Rebuild your ravaged skin barrier with this simple 3-step formula


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I’ve dealt with a lot of skin conditions, ranging from hormonal acne to hyperpigmentation, but for the first time in my life I’m dealing with a totally new issue: a sabotaged skin barrier. And it is brutal. The skin barrier acts as a natural protective shield, and when it’s disrupted (the way mine is right now) it makes skin especially vulnerable to damage from pollution, winter air, sunlight, etc. TL, DR: everything hurts.

Although it’s easy to confuse an impaired skin barrier with other woes like wind burn, eczema, or a sensitivity, the telltale signs are skin inflammation and redness (like… a lot of redness). As a refresher, a damaged skin barrier function means that the lipid or oil barrier of your skin is disrupted. “So the small, exposed cracks in the skin are more sensitive to products and outside agents that can get in and cause inflammation,” says Purvisha Patel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. “Water is able to evaporate from the skin more, resulting in drier skin.” And since your skin is more exposed to the environment, she points out that you can experience even more sensitivity to the products you’re using. Suddenly reacting to retinol for the first time in your life? A damaged skin barrier could be to blame.

Building your skin barrier back up is a process that involves a strategic regimen filled with ultra-nourishing ingredients, and absolutely nothing that can cause irritation. As for what not to do, Dr. Patel says to skip overly exfoliating products with strong acids or scrubs (this can make things worse). Also, be careful with cleansing. “Avoid harsh alkaline cleansers or even surfactants at all,” says Marie Veronique, chemist and founder of her eponymous skin-care line, adding that you should use an oil or yogurt to cleanse just once a day. “Fragrance is the number one cause of allergic dermatitis and can be a mixture of thousands of ingredients,” she says. “Since all plant extracts and essential oils hold potential problems in this group, it’s best to hold off on all fragrance products until barrier function improves. And avoid alcohol, like isopropyl or steam-distilled alcohol, as it strips the skin of natural lipids and moisturizing components.”

Besides avoiding certain ingredients, Veronique says it’s also key to protect your skin from the elements. “Try to mitigate exposure to harsh weather conditions such as very hot, very cold, strong winds, or temperature extremes, as they strip the skin of barrier lipids,” she says. Avoid too much time in the sun as well, as she points out that UV rays can also deplete these natural lipids. Now, keep scrolling for the deets on how to get your skin barrier back up and running.

Your three-part skin barrier repair plan:

1. Lipids: Lipids, or fatty acids, are really important for your barrier. “The three most important lipids are ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids, like stearic acid, palmitic acid, and linoleic acid,” says Veronique. These all work “like cement to help heal cracks in the skin barrier and restore moisture,” explains Dr. Patel.

2. Moisturizer: In your moisturizer, Veronique recommends looking for humectants (to increase skin’s water content), emollients (as a skin lubricant), and bioflavonoids like hyaluronic acid and vitamin E (to inhibit free radical damage to skin lipids) on the label.

3. Vitamin A: This may sound weird if you’re well-versed in retinols (which stimulate cell turnover), but vitamin A  and its derivatives can help with your skin barrier. “A good way to get this is with topical application of a mild retinol serum,” says Veronique. “One of retinol’s claims to fame is that it improves water barrier properties.” If your skin is extra sensitive—like mine is, right now—start with using it just once or twice a week.

Yes: Cholesterol has serious benefits for your skin—here’s what to know. And this is the low-down on how ceramides help your skin, too. 

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