What is the skin barrier?
The words ‘skin barrier’ are thrown around with abandon, but beyond knowing it’s important, what exactly is it? New York-based plastic surgeon Dr. Lara Devgan likens the skin barrier to a large-scale cell membrane. “It’s the top protective layer of the dermis that locks in moisture, keeps out pathogens, protects the tissues and keeps us looking healthy, dewy and glowy,” she says. Put simply, the skin barrier is a seal that maintains balance by keeping moisture in and anything harmful out. When your skin barrier is healthy, your complexion will look calm and feel well-hydrated; when it’s impaired, it may be red, reactive, dry and uncomfortable. “If your skin is overly dry, red, peeling, irritated or waxy, these are all signs of a damaged skin barrier,” Dr. Devgan adds.
What causes this damage?
“The skin barrier can be inadvertently damaged by so many things, both in and out of our control,” explains London-based dermatologist Dr. Ifeoma Ejikeme. “Retinoids, acids, extreme exfoliation, dehydration, UV and even hay fever can disrupt it.”
However, it’s true that greater awareness has resulted in many of us benefitting from better skin barriers overall. “We are savvier about how to protect our skin barrier now than we were a few generations ago,” says Dr. Devgan. “Society is more aware of the dangers of smoking and alcohol consumption; [we] know that [sunbathing] and tanning beds are damaging to the dermis; and we understand that vaping, overconsumption of processed foods and unhealthy lifestyles [can all] affect our cells.” That said, our desire for smooth, glass-like, pore-free skin could also be inflicting real harm. “I do feel concerned that overly aggressive treatments are still damaging skin. I have encountered patients who have had extremely aggressive CO2 lasers and now have a waxy quality to their complexion. I’ve also seen people over-treat their skin with very harsh at-home acid peels and enzymatic cleansers, which cause damage.”
How should we protect our skin barrier?
Dr. Ejikeme recommends covering the basics with a good routine. This means cleansing every day with a gentle formula to ensure there are no pollutants or irritants on your skin, and using serums containing strengthening and protective ingredients, such as antioxidants, algae, ceramides and niacinamide. Case in point: La Mer The Concentrate is an excellent daily barrier protector, helping to calm and heal skin, with research showing it reduces moisture loss and improves barrier repair. It’s a brilliant treatment to use before and after in-clinic treatments that temporarily weaken your skin barrier, too.
You should also scale back exfoliation to once or twice a week, unless you are using a mild peel proven for everyday use, apply a good-quality moisturizer (even if you have oily skin) and seal everything in with a broad-spectrum SPF every day.
How do we repair our skin barrier?
“When something goes wrong with the skin barrier, it starts with just a whisper,” says Dr. Ejikeme. “That’s when you should do something. Don’t wait for it to shout – if it’s ignored, you can experience scaling or hyperpigmentation.” Dr. Ejikeme recommends using products containing squalane. “It’s one of my all-time-favorite ingredients because it’s both protecting and soothing.” Dr. Devgan also recommends a simple response to angry-looking skin: “Often doing very little, or leaving your skin alone completely, can help restore it to its normal equilibrium. Otherwise, use emollient moisturizers, recovery creams and peptide-based formulas alongside a mixed-molecular-weight hyaluronic serum.”
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