How Protecting the Skin Barrier Is Taking On a New Meaning in 2020 As We Spend More Time Inside

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Photo: Getty/Rochelle Brock
There are some unique-to-2020 factors that are impacting your complexion, and at present, building a skin barrier wardrobe is top of mind for many dermatologists. “Most of us think of winter as the season to ramp up our routines to protect our skin from cold, dry, and windy conditions, but the truth is that there are many other things that can damage the skin barrier, and some of those might surprise you,” says Vivian Bucay, MD, a San Antonio-based dermatologist.

While barrier-protective skin care has become synonymous with shielding from outdoor pollutants and environmental stressors, what happens when you find yourself living life increasingly inside? As Dr. Bucay notes, many of her clients have been spending more time indoors, yet still complain of conditions that arise as a result of a compromised skin barrier. According to her, there needs to be new education around the indoor aggressors (especially given that studies estimate we spend around 90 percent of our time inside) the way that there has been for outdoor pollution, UV rays, infectious agents, chemicals, and irritants.

Experts In This Article

“Being inside can expose us to environmental hazards, such as volatile organic compounds, that can wreak havoc on our skin barrier,” says Dr. Bucay, who points to sources of VOCs that include terpenes emitted by fragrances used in soaps and laundry detergents; ethanol in glass cleaners, disinfectants, dishwashing and laundry detergents; acetone in nail polish removers; even butanal from candles. The list goes on, as does the potential for damage.

So why does all of this talk about "aggressors" and "stressors" matter so much? The skin barrier is located in the outermost layer of the skin and is composed of the stratum corneum (skin cells) and the lipid matrix (ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids) that hold your complexion together. “A compromised skin barrier leads to inflammation that can result in dryness, redness, skin irritation, and the onset or worsening of skin conditions like acne, eczema, and rosacea," Dr. Bucay says. "Damage to the skin barrier can also lead to accelerated skin aging, characterized by skin roughness, fine lines and wrinkles, and brown spots and discoloration.”

Dr. Bucay emphasizes that, regardless of your environment, a regimen that helps maintain your skin barrier is paramount for your overall skin health. This includes cleansers that won’t strip away moisture, topical antioxidants to neutralize free radicals caused by things like UV rays and VOCs, broad-spectrum sunscreens, and lipid-rich moisturizers. “How can we protect our skin from VOCs now that working from home and indoor living appear to be no longer the exception, but increasingly the rule?” asks Ifeoma Okoronkwo, MD, founder of Beyond Beauty by Dr. O. “First, we can try to reduce exposure.” Here's what to do.

Clean your air

“It is imperative to increase ventilation as much as possible, especially when using products that emit VOCs,” says Dr. Okoronkwo. Simply speaking, make sure you provide plenty of fresh air to your indoor environment. "Air purifiers are a huge help in maintaining clear and calm skin. The air inside homes can contain up to five times more pollutants than the outside air,” says Marnie Nussbaum, MD, a New York City-based board-certified dermatologist. “High-quality air purifiers can capture mold, bacteria, formaldehyde particles, and even allergens which will significantly improve the quality of your air and, therefore, your skin."

For this, Dyson’s new self-cleaning Pure Humidify+Cool ($799) is a humidifier-purifier-fan mashup that received a first-of-its-kind Seal of Recognition from the National Psoriasis Foundation. The filter captures 99.97 percent of allergens as small as 0.3 microns (300 times narrower than a human hair) like mold spores and bacteria, while activated carbon absorbs and traps gases, odors, and household fumes including VOCs.

“Air pollution, as we know, affects the skin in a variety of ways, such as acne flares, rosacea flares, contact dermatitis, and even allergic reactions. Most importantly, it can cause free radical damage in the skin,” says Dr. Nussbaum, which can cause problems such as collagen degradation within the skin as well as hyperpigmentation. While the Pure Humidify+Cool moisturizes skin with airborne water particles, the smart filtration system reads the air quality in real time, which helps customers gain an understanding of what’s confronting their skin and lungs. Bring it in the bathroom as you mist on a cloud of aerosol hairspray and watch it spring into action.

Respect your skin's microbiome and immune system

To further reduce free radical damage, cleansers and serums that support barrier function often play nice with the skin’s microbiome and immune system as well. “Some of my favorite products to maintain a healthy skin barrier contain niacinamide or vitamin B3, which not only increases ceramide production in the skin to maintain the lipids that form the skin barrier, but also plays an important role in protecting the skin's immune system,” says Dr. Bucay. The VENN Moisture Balance All-In-One Face Cleanser ($65) incorporates niacinamide and antioxidants like cica leaf extract and green tea catechins into its formula, which swaps drying surfactants for moisture-trapping humectants that are still able to whisk away dirt and debris.

“Studies have shown that the composition of a skin microbiome can affect the severity of skin barrier diseases (including atopic dermatitis) and that there’s a strong correlation between microbiome profile and skin age, with a well-balanced skin microbiome yielding healthier and younger-looking skin,” explains Kevin Mun, PhD, a product formulator and VENN chief scientific officer. Similarly, Ellis Day Skin Science Wild Resilience Active Phage Serum ($85) targets the “bad” bacteria on your skin associated with inflammation and damage, enabling the “good” bacteria to flourish. Its active ingredient—Cutiphage—is a trademarked blend of bioactive natural bacteriophages that help ensure your skin barrier maintains its defenses. Bonus: The non-toxic recipe also soothes irritation and inflammation for acne-prone complexions.

Layer on antioxidants

During the day, I recommend using a gentle cleanser that won't strip the skin, followed by an application of a topical antioxidant to neutralize free radicals,” says Dr. Bucay. For this, a nutrient-rich oil or serum can help ramp up the dosage of protective ingredients. The non-greasy, organic formula in Essentials by Temi Intense Hydration Elixir Oil ($25) contains perilla seed oil, which is both a highly potent antioxidant and a barrier-maintaining moisturizer.

"To protect against a weakening barrier, we developed the Super Bioactive Face Serum ($115) with mushroom ferment,” says Regan Schneider, food scientist and founder of Arêmês Fermentis. A blend of sunflower, jojoba, avocado, olive, meadowfoam, baobab, and coconut oils deliver nutritional lipophilic compounds to the skin. “These active botanicals not only add essential fatty acids to the skin's surface, but they also have a high antioxidant content that can protect and correct against oxidation and UV cellular damage from the sun," says Schneider.

Red ginseng, on the other hand, helps Whal Myung’s photo-protective Anti-Oxidant Rejuvenation Serum ($48) deliver its 122-year-old recipe of medicinal herbs to the skin while strengthening barrier function and even reducing hyperpigmentation. Similarly, cult-favorite Klur Symmetry Fluid ($68) creates a breathable shield of antioxidants that builds resilience against environmental stressors as red algae boosts barrier function by replenishing the skin’s natural water reservoir.

Seal in protection

“Barrier creams are classically used to protect the skin from irritants,” says Dr. Okoronkwo. “Medically speaking, they are used to reduce the harm that can come from chemicals, allergens, and other substances that may lead to skin irritation, breakdown, or infection. Cosmetically speaking, barrier creams tend to be associated with ‘locking in’ moisture or creating a ‘barrier’ between your skin and harsh elements.” Both forms of logic are at the forefront of Lord Jones’s new Acid Mantle Repair CBD Moisturizer ($75), which maintains the skin’s acid mantle in order to block bacteria and contaminants. Squalane and hyaluronic acid are paired with soothing CBD oil and pollution-protecting ginger. On top of a hydrating layer of organic aloe vera, the Fleur & Bee Crème de la Cream Natural Moisturizer ($24) combines soothing vitamin B3 and antioxidant-rich CoQ10 to lock in nutrients.

For a head-to-toe organic and Fair Trade option, AF Body Chemistry Body Butter ($12) combines shea butter, vitamin E, safflower, sunflower, avocado, and coconut oils into a recyclable tin. Not only does the plant-based recipe soothe inflammation for conditions like eczema and psoriasis, it also offers versions in dreamy natural aromas like white fig, lavender, lemon, and pomegranate.

And the final step? “For the face, I like another simple barrier cream: sunscreen with zinc oxide,” says Dr. Okoronkwo. “Zinc oxide is an excellent barrier cream and will provide sun protection as well as a physical barrier to water loss. My favorite sunscreen product is Clé de Peau UV Protective Cream SPF 50+ ($135). I add a few drops to my moisturizer every day to protect my skin from the sun and from the elements, and to prevent water loss.” Additionally, Kinship Self Reflect Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 22 ($25) blends non-nano zinc oxide with Kinbiome, a barrier-supporting probiotic. It also protects from your devices' blue light—yet another reminder that no matter what is happening outdoors, your indoor skin-care choices are just as essential in 2020.

Speaking of dermatologist-approved skin-care regimens, here's a quarantine skin-care routine straight from an MD:

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