What the heck is a skin barrier? Here’s what it is and why winter is enemy number one for it


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A lot of terms are thrown around to describe your skin. Your complexion can be “temperamental” (read: sensitive), “glowy” (i.e. nourished and hydrated), or “inflamed” (as in broken out or red). Another somewhat *~*mysterious*~* term that you’ve probably stumbled upon in the beauty aisle? The “skin barrier.” You’ve likely heard that you should look for skin-care products that help restore your skin’s barrier, and been advised to avoid certain harsh ingredients that can make said barrier mad. But what the heck is it, exactly, and how can you tell what you’re dealing with?

“The skin has its own microbiome—the natural levels of bacteria which work with the oils and natural hydrators of your skin to keep the barrier strong from the outside environment and to keep it at the ideal pH level (around 5.5),” says Rachel Nazarian, MD, FAAD, a dermatologist with New York’s Schweiger Dermatology Group. “All of this contributes to a healthy skin barrier.”

Essentially, your skin barrier is kind of like an uber-thin puffy jacket for your face. So when it gets compromised or damaged, it’s bad news. All sorts of factors can raise issues, and the confusing part is that damage to your skin barrier can show up in a variety of different forms.

“When harsh cleansers are used, harsh products, extreme temperatures (like from hot water) or certain medications are taken, the pH balance of your skin can be disrupted—the natural bacteria can shift so that good bacteria decreases and bad bacteria flourishes, and natural oils are removed from the skin,” says Dr. Nazarian. “One or more shifts in the skin along these lines can cause skin to weaken and become inflamed.”

Essentially, your skin barrier is kind of like an uber-thin puffy jacket for your face. So when it gets compromised or damaged, it’s bad news.

The thing is, it’s pretty important to know when your skin barrier isn’t in tip-top shape, because if it’s not, your skin’s more prone to getting damaged. “Once the skin barrier’s broken, you’re more vulnerable to irritation from other substances and ingredients that come into contact with your skin—this is why it’s so important to repair the barrier quickly,” Dr. Nazarian explains.

A tell-tale sign your skin barrier’s damaged? Inflammation. “When the skin breaks down due to a compromised barrier, most people’s skin responds in the same way: Inflammation,” says Dr. Nazarian. “Inflammation is typically seen as redness of the skin, flakiness, or dryness, and sensations of stinging or burning, even itching.”

If you’re acne-prone, you may find that your acne flares up or becomes even more red when you’ve got a problem with your barrier function. “Eczema and rosacea work similarly—both are already sensitive skin conditions, and breaking down the natural hydrating barrier and oil barrier of the skin makes it exceptionally difficult to repair both conditions,” says Dr. Nazarian. “The eczema will appear to be exacerbated, as well as the rosacea. So although a weakened barrier manifests itself similarly for everyone, if you have other skin conditions, these can be exponentially worsened in the scenario.”

Now that you know how to recognize skin barrier damage, it’s key to take healing actions ASAP to get your skin happy again. “The best way to repair the condition is to avoid any cleansers that further strip the skin barrier,” says Dr. Nazarian, who recommends the Dove Unscented Beauty Bar ($6), but notes that you can use anything gentle without sulfates. “I’d also recommend using lotions and creams that rebuild a healthy skin barrier, like those that contain ceramides and hyaluronic acid.” She likes La Roche Posay’s Toleriane Double Repair Cream ($20), and Marie Veronique even makes a Barrier Restore Serum ($110) specifically for the issue. Now you can keep that oh-so-important (yet invisible) barrier flourishing.

Plus, you can incorporate a gentle milky cleanser for sensitive skin and a hyaluronic acid serum to keep your barrier moisturized. 

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