Moisturisers, serums, toners — they all come together for a common purpose: to ensure that our skin is in tip-top condition. Many of these skincare products tend to boast about their ability to protect the skin barrier, and these claims sound so scientific and good for us. But what exactly is the skin barrier and how do I know if there’s anything to fix?
Well, it’s very likely that if you didn’t know about its existence prior to this article, then there’s probably something to fix. But it’s never too late to start, especially when it comes to skincare and protecting your skin barrier.
The 4W1H of Skin Barrier
What is it?
The skin barrier is essentially the outermost layer of skin cells (or in accurate terminology the “stratum corneum”). A healthy skin barrier consists of three components — ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids (lipids).
Think of it as your skin’s frontline of defence. It protects your skin against environmental stressors such as UV rays, pollutants and dirt. They are also the ones responsible for keeping your skin hydrated and soft.
Superficially, it is the layer of skin that everyone sees and is perhaps why it’s so important to take care of it. Signs of ageing, acne and other concerns are your skin barrier’s way of telling you they need help, pronto!
Why You Need To Protect It
Despite its namesake, the skin barrier isn’t always a foolproof protection for your skin, especially when we get older. This delicate layer is a permeable membrane that keeps the great stuff in (moisture) and the nasty stuff out (irritants). When they are not taken care of, this function starts to deteriorate.
As a result, our skin becomes dehydrated and irritated. This shows on our face in the form of redness, flaky skin, pimples or acne. One of the most common indicators of a damaged skin barrier is when you find yourself in an oily-but-dehydrated state. This is when you are constantly blotting your facial oil, but your skin feels strangely tight and sensitive.
Another telltale sign of a compromised skin barrier is when your holy grail skincare products no longer work, but are instead causing redness or sensitivity. If this sounds awfully familiar, and perhaps a quick face-touch has confirmed it to be true — then your skin is telling you that they are in need of some repair and TLC!
What Damages My Skin Barrier?
Before we move on to how to repair your skin barrier, let’s first weed out the villain that has been damaging it. Unfortunately for some of us (me included!), we might have been keeping the enemy close thinking it was a friend: stripping cleansers.
Most of us know cleansers are supposed to remove the dirt and oils from our face. So when our face experiences a tight, clean feeling after cleansing, it means the product has done its job right? Not quite — cleansers are supposed to rid our skin of pollutants, but they are not supposed to leave our skin taut.
This “squeaky clean” sensation is actually our skin barrier being stripped of its moisture. Prolonged use of such cleansers can even cause damage to it. This is also the reason why it is recommended to exfoliate only two to three times a week — any more, and you would be taking away essential moisture from your skin barrier.
In fact, overdoing anything causes our delicate skin barrier to go into a frenzy: over-washing, over-exfoliation, over-moisturising, over-using skincare products. As a Libra would tell you — it’s all about finding a perfect balance.
How Do I Protect and Repair My Skin Barrier?
The key to keeping your skin barrier healthy and functional is to follow the “less is more” concept. I suggest limiting the number of products and active ingredients in your routine. These ingredients, due to their potency, might stress out your barrier and worsen its condition. Instead, focus on supplying it with hydration to replenish your skin’s reservoir.
If you suspect a cleanser has been drying out your skin, switch to gentler formulas that help moisturise the skin. Gel cleansers are good alternatives to foam cleansers, which are typically more stripping due to the foaming agents used. Opt out of witch hazel toners, and instead, look for formulations intended to hydrate the skin. They should ideally have humectants such as hyaluronic acid and glycerin. And as always, moisturise twice a day.
Facial oils and serums are also great ways to give an extra moisture boost to the skin barrier, especially if they contain ceramides or fatty acids. However, oils and serums may be too heavy for those with extra-sensitive skin, and are thus not necessary!
The most important rule is to be in tune with what your skin is telling you. If there are small bumps, it could be due to too-heavy creams. If your pores are getting clogged from your makeup, perhaps a double-cleanse method would be more effective.
When Will My Skin Barrier Finally Recover?
Similar to the process of healing wounds, everyone’s barrier reparation time varies. It can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 1 month for your skin barrier to be restored to its prime state. But you will definitely be able to see the difference! Your skin would have less redness, be less sensitive and feel well-hydrated.
When this happens, you can start incorporating your active ingredients back into your routine to combat specific concerns. But remember — it’s always about striking a good balance between your products!
The journey towards a clearer complexion is never easy, but it certainly begins with having a healthy, uncompromised skin barrier ready to fight off irritants. So let’s help out this delicate warrior by incorporating products that hydrate rather than strip.