If slathering on an ultra-thick moisturizer just isn’t cutting it with your parched-looking skin, it’s time to change your tune and focus on how to repair your skin barrier. Here are all the details you need to get to healthier (and moisturized!) skin.
What’s your skin barrier?
Your skin shields your body from the outside elements. And as your largest organ, it’s probably due more love than most of us give it. The skin has three main layers, each of which are made up of even more layers. The top layer is what’s called your skin barrier. (Technical name: stratum corneum.) You absolutely want it to be healthy. It protects you from toxins, germs, plus irritants that cause inflammation. It also helps keep your body’s water content where it belongs: inside your body.
Cosmetically, an intact skin barrier keeps your skin looking supple and wrinkles minimized. The skin cells in the stratum corneum have a layer of lipids called ceramides (aka fats). They also have a protective protein called keratin. Keratin minimizes damage to your skin structure—which keeps your skin looking supple and elasticity nice and strong.
Why is my skin barrier in need of repair?
Lots of everyday outside factors can affect your skin barrier. Some are out of your control, like pollution. But others sit completely within your control. Two of the biggest culprits? Washing with the wrong products and over-exfoliating.
Why the wrong products lead to skin barrier damage
Studies show (and estheticians agree!) that reaching for your shower soap, water, and your towel aren’t the way to show love to your skin barrier. You think you’re doing your skin some good by keeping it super clean. But you’re actually disrupting your skin barrier. Shower soap actually has a much higher pH than facial cleansers. That’s not good for your delicate face skin and barrier. So what to do? Look for products that are gentle and meant for your face. They’ll have a lower pH value and won’t break down the natural moisture your skin barrier tries to hold onto.
Over-exfoliating and skin barrier damage
Over-exfoliating does a number on your skin barrier. (And not in a good way.) You may feel like you need to get rid of sebum plugs or acne—and that exfoliating with a glove, pad, or mit feels oh-so-good. But the reality’s very different. See, exfoliating this way creates itty bitty cracks in your skin barrier. Those cracks let germs and other irritants in. The result? Skin that looks dry and is actually more prone to inflammation and acne.
So, is all exfoliation bad for your facial skin? Not in the least. But the best way to do it is to put away all the physical exfoliators. Talk to your esthetician or dermatologist about gentle chemical options that you can use on a regular basis. They’re more effective in the long haul, and they won’t physically destroy your skin barrier.
How to restore your skin barrier ASAP
We already talked about two things not to do to improve your skin barrier. (Don’t wash with your body soap or physically exfoliate your facial skin.) But what steps can you take to repair your skin barrier? The single best way is to get the advice of a dermatologist and/or esthetician. Sure, it sounds like an expensive route. But many of us spend plenty using trial and error to figure out which products we think will help. Going straight to the pros will help you narrow down your skin care routine (great for your barrier!) and also get professional advice on which products to use. That way, you can be confident that you’re taking the right steps.
Most likely, you’ll end up with fewer products in your routine. Expect a product that contains hyaluronic acid, a facial wash (it might contain glycolic acid), a retinol, and to trade out your thick, heavy moisturizers for something light: a skin barrier renewal or repair cream.
The skin barrier renewal complex we recommend
We use (and absolutely love!) this skin barrier renewal complex by Elta MD. It’s vegan, fragrance- and paraben-free, and good for even the most sensitive skin. Plus, it contains squalane, ceramides, biotin, and other ingredients that your skin barrier desperately needs. Going on, it feels lightweight, creamy, and it feels oh-so-good going on the skin.
Elta MD Barrier Renewal Complex runs about $56. It might be available at your dermatologist, which means you can use a health savings account to purchase (if you have one). You can also buy it directly from Elta MD’s site or on DermStore, where you can save 20% if you subscribe. In our experience, the 1.7-oz container lasts about 3 months with applying twice a day.
How long until my skin barrier’s in better shape?
Like all other things, don’t expect results overnight. Give it some time. As a general rule, you expect to really notice an improvement in your skin barrier in one to two months. Some of what you’ll see? Less oily spots, fewer dry spots, wrinkles that look a little less deep, and overall feel-good, good-looking skin.