The skin barrier is your first defense to the outside world. It protects against environmental stressors and keeps your skin hydrated. But if the skin barrier gets damaged, your skin will likely feel dryer and more sensitive than usual.
Let me guess. Your dream journey to a fresh, healthy complexion did not include irritated skin. Whether your skin is already prone to sensitivity and dryness or not, skin barrier damage can happen to anyone. The good news is: You can repair the damage and ease irritation in a couple of weeks.
Ease up on some of your more intense active ingredients (looking at you, retinoids and alpha-hydroxy acids) and focus on the basics: keeping your skin clean and moisturized with healing skincare products. You’ll be able to add your favorites back in no time.
We caught up with board-certified dermatologist Dr. Lana Kashlan to get the lowdown on how to repair a damaged skin barrier.
Damaged skin barrier 101
What is the skin barrier?
The skin barrier, also known as the stratum corneum, is the outermost layer of the skin. You can think of it kind of like a brick wall—skin cells are the bricks, and fats act as the mortar that glues the cells together.
“The idea,” says Dr. Kashlan, “is that these bricks are stacked tightly together to help protect your body from any foreign organisms entering the skin.” The skin barrier also prevents moisture loss through the skin and protects your body from the sun and environmental toxins.
What does it mean for the skin barrier to be damaged?
When our skin barrier is damaged, it basically means “that brick wall isn’t as effective as it could be,” says Dr. Kashlan. Usually, “there’s an alteration in the fats that are acting like the mortar between the bricks.”
External factors are usually the culprit. “Over-exfoliation, the use of harsh chemicals or physical exfoliants, allergens, or irritants” can all damage the skin barrier, according to Dr. Kashlan.
Certain skincare actives and improperly using them can also be at fault. Chemical exfoliants or acne treatments can contribute to a damaged skin barrier, especially if overused. Think retinoids (like retinol or tretinoin), AHAs, and BHAs. If these actives are used at too high of a concentration or too frequently, they can irritate your skin and compromise the skin barrier. So, while these skincare actives have a plethora of benefits, it’s all about pacing and moderation when you introduce them to your routine.
Environmental stressors like pollutants and unprotected sun exposure can also affect the skin barrier.
How do I know if I have a damaged skin barrier?
If you have a damaged skin barrier, you can expect dryness, itchiness, scaliness, or redness of the skin, Dr. Kashlan tells us. People can even get rashes or rough patches.
And remember what we said about the skin barrier protecting against organisms and toxins? Without that protective barrier, acne breakouts or infections can develop, too. So it’s worth healing that skin barrier asap.
What’s the difference between a damaged skin barrier and dermatitis?
Irritated skin does not necessarily mean a damaged skin barrier, and a damaged skin barrier shouldn’t be confused with dermatitis, which is a generic term for a skin condition that’s related to inflammation. With dermatitis, you can expect itchy, red rashes that can be painful or ooze. A damaged skin barrier is less inflamed—which means you’ll get dryness, scaling, and flaking, rather than the oozing rashes that come with dermatitis. Dr. Kashlan continues, “It’s usually limited to certain parts of the skin,” unlike a damaged skin barrier, which you’ll typically experience over the whole face.
That said, a compromised skin barrier can be a precursor to some forms of dermatitis. So, it’s worth repairing the skin barrier to prevent more skin issues to deal with.
How can I repair my damaged skin barrier?
To get back to a healthy skin barrier, simplify your morning and nighttime skincare routines to just the essentials.
1. Strip your skincare routine of any potential irritants.
Even if your skin is normally tolerant of the skincare actives you use, like retinoids, AHAs, and BHAs, they can irritate your skin when it’s sensitive. Even things like vitamin C, which is generally more gentle, can be irritating. So, pause on those for the time being. You’ll be able to add them back when your skin is healed by reintroducing them slowly.
Feel free to keep using hydrating serums like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide, which can help improve skin barrier function1.
Go without makeup if you can, or as little as you’re comfortable with. If you do wear makeup, moisturize liberally before applying to give your skin extra protection. Opt for a light, moisturizing foundation or skin tint. And wash off your makeup at the end of the day.
2. Wash away impurities with a gentle face cleanser.
Avoid exfoliating face washes or anything designed to strip away oils. A damaged skin barrier means you need to build up the oils in your skin that act as the mortar between your skin cells.
So, if you normally use a face wash for oily skin that’s designed to strip oils, leave that on the shelf for a few weeks while you restore the lipid composition of your skin. And Dr. Kashlan recommends avoiding hot water, which will increase dryness. Stick to lukewarm water when washing your face.
3. Build up the skin barrier with a hydrating moisturizer.
When it comes to skin barrier repair, a nourishing face lotion is your best friend for improving hydration, reducing irritation, and restoring skin barrier integrity2.
Dr. Kashlan recommends looking for moisturizers with ceramides, which “will help restore the lipid composition of the skin,” or humectants to trap moisture. Glycerin is a great moisturizer to restore skin barrier function as well.
Salve is a medical-grade moisturizer chock full of ceramides. It’s specifically developed to combat skin sensitivity from AHA and retinoids. Salve increases skin moisture by 150% after just 24 hours.
4. Protect the skin against the sun’s harsh UV rays with sunscreen.
SPF should already be part of your daily skincare routine, but it’s all the more important when repairing a damaged skin barrier.
Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30—that’s free of irritants like fragrances and preservatives—fifteen minutes before you go outside and every two hours as long as you’re out in the sun.
Prevent your skin barrier from getting damaged in the future.
Keep these easy tips in mind to have a happy and healthy skin barrier:
- Maintain a regular skincare regimen with a gentle cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen as outlined above to help protect and maintain skin health and prevent skin barrier damage.
- Opt for chemical exfoliants—including retinoids, AHAs, and BHAs—over physical exfoliants like microbeads, sugar, or coffee grounds. Those can be more irritating, according to dermatologist Dr. Sheila Krishna.
- Go slow when introducing new products to make sure you don’t overdo it. The goal is to find the ideal balance that helps you reach your skin goals effectively while avoiding irritation. Start with a low concentration once or twice per week. Increase frequency and concentration as your skin adjusts to your new products. Check in with your derm to get help determining what to use and how often.
If retinoids are your active of choice, Dear Brightly makes it easy to ramp up slowly while avoiding damaging the skin barrier. Night Shift is a tailored retinoid serum formulated with hyaluronic acid to draw in moisture—which will help combat dry skin that could damage the skin. Depending on your skin and skin history, your provider may send you a starter strength to help your skin ease onto retinoids before increasing to your skin’s ideal concentration.
Above all, listen to your skin. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to skincare.
Got questions? Feel free to get in touch at email@example.com.
- Levin, J., & Momin, S. (2010, February). How much do we really know about our favorite cosmeceutical ingredients? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2921764/
- Lebwohl, M., & Herrmann, L. G. (2005, December). Impaired skin barrier function in dermatologic disease and repair with moisturization. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16869176/