Skin Barrier Basics

A functioning skin barrier is an essential structure that plays a key role in skin health and hydration. Damage to the skin barrier can contribute to other concerns, such as dryness, redness, sensitivity, and acne. Many skin concerns are related to skin barrier issues - skin barrier issues must be addressed before concerns will improve. To fully appreciate and take proper care of the skin barrier, it's helpful to be familiar with the skin barrier's function, common mistakes associated with skin barrier issues, and skin barrier repair.


Cross sectional diagram of skin barrier
The skin barrier is an essential structure, playing a key role in skin health and hydration

The skin barrier is a protective lipid structure, located within the stratum cornea (the outermost layer of skin). The skin barrier is composed of interconnected layers of ceramides, cholesterol, and essential fatty acids, a structure known as a lipid bilayer.


The skin barrier’s first primary function is to protect the body from environmental damage, acting as the first line of defense against UV radiation, wind, free radicals, and external irritants. A robust skin barrier will have a higher tolerance towards stress, while a compromised skin barrier will be more susceptible to sensitivity and environmental damage.


The skin barrier’s second and most important role is to retain moisture within the body, playing a key role in health and hydration. A healthy, functioning lipid bilayer acts as a moisture retaining structure, locking in internal hydration. A compromised skin barrier does not effectively retain moisture, allowing internal hydration to evaporate through compromised skin structures, also known as Transepidermal Water Loss (TEWL).


Cross sectional diagram of skin barrier
The skin barrier protects the skin from environmental damage and water loss

TEWL is a common symptom of an impaired skin barrier, causing dryness, dehydration, fine lines, and impaired desquamation. A compromised skin barrier creates sensitivity, redness, and reactivity to products. The most common symptom of a compromised skin barrier is persisting dryness and redness.

Dry, red, sensitized skin
Dryness, redness, and sensitivity are common symptoms of a compromised skin barrier

A compromised skin barrier is usually the result of cumulative stress to the skin, most commonly sun damage and improper home care, but can also be the result of an acute injury of the skin, such as a severe sunburn, or an unsafe chemical peel or laser treatment.

Sensitized, red skin
Sensitivity and redness are common symptoms of a compromised skin barrier

The 3 most common mistakes contributing to skin barrier issues are outlined below -

Sun Damage

The most mistake that causes skin barrier issues is inadequate sun protection. Unprotected sun exposure damages the skin on a cellular level, breaking down cellular building blocks and structures.

A quality SPF should be Zinc or Titanium Oxide based, comfortable and lightweight enough to reapply throughout the day. SPF should be applied in the morning and reapplied every 2 hours, especially before driving. Cosmetics (makeup, powders, etc) do not contain a high enough concentration of active ingredients to provide adequate protection.

Using active products (acids and retinols) will increase the skin’s photosensitivity and risk of sun damage. Using active products without adequate sun protection further increases the skin’s susceptibility to skin barrier issues.

Over Exfoliation

The second most common mistake is misuse of exfoliation products. Healthy skin should only be gently exfoliated 1-2 x a week - more frequently can cause stress and damage to the skin barrier. In addition, exfoliating products are not one-size-fits-all and are not recommended for all skin types. Manual exfoliation and certain acids can exacerbate acne, rosacea, and sensitized skin. Skin health and hydration should be prioritized over exfoliation; compromised skin should never be exfoliated.

Poorly Formulated Products

The last common mistake is use of products containing high concentrations of oils, not formulated with skin barrier health in mind. Oils high in certain acids have a tendency to dissolve other oils, breaking down the skin’s lipid bilayer.

Many products are formulated to provide a good short-term feeling without addressing skin health and longevity. Products that create an artificial barrier, may feel good during the first few weeks of use, but will cause long-term cumulative damage.


Unsafe Procedure

Less commonly, skin barrier issues can occur as a result of unsafe ablative procedures such as chemical peels, laser resurfacing, and exfoliation treatments. Unsafe procedures are usually associated with improper training, lack of education, improper aftercare, or patient noncompliance.


It is essential to find a reputable, knowledgeable, and trustworthy professional when considering any facial procedure. It is usually better to find a professional that specializes in what you are looking for. Doing preliminary research, such as reading reviews, examining credentials (licensure, certifications, and training) and professional reputation, and meeting for an introductory consultation are great initial steps to find a provider who is a good fit.


When considering a facial procedure, make sure to inquire about and understand preparation and aftercare in detail. Preparation is essential to make sure the skin is healthy enough to receive the procedure; aftercare is crucial to ensure a safe recovery and to maximize results.


 

If any of these concerns resonate with you, don't be discouraged - skin barrier issues are common and can be addressed by focusing on skin barrier repair, starting with the 3 following steps -


Eliminate Sources of Stress

The first step to repair the skin barrier is to eliminate all sources of stress. Usually this means adjusting daily home care routine to include adequate sun protection, eliminating exfoliation, active products, and products containing problematic ingredients.


Supportive Products

The second step in skin barrier repair is to introduce supportive products, simplifying your daily routine.


For skin barrier repair, I recommend AnteAGE’s Cleanser, a gentle cleanser formulated with essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory ingredients.


I usually pair the cleanser with AnteAGE Biogel, an intensive healing gel, formulated using stem cell technology to facilitate an internal healing response.


The most important step of a simplified skin routine is vigilant sun protection. As mentioned above, a Zinc or Titanium Oxide based SPF should be applied in the morning, and reapplied every 2 hours. I personally prefer the texture, transparency, and coverage of this sunscreen.


Supportive Diet

Lastly, skin barrier repair can be supplemented with a supportive diet. Foods high in essential fatty acids, Omega 3, and antioxidants tend to be supportive to skin health and barrier function. Always consult with your doctor or nutritional specialist before making changes to your diet.


Food high in Omega 3

Still Struggling?

There is always hope to heal the skin. Skin barrier issues are common, often a precursor to other concerns. Sometimes, additional help from a skincare professional may be needed, especially when concerns are present.


I offer complimentary Skin Coaching for all individuals. I’m a licensed esthetician and owner of Mile High Glamour, a med spa based in Highlands Ranch, Colorado (South Denver). I offer virtual Skin Coaching to long-distance individuals. My approach is education based, teaching you how to take care of your skin, with skin health and longevity in mind.


If any of these concerns resonate with you, please schedule a complimentary consultation


Portrait of Shelby Gilson, esthetician