Ultimate guide to skin barrier
Annoying as it is, achieving healthy skin is so much more of a marathon than a sprint. If we could click our fingers and have laser blast our spider veins away in a second, or a chemical peel to kick-start some collagen production, we would. But often, aesthetic doctors and dermatologists will advise building up the skin barrier before investing in these effective – and strong – treatments. But what does this actually mean?
The barrier is a protective top layer of the skin filled with all the lipids, ceramides and fatty acids needed to keep skin healthy. Without proper hydration, it can easily become damaged – leaving you susceptible to everything from acne to extreme dryness.
For anyone wanting to undergo cosmetic treatment, this poses a potential problem. Anything that involves purposefully damaging your skin to trick it into the healing process and producing fresh collagen – such as laser skin resurfacing, microdermabrasion, or chemical peels – requires a healthy starting point. If your skin is already sensitive or inflamed, odds are you’ll not only experience harsher side-effects, but not get the results you pictured.
But that doesn’t rule out these treatments forever. Strengthening and repairing your skin barrier is more than possible – especially once you understand how it works.
What is the skin barrier?
Your skin is made up of multiple layers, but the only one you can see, and touch, is the epidermis. The very top part of the epidermis is called the stratum corneum. Although you know it best as the skin barrier, it’s also called the moisture barrier, or sometimes your acid mantle. It’s extremely thin, but don’t let that fool you: its job is to protect the rest of your skin from the outside world.
How does it work?
This wall between you and the outside world is slightly acidic (hence ‘acid mantle’), which keeps harmful bacteria or fungi at bay, and aids with the skin’s healing process. It also protects you from pollution, UV rays and toxins. While it’s busy keeping the bad stuff out, it also tries to keep the good stuff in. Without this barrier, your skin struggles to retain water. And without enough water, skin loses elasticity and can look dry or flaky.
How do you know when it’s damaged?
A healthy barrier should keep your skin looking plump, hydrated, and glowing. If it’s damaged – and therefore not protecting your skin the way it should be – odds are you can tell. Signs include a dry, rough texture, itchiness, inflammation, or an increase in acne or skin infections. One way to test the state of your barrier is to note how your skin reacts to products. If it’s stinging, tingling, or burning after you apply anything free of active ingredients, this is a tell-tale sign that it’s compromised.
What damages it?
It hurts to hear, but sometimes the culprit for a damaged skin barrier is the same thing you trust to fix it: your skincare. If you’ve been overdoing it with active ingredients and exfoliation, you may have unknowingly stripped the barrier of its natural oils and worn down its protective layer. This can lead to breakouts – which you instinctively want to treat with more active ingredients and exfoliation. And so the cycle continues…
Other factors are harder to control. Extreme weather conditions – whether that’s the heat, cold, or wind – can strip water from the skin and cause dehydration. The sun, pollution and stress all affect its strength, as does a poor sleeping schedule. On top of this, the barrier generally weakens as we mature with a decrease in collagen production.
And while conditions such as rosacea and eczema are tough to treat, they also aggravate your skin barrier. Both lead to a highly sensitised complexion, and can flare up whenever your barrier is damaged. Health conditions such as diabetes can also influence it, as they change the acidity of your skin.
What can you do to strengthen it?
To strengthen your skin barrier, the solution is as simple as hydrating your skin – inside and out. Depending on your lifestyle and skincare habits, this can mean different things for different people.
Avoid extreme temperatures – You can’t control the weather, but you can control the temperature of your shower. Try not to wash in extremely hot water – or at least try to wash your face out of the shower or lower the temperature significantly – as this can strip moisture and make skin tight and itchy.
Eat more omega-3 – Ceramides are a kind of fatty acid that help give your skin barrier its permeability. Skincare can go a long way in topping them up (more on that later), but so can your diet. Foods rich in omega-3 and collagen – such as fish, seeds, and nuts – can help restore your barrier’s lipids.
Streamline your skincare routine – We know that sometimes it feels like there’s too much skincare, not enough time. Rather than overwhelming your skin with products, stick to a goal-oriented routine that targets specific issues. Try to introduce new products one at a time – this will make it easier to identify what irritates your skin.
Know your ingredients – The best ingredients for your skin barrier are gentle and nourishing. This doesn’t mean you need to throw away your acids and exfoliants, but press pause if your skin is inflamed, and go easy on them once it's calmed down. To balance out active ingredients, look for products containing ceramides. These are crucial for protecting you from environmental aggressors and locking in moisture. Other hydrating heroes include hyaluronic acid, glycerine and squalane.
Cleanse in the right way for you – Just because some people swear by double cleansing, doesn’t necessarily make it right for you. If you find it leaves your skin tight or uncomfortable, you’re likely over-cleansing and stripping your barrier of necessary moisture. For the gentlest double cleanse, start with an oil-based cleanser and follow up with a foam or gel-based product. Your skin might also benefit from a cleanser specifically formulated for the natural pH of your acid mantle. This sits at around 5.7, and products with a lower or higher pH can affect its ability to function properly.
Although a weakened skin barrier can temporarily rule out some treatments, there are others that can help restore its strength.
Phototherapy – By using specific wavelengths of LED light, phototherapy can treat your skin barrier at a cellular level. Red is the best coloured light for damaged tissue – not only does it stimulate collagen production, but it boosts circulation, reduces inflammation, and improves the function of your skin barrier in the long-run.
Mesotherapy – This incredibly versatile treatment counts restoring your skin barrier as one of its many benefits. Multiple small injections top up the vitamins and minerals your body already produces naturally but might currently be lacking. These penetrate beyond the top layer of skin to provide some much-needed hydration, as well as improving circulation and collagen production.
Profhilo – For a superpowered dose of hydration, Profhilo has one of the highest concentrations of hyaluronic acid of any injectables on the market. Inserted just beneath the barrier, it helps skin retain more moisture, improving its elasticity and volume. It usually takes two sessions and two months to see the full impact, but your results should last for around six months to a year.
For anyone struggling with their complexion, strengthening your skin barrier is not only a good idea to keep it generally healthy and free from infection, but also allows you to reap all the rejuvenating rewards of treatments to the max, without fear of damaging your skin further and minimising downtime. It might just be the one thing separating you from the skin you’ve always wanted – and that sounds like something worth protecting.
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