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As someone with rosacea, the default setting of my skin barrier is practically damaged. And because I’m such a ‘know-it-all’, I keep experimenting with several skincare products and ingredients. Sometimes they help. Most of the time, they make it much worse. But my loss is your gain. Because I’ve had to find out for myself how to repair my damaged skin barrier and what my part was in the cause. Turns out, there are things you can do at home that naturally aids in the healing of a compromised skin barrier.
Just to set the tone, a healthy skin barrier is not just “nice to have”, but it’s literally what makes your skin healthy. Your skin barrier is like the border patrol that keeps the skin safe from any loss and intrusion.
Because when your skin barrier is damaged, your skin becomes vulnerable to external aggressors. It’s more prone to germs, allergens, UV-induced damage, pollution, and dehydration. So for healthy and glowing skin, it’s important to break this cycle.
Normally, your skin is able to heal its barrier on its own. But you can help speed up the process, or at least eliminate the irritants that are causing the process. So whether it’s your own doing or not, here’s how you can repair a damaged skin barrier and maintain it.
What Is The Skin Barrier and Its Function?
Your skin barrier is literally the barrier that stands between you and the outside world. It’s the outermost layer of your skin, also known as the stratum corneum, which is composed of dead skin cells embedded in a layer of lipids (1).
The skin cells are continuously pushed upwards. As they move up, you have healthy cells down and the dead expandable ones up.
The primary functions of the skin barrier are to keep the water in and keep the microbes out. Additionally, your barrier protects your skin from harmful rays and external free radicals.
The skin barrier is also responsible for building up tolerance and reducing sensitivity. It’s inevitable to stay clear of harmful agents 100% on a daily basis. But thanks to this barrier, you have a safety net.
This incredible defense mechanism has so much more to it than just making you look cute. But for the sake of the topic, we’re going to go ahead and narrow it down to the skin barrier in relation to your complexion.
What Are The Causes of a Damaged Skin Barrier?
Your skin barrier can be damaged due to several reasons. These can be related to things you do in your skincare routine such as using irritating and drying skincare ingredients, or pH-disrupting soaps.
It can also be the result of over-washing or over-exfoliating either with chemical exfoliants or physical exfoliants like scrubs (2).
Using irritating skincare actives like retinoids can also damage the skin barrier. Another common cause of a damaged skin barrier is unprotected sun exposure, which is irrefutably damaging to the skin.
Some other causes of a damaged skin barrier are low humidity, harsh weather, unhealthy habits, and an unhealthy lifestyle. Your skin barrier can also be damaged as a result of skin conditions like eczema and rosacea.
But these skin conditions make the skin predisposed to epidermal dysfunction. So in that case, a damaged skin barrier becomes both the cause and result.
For example, I have rosacea. It’s an inflammatory skin condition. So my skin barrier is already somewhat disturbed. So I have a compromised skin barrier as a result of rosacea. But my rosacea gets worse as a result of damage to my skin barrier too.
And lastly, the skin barrier loses resilience as you age, which is why dryness is a common issue for mature skin.
What Are The Signs of a Damaged Skin Barrier?
Some of the most common signs of a damaged skin barrier are dryness from lack of lipids and dehydration from continuous water loss. And because of these, a damaged skin barrier gives you flaky, scaly and peeling skin.
Additionally, as your protective layer is not intact, the skin becomes sensitive to elements that were not a problem before, such as your regular creams and serums. And it can sting and burn.
And as a result of sensitivity, you may experience redness, irritation, and itchiness as signs of inflammation. Other signs of skin barrier damage are tightness and rough skin from lack of elasticity and dull and pale skin.
As a result of my rosacea, I literally have all the signs above. My skin looks red, feels itchy, and just overall unhappy. It looks like I’ve just scrubbed and irritated my skin with the wrong scrub!
How To Repair a Damaged Skin Barrier
Now that you know what hurts your skin barrier, find below 9 ways to repair a damaged skin barrier.
1. Pay attention to your cleanser.
Even though your skin may be able to handle your cleanser on normal days, it might not be the best when you have an impaired skin barrier. Make sure your daily cleanser is alcohol and SLS-free, which are already drying even on normal skin.
They’ll do much worse on inflamed skin. Try a cream cleanser that doesn’t strip the skin of the necessary oils, which are already scarce at this point.
2. Switch back to basics.
Start by taking a break from the non-essential skincare products. There’s a good chance that some irritating ingredient in one of those products is responsible for the damage.
Lay off the fancy products for a while and use only the basics, like your cleanser and your moisturizer.
3. Hydrate + moisturize.
As your skin is already dehydrated, focus on 1 humectant and 1 occlusive. You can hydrate the skin with a hyaluronic acid serum and lock it in with a lipid-based emollient cream.
This will make sure there’s enough water among the lipid layers to carry nutrients and a strong protective layer to keep them in. By keeping the essential water in, you’ll be able to speed up the healing process significantly.
4. Repair the lipid barrier.
We mentioned the layer of lipids located in the stratum corneum. These lipids are mainly made up of fatty acids, ceramides, and cholesterol.
By restoring these elements, you can increase your skin’s ability to retain moisture. So what you do is look for creams and moisturizers that are formulated with these ingredients.
For example, studies show that topical use of creams formulated with ceramides can help repair the damaged skin barrier function (3).
Similarly, fatty acids help restore the skin barrier function and improve the skin’s natural moisturizing factors. They are labeled as linoleic acid or oleic acid. They can also be listed as omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids in skincare products.
There are special skincare products marketed as barrier creams and they contain these effective ingredients in high concentrations. Try them!
Other ingredients to include in your products are aloe vera, niacinamide, and known anti-inflammatory skincare ingredients like colloidal oatmeal.
So look for these ingredients in your moisturizers to promote a healthy skin barrier that’s resistant to external harmful agents and transepidermal water loss.
5. Physical or chemical, do not exfoliate.
Even though you’re going to feel like your skin needs exfoliation more than ever, lay it off for a bit. Whether it’s a chemical exfoliant like a hydroxy-acid-based product or a physical one like a facial scrub, give it a rest.
The skin cells have their natural life cycle where they’re born and shed off after a certain time. When we exfoliate, we try to speed up that process to get to the healthier cells.
But when your skin is trying to heal from the damage, it’s counter-intuitive to force it. Let it recalibrate and get back to its natural cycle. Take a break from your glycolic acid or salicylic acid products until your skin is in the clear.
6. Reconsider your retinol use.
If you’re using non-prescription retinol, there’s a good chance that you’re doing it wrong. Whatever percentage of retinol you think your skin needs, go lower!
Retinol’s irritation to the skin is severely underestimated until you develop signs of inflammation. Take a break from retinol until you restore your barrier function. You can then restart with a small percentage and apply it 1-2 times a week.
Most people forget that you don’t have to use retinol every day. You can incorporate it into your routine as a treatment to be used a few times a week at most. If that’s what you’re doing, decrease the frequency.
7. Consider using antioxidants.
When your skin is healing, it’s more prone to oxidative stress and photodamage. Antioxidants can help neutralize these effects and give your skin some time and space to repair the damaged skin barrier.
For example, niacinamide (vitamin B3) is a multi-functional ingredient that also has antioxidant properties. And it’s helpful in promoting a healthy lipid barrier.
This increases your skin’s hydration and moisture levels. You can look for an antioxidant serum formulated with niacinamide. Additionally, antioxidants like green tea and vitamin E are inherently soothing for the skin.
8. Embrace face oils.
Face oils are life-saving for dry and/or dehydrated skin. They have a unique way of working where they create a protective layer on the skin, which seals the moisture in.
This physical layer directly targets dehydration, which is the most crucial problem of an impaired skin barrier.
9. Don’t forget your sunscreen.
Finally, as your skin is more susceptible to any damage, the sun is going to be able to make more harm than usual. Unprotected sun exposure weakens a healthy skin barrier, let alone an impaired one.
It’s essential that you take extra care in protecting your skin from the sun while it’s repairing. So, take your SPF with you anywhere you go and actually use it.
So this is how you repair a damaged skin barrier. It’s always easier to prevent than to treat. So as a general rule of thumb, remember to be very gentle with your skin by using gentle products and using active ingredients in a slow and gradual manner.
- Rosso, J. D., Zeichner, J., Alexis, A., Cohen, D., & Berson, D. (2016). Understanding the Epidermal Barrier in Healthy and Compromised Skin: Clinically Relevant Information for the Dermatology Practitioner: Proceedings of an Expert Panel Roundtable Meeting. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 9(4 Suppl 1), S2–S8.
- Del Rosso, J. Q., & Levin, J. (2011). The clinical relevance of maintaining the functional integrity of the stratum corneum in both healthy and disease-affected skin. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 4(9), 22–42.
- Purnamawati, S., Indrastuti, N., Danarti, R., & Saefudin, T. (2017). The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review. Clinical medicine & research, 15(3-4), 75–87. https://doi.org/10.3121/cmr.2017.1363
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