What is the skin barrier?
Oh, the skin barrier. You will have heard of this being referred to A LOT within the skincare industry and while you might not know what it is, we’d bet good money that you’ve probably felt the backlash when it's become compromised (aka unhappy). More on that later.
The skin barrier plays an essential role in keeping you alive. It provides a physical barrier in the form of the stratum corneum — old, hardened skin cells that make up the outermost layer of the skin and act as a shield. Surrounding those cells is a combination of lipids (ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids) binding them together. Think of the cells as bricks and the lipids like mortar, creating a brick wall to keep the “bad stuff” out and good stuff in.
Inside the skin cells, you will find the natural moisturising factor (NMF), a fluid made up of fats, amino acids, salt, sugar, urea, and lactic acid, that act as the skin’s natural moisturiser. The NMF contains humectants* that draw water to the skin from the atmosphere, helping to keep the skin supple and hydrated.
On top of this layer, is the acid mantle. You can’t physically see it, but this slightly acidic film is made up of sebum - your skin’s natural oil -, sweat, amino acids, and non-pathogenic bacteria**. Its main function is to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
What does it do?
The skin barrier is your body’s first line of defence, protecting you from the elements, environmental stressors and toxins. It also keeps water inside your body (and stops you from absorbing it like a sponge – putting the long-standing myth of the skin absorbing 60% of what you put on it to rest), preventing moisture loss and dehydration. It’s crucial to treat your barrier with the love and respect it deserves, as this is what prevents irritation and works to keep your skin looking and feeling its best.
What does it mean when your skin barrier is compromised?
When the barrier becomes compromised or damaged, there is a reduction in the lipids that hold the cells together. This results in potential irritants and pathogens being able to penetrate the skin more easily. Think of it like leaving the front door ajar. It also allows moisture to be lost at a faster rate, which is why you will begin to experience dehydration and dryness. When your barrier is impaired, you will also find it difficult to treat concerns such as breakouts and hyperpigmentation. This is why it’s important to always treat any sensitivity first, before getting to work on other skin concerns.
Signs that your skin barrier may be compromised:
• Dryness and dehydration
• Rough texture
• Burning/Stinging sensation
• Itchy skin
If you’re not sure whether you’re experiencing the above, but your face generally feels sore, this could be a sign your barrier is impaired.
How to look after your skin barrier:
• Don’t OVER cleanse. Twice a day is plenty – a single cleanse in the AM and double cleanse at night if you’re wearing makeup and SPF (which you should be!). If your skin feels sensitive, opt for a gentle cleanser that you can splash off, to avoid the friction of a face cloth.
• Outside of using a face cloth, keep manual exfoliation to a minimum and avoid over-exfoliating. How often you exfoliate will depend on the product you’re using, your skin type and condition, but as a general rule, start by exfoliating twice a week and re-assess. For some, that will be plenty.
• Add new products to your routine, slowly. Especially when it comes to retinoids and exfoliating acids. Patch test first, where possible.
• Be gentle with your skin. Think of it like a delicate piece of ribbon, not a brick wall.
• Keep it hydrated. Brilliant hydrating ingredients include urea, glycerin, squalane and hyaluronic acid (always apply to damp skin and layer under a moisturiser or it can have the opposite effect).
• Wear SPF daily, all year round. Even when it’s cloudy.
• Use lukewarm water, not hot, when washing your face. In the same vein, wash your face at the sink, not the shower.
• Strengthen your skin’s barrier with ingredients such as ceramides, centella asiatica and peptides.
• Keep your skin well moisturised. Especially at night as the skin loses the most water while we sleep.
Skin feeling unhappy? Check out our Sensitive Face Box to help soothe and hydrate the skin.
* Humectant: an ingredient that draws water from the environment or from deep within the skin. E.g hyaluronic acid and glycerin.
**Non-pathogenic bacteria: organisms that do not cause disease, harm or death to another organism.
Discovering Cosmetic Science, Royal Society of Chemistry