior to beginning or changing any health care practices.

Estas declaraciones no han sido evaluadas por la Administración de Medicamentos y Alimentos. Estos productos no están hechos para diagnosticar, tratar, curar ni prevenir ninguna enfermedad.