Everything you need to know about the skin barrier
Did you know that only 0.001-millimeter stands between the inner workings of your body and the outside world? That’s the thickness of the skin barrier, and with such an important job it’s important to care for it.
What is the skin barrier?
The skin barrier is essentially the uppermost layer of skin cells that covers your body from head to toe. These skin cells are held together by a naturally-occuring mix of lipids, specifically ceramides, fatty acids and cholesterol.
How does the skin barrier work?
When the skin barrier is healthy, skin cells and lipids work together to create a “seal” that prevents hydration from escaping the skin and irritants from entering the skin. When the skin barrier isn’t functioning optimally, moisture can evaporate and irritants can enter the skin more easily. It’s really that simple.
What compromises the skin barrier?
Think about everything your skin is exposed to in a given day… Extreme hot or cold, low humidity, UV exposure, household cleaning products and laundry detergents are just the beginning. Stress, lack of sleep and even certain medications can throw the skin barrier off balance.
Skincare products can be the main cause of a compromised skin barrier. Harsh cleansing ingredients like sulfates, strong exfoliating acids, drying acne treatments and over-use of retinol/retinoids before the skin is conditioned are the main culprits.
Chronic stress and lack of sleep can impact the skin barrier as well. The body responds to these conditions by producing a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol has been shown to deplete the skin barrier’s essential lipids, increase the production of the natural oils (which can potentially contribute to acne) and throw the skin’s microbial balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria off kilter. Cortisol can also impact the skin’s production of hyaluronic acid and collagen, which are essential for plump, smooth skin.
What happens when the skin barrier is compromised?
The most common signs of a weakened skin barrier are dryness, flaking, itching, irritation and increased sensitivity. Research has also revealed potential connections between a compromised skin barrier and acne, eczema and other chronic skin conditions.
How to keep the skin barrier strong and healthy
Maintaining skin-barrier health isn’t complicated, but it does require being mindful.
Less is actually more when it comes to maintaining skin barrier health, and the key word is gentle. For your core daily regimen, it’s best to keep things simple with a mild cleanser, ceramide-infused moisturizer and mineral-based sunscreen. If you are using active ingredients like retinol/retinoids or exfoliating acids, listen to your skin. Dryness, flaking or irritation mean your skin can’t handle these ingredients but you don’t have to stop them altogether. Simply reduce how often you use them until your skin demonstrates tolerance. To reinforce the skin barrier, look for products with ingredients like ceramides, fatty acids and niacinamide, which pose little-to-no risk of reaction even if the barrier is compromised.
Eating healthy fats is an easy, natural way to help replenish the lipids that create the skin barrier’s “seal.” Foods such as eggs, avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil and wild-caught salmon are excellent for your skin and overall health. Incorporating antioxidant-rich foods like brightly-colored fruits and vegetables can help offset the skin-damaging effects of free radicals that are generated within the body and the surrounding environment.
Turning stress off and getting quality sleep isn’t as easy as flipping a switch–it takes work. This is where meditation, deep breathing and other forms of self-care come in. Setting aside time for exercise, hobbies, connecting with friends and family, and learning to confidently say “no” can go a long way.