Skin barrier damage: Why it happens and how to fix it

Here's how to restore your skin's barrier and protect it from future damage.

Written by
Stephanie Anderson
Medically reviewed by
min read
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Protecting your skin barrier is important, or so every skin-fluencer will be quick to tell you. But what is a skin barrier? What makes for a healthy skin barrier? And more importantly, how do you know if your skin barrier is damaged, and how can you repair it?

These days, scrolling on social media can leave you, and your skin, more irritated and confused than ever. Fear not!

In this article, we'll break it all down for you, from what the skin barrier actually is, to how your complicated skincare routine might actually be sabotaging your attempts for healthy, glowy skin. Most importantly, we'll give you the lowdown on how to restore your skin's barrier and protect it from future damage.

What is the skin barrier and how does it work?

Let's start with the basics. The skin barrier refers to the outermost layer of the epidermis (a.k.a, your skin), and is known as the stratum corneum. Your skin is the largest organ of your body, so your skin barrier protects against external threats such as harmful bacteria, chemicals, and environmental aggressors. It's your body's first line of defence, so it plays a crucial role in maintaining the overall health and integrity of the epidermis [1].

The skin barrier is primarily composed of corneocytes (dead skin cells) embedded in a lipid matrix consisting of ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids. Together, they act as a protective barrier, preventing moisture loss from the inside out, and stopping external aggressors from penetrating the skin [5].

It also regulates the passage of substances into and out of the skin, by selectively allowing the absorption of necessary nutrients, while blocking the penetration of harmful pathogens and toxins. This is crucial for maintaining the internal balance of the skin and preventing potential damage or infection.

But what happens when your skin's barrier is damaged or compromised?

Various factors — such as harsh weather or too much sun, excessive washing or over-exfoliation, certain skincare products, and underlying skin conditions — can result in a damaged barrier.

When the skin's protective barrier is damaged, it can lead to sensitive skin, as well as dryness, irritation, acne breakouts, and increased vulnerability to infections and allergens [2].

So, protecting and strengthening the skin barrier is vital for maintaining healthy, resilient skin. This can be achieved through the use of gentle skincare products, maintaining proper hydration, and incorporating ingredients that support the barrier function, such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and certain antioxidants.

What can damage your skin barrier?

While your skin's barrier is generally resilient, there are several factors that can compromise its integrity, and lead to all kinds of unwanted skin issues. Some common factors include[3]:

Harsh weather conditions

Whether hot or cold, harsh weather can damage your skin, particularly when combined with low humidity or excessive sunlight. These conditions can strip the skin of its natural oils and moisture, resulting in dryness and irritation.

Harsh cleansers and over-exfoliating

Excessive washing and harsh cleansers can strip away the skin's protective oils, leading to irritation, sensitivity, and dry skin. Over-exfoliation, in particular, can remove the outermost layer of the skin, disrupting the natural skin barrier and leaving it vulnerable to irritation and infection.

Certain skincare products

Some skincare products containing harsh ingredients, such as certain fragrances, preservatives, and alcohol, can strip the skin of its natural oils and disrupt the barrier function.

Skin conditions

Certain skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis can compromise the integrity of the skin barrier, leading to increased sensitivity, dryness, and inflammation.

Environmental toxins

Exposure to environmental pollutants and toxins can damage the skin barrier, leading to oxidative stress and inflammation, which can prevent your skin's barrier from functioning properly.

Lifestyle factors

Chronic stress and lack of sleep can take a toll on an otherwise healthy skin barrier. Likewise, factors like poor diet, smoking, and too much alcohol can also contribute to skin damage.

How to tell if your skin barrier is impaired

If your skin barrier is impaired, it's likely you'll be able to spot a few visible and sensory indicators. While it's different for every person, common symptoms that your barrier has been compromised include increased skin sensitivity, acne breakouts, dryness, redness, flaky or itchy skin, and tightness [4].

Signs to look for include a new and heightened reactivity to the products in your skincare routine, particularly if you experience a stinging or burning sensation upon application. Your skin might appear rough and flaky, or develop patches of irritation or inflammation.

You may also observe an increase in skin's susceptibility to environmental factors, such as extreme temperatures or wind, leading to heightened discomfort and a compromised ability to retain moisture.

If you notice persistent signs of skin barrier impairment, it's essential to consult a dermatologist for a proper evaluation, as they'll be able to offer guidance on suitable skincare practices and products to help restore and strengthen your skin barrier. Regular use of gentle, hydrating products, and avoiding harsh ingredients can help support the restoration of a healthy skin barrier.

How to repair a damaged skin barrier

When you're dealing with a damaged skin barrier, it's all about minimising further irritants and using a combination of gentle skincare practices and products that will help restore and strengthen the skin's natural protective function. Here are some effective steps to repair a damaged skin barrier:

  • Gentle cleansing. Use a mild, non-irritating cleansing balm with a soft cloth to avoid stripping the skin of its natural oils. Avoid hot water and harsh scrubbing, as these can further damage the skin barrier.
  • Moisturise regularly. Moisture is key for your barrier function [2]. Apply a fragrance-free, ceramide-rich moisturiser with ingredients like hyaluronic acid and squalane to help restore the skin's hydration levels and reinforce the skin barrier. Software's Ceramide Repair Balm is a great option, as it's specifically designed to hydrate, nourish, and repair for a stronger skin barrier.
  • Avoid harsh ingredients. Steer clear of skincare products containing alcohol, fragrances, and other potential irritants that can damage your skin further.
  • Use barrier repair products. Along with a moisturiser, you can help your barrier along with other specialised products, like soothing face masks, serums and ointments. Lightweight but heavy in hydration, Software's Hyaluronic Complex Serum is supercharged with 4 types of hyaluronic acid. Not only does it help to maintain your skin barrier integrity, but it also helps reduce ageing signs and attracts and retains moisture to support healthy, dewy skin.
  • Avoid sun exposure. Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a broad-spectrum sunscreen to prevent further damage and allow the skin barrier to heal. Software's Daily Sun Defence SPF50+ is a great option to keep your skin hydrated and protected.
  • Stay hydrated and maintain a healthy diet. Drink plenty of water and consume a diet rich in essential fatty acids, vitamins, and antioxidants to support overall skin health and aid in the repair process.
  • Consult a dermatologist. If you have persistent skin issues, consult a dermatologist for personalised advice and suitable treatment options to address your specific skin concerns and aid in the repair of your skin barrier.

Consistent use of these practices can significantly contribute to the repair and restoration of a damaged skin barrier, leading to improved skin health and resilience.

What's the best skincare routine for a damaged skin barrier?

In order to treat your skin well and restore healthy skin barrier function, you'll have to trade in your harsh chemicals and irritants in favour of products that are gentle, nourishing, and hydrating.

Here's an effective skincare routine to help repair and strengthen a compromised skin barrier:

  1. Cleansing. Use a gentle, non-foaming, fragrance-free cleanser. Cleanse your face no more than twice a day, using lukewarm water and a soft cloth.
  2. Hydration. Apply a rich, hydrating moisturiser with ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid immediately after cleansing. This will help restore the skin's moisture barrier.
  3. Serum or treatment. Incorporate a soothing and reparative serum or treatment to help support the repair process.
  4. Sun protection. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily, even on cloudy days, to protect your skin as it heals and to prevent further damage.
  5. Avoid harsh products. Steer clear of harsh exfoliants, astringents, and products containing alcohol or fragrances, as these can further irritate and compromise the skin barrier.

How long does it take to repair the skin barrier?

The time it takes to repair a damaged skin barrier can vary depending on the severity of the damage, individual skin type, and the effectiveness of the skincare regimen being followed.

In general, the process of restoring the skin barrier can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks or even months, depending on the extent of the damage and how well the skin responds to the treatment.

Mild cases of damage may show improvement within a few days to a week with proper skincare practices, while more severe cases might take several weeks to notice significant improvement.

Consistently following a gentle skincare routine and avoiding further damage can expedite the healing process. However, it's important to note that individual responses to skincare treatments can vary, and patience is key when trying to repair and strengthen the skin barrier.

How to prevent skin barrier damage

When it comes to preventing damage to your skin's barrier, it's all about being proactive, both in your lifestyle and skincare. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet that's rich in antioxidants and essential fatty acids, as well as getting enough sleep and drinking enough water will benefit both your skin and your entire body.

Beyond that, adopting a gentle skincare routine is key [3]. Irritants like harsh chemicals and exfoliants can result in compromised skin, so if you're concerned about barrier function, gentle products are the way to go. Opt for milder, fragrance-free products that are suitable for sensitive skin, and moisturise regularly with products containing ceramides and hyaluronic acid, as these can help strengthen a compromised skin barrier. It's also important to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen every single day.

By implementing these practices, you can effectively preserve the integrity of your skin barrier and get the healthy, glowy skin we all dream of.

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