What Is My Skin Barrier and Why Does it Matter?


If you’ve ever wondered what your skin barrier actually is, you’re definitely not alone (see: me, not too long ago, plus every single friend who texts and DMs me about their inflamed, red skin on a regular basis). You’ve probably heard the concept of skin barriers mentioned in skincare commercials as of late, along with some *cough* lofty *cough* talk about how to strengthen your barrier, how to love it, how it’s the source of all happiness and sadness, etc.

And though, sure, skin barriers are being a little overhyped right now, it’s also for good reason: Your skin barrier is the very thing responsible for how your skin feels and looks, and if you’re not properly taking care of yours, you could be increasing your odds of dryness, irritation, acne, rosacea, fine lines, and more. Not ideal, right? So to help you figure out what exactly your skin barrier is and why TF it’s so important, we enlisted some expert help, below, starting with…

Simply put: The skin barrier is the outermost layer of your skin that serves as a protective shield. Basically, the entire purpose of your skin barrier is to shield you from environmental stressors, irritation, and inflammation, while holding onto all the good stuff (see: moisture, moisture, and more moisture).

Even though to your eyes, it looks like a single layer of skin, your skin barrier is actually made up of a brick-and-mortar system: “The cells, also known as corneocytes, are the bricks in your skin barrier, while the mortar is made of various lipids, like cholesterol and ceramides,” says Dana Stern, MD, dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. The combination of all these cells and lipids is what forms the protective barrier for your skin.

Honestly, it’s a (somewhat) simple question: Does your skin feel anything less than stellar? If not, your skin barrier might need some TLC. Symptoms of a damaged skin barrier can include dryness, flakes, heightened sensitivity, redness, itching, and major inflammation. Another sign of a weakened or damaged barrier? Your skin becoming more prone to infections and rashes, says dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali, MD, of Hudson Dermatology and Laser Surgery.

Your skin barrier is always shielding you from irritants, which means it’s going to get damaged sometimes. Some of the biggest causes of a compromised skin barrier? Environmental factors (sun exposure, pollution, smoking), physical damage (over-exfoliating your face or using harsh/irritating skincare products), and even just your genetics and age. “Ceramide levels decrease significantly as we age,” says Dr. Stern, “and so our skin’s ability to hold onto moisture eventually becomes compromised.”

Basically, some factors that impact your skin barrier are ~totally~ out of your control—like aging and, you know, the weather. But if your skincare routine is causing problems, you can (and should!) switch it up by laying off the harsh exfoliators, acids, and sulfate-filled soaps, all of which can disrupt the balance of fats in your skin barrier. “When your skin barrier doesn’t have an effective balance of fats, the moisture and hydration that makes your skin look supple, full, and plump will not be maintained,” says Dr. Stern.

The key to repairing your skin barrier is reintroducing moisture ASAP. Dr. Stern suggests looking for moisturizers that contain ceramides and humectants. Topical ceramides mimic skin’s moisturizing functions to hold onto hydration, while humectants (like hyaluronic acid and glycerin) are what Dr. Stern calls water magnets. “They pull water molecules from the dermis towards the epidermis to keep it moisturized,” she says.

If your skin barrier is feelin’ extra off and has been for awhile, try sticking to a bland and moisturizing routine for at least 2 to 3 weeks before (slowly!) bringing your acids and retinoids back into the equation. So a gentle face wash in the morning and night, followed by a hydrating face serum, and then—most importantly—a rich, barrier-repairing moisturizer, like one of these expert-approved picks below.

This rich cream absorbs into skin without any of that oily, sticky residue. It’s also spiked with ceramides and hyaluronic acid and happens to be one of Dr. Stern’s go-tos in barrier repair.

Bhanusali suggests this emollient formula—which is whipped with glycerin—to seal moisture into dry, cracked skin. Just make sure to layer it over moisturizer or on top of slightly damp skin.

Loaded with glycerine, hyaluronic acid, and olive-derived squalane (which mimics skin’s natural oils), this facial cream was formulated to help protect your skin barrier.

It’s swirled with the good stuff: including ceramides and colloidal oatmeal which help moisturize your skin. The cream might be rich, but trust me when I say it doesn’t feel heavy, oily, or tacky.

I know it’s not what you want to hear, but recovery time is totally dependent on your skin type and how damaged your skin barrier actually is. If you just went overboard with a face peel or a scrub one time? You should be on the mend within a week or two. But if you’ve spent months accidentally breaking down your skin barrier through harsh or ill-suited products? It could take a few months for it to bounce back.

In the end, your dermatologist will be your BFF in your barrier-repair journey. Though there are some things you can fix on your own (like dryness or flakes), there are a ton of skin conditions that will ultimately need a dermatologist’s touch (and prescription products) to soothe and treat, like rosacea or dermatitises—both of which can flare when your barrier is compromised.

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