Originally posted Feb 12, 2018; updated Jan 1, 2024.

Your skin barrier is like a shield, an invisible armor that protects against environmental stressors, moisture loss, and harmful invaders. However, it’s also remarkably delicate and prone to disruption, leading to issues such as dryness, sensitivity, and accelerated aging.

Whether you’re well-versed in skincare or just embarking on your journey to better skin health, understanding and protecting your skin barrier is fundamental for achieving a resilient, balanced, and healthy-looking complexion.

Skin is Your Largest Organ

You may have heard the popular fact that the skin is the largest organ of the human body. Spread flat, our skin is roughly the size of a twin mattress! Skin accounts for roughly one seventh of our body weight and is responsible for holding the rest of our internal organs and components together in one piece.

Skin is both soft and strong at the same time; supple enough to allow for movement, yet strong enough to resist tearing from stretching and everyday activities. Yet even at our skin’s densest or thickest point of the body, it is at most a few millimeters thick.

As thin as it is, our skin is a complex system that serves many roles, including temperature regulation, pressure and pain sensing, immune defense, waste elimination through sweat, and of course, barrier protection.

What is the Skin Barrier?

Understanding the significance of the skin barrier is crucial to maintaining your skin health. Before learning how to cultivate and care for and a healthy barrier, let’s first explore how the skin barrier functions and its many purposes.

We like to think of the skin as a brick wall, which envelops and protects the body. Skin is comprised of multiple layers of individual skin cells and natural moisturizing substances, which can be visualized as the bricks and mortar of a brick wall. Together, these layers act as a physical and chemical barrier, maintaining the body’s internal environment and shielding against external threats such as physical injury, UV radiation, pollutants, and so on.

Adding to the chemical protection of our skin is an invisible layer that sits just above the top layer of skin cells: the acid mantle. Made up of a mixture of oils, free fatty acids, and water, the slightly acidic nature of this invisible film inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi while supporting the proliferation of beneficial ones.

Despite being unseen, the acid mantle plays a pivotal role as our body’s primary defense against outside invaders and is a vital part of a healthy skin barrier system.

Causes of a Damaged Skin Barrier

There are a wide variety of factors that can lead to a damaged skin barrier, each influencing our health and skin differently. While the list of elements that can cause damage is extensive, we have listed a handful of the most common factors that impact our skin barrier.

Impact of Climate and Weather on the Skin Barrier

Elements in our environment, such as UV rays and pollutants can damage the skin barrier by depleting the protective abilities of the acid mantle. Cold weather reduces the production of sebum, while harsh winds strip away the skin’s natural oils.

Pro Tip: To counteract these environmental hazards, we recommend Environ Hydrating Oil Capsules, especially during cooler weather months.

Harsh Effects of Over-Cleansing and Excessive Exfoliation

Improper cleansing and excessive exfoliation both contribute significantly to the thinning of the skin barrier. Cleansing more than once or twice a day or using harsh cleansers seriously disrupts the delicate balance of the microbiome in the acid mantle. Likewise, unnecessary exfoliation removes layers of skin cells that would otherwise protect the deeper layers of skin and leads to signs of a damaged skin barrier.

Pro Tip: When it comes to exfoliation, less is always more. Despite the popularity of skin peels, skin resurfacing procedures, and exfoliating products, the absolute worst thing you can do when you have a damaged skin barrier is to exfoliate! It just exacerbates the problem. If you need to address unwelcome flaky patches, an occasional (no more often than weekly) gentle enzyme such as Rhonda Allison Derma-Zyme supports the skin’s natural desquamation process while helping to maintain a healthy skin barrier.

Changes in Skin with Age

Skin is intricately connected to everything else in your body. Hormonal fluctuations that occur with aging impact the way skin functions, including the skin barrier functions. For example, declining levels of estrogen in midlife impact the thickness of skin, as well as the hydration and lipid levels. This leads to a tendency for dry skin and increased water loss due to impaired barrier functionality.

Pro Tip: ElaSpa Nourishing Cream Concentrate is an ultra-rich moisturizer, our choice to provide a protective dose of moisture, minerals, and fatty acids to replenish dry skin and support skin barrier repair.

Stress and its Influence on the Skin Barrier

Stress directly affects the skin barrier by reducing lipid production and altering pH levels, weakening the skin’s defense mechanisms and hindering repair processes. This skin barrier damage makes the skin more susceptible to dryness and irritation, and less effective in safeguarding against environmental factors.

Lifestyle habits such as smoking, insufficient sleep, and potential diet deficiencies also affect all layers of skin and significantly contribute to a weakened skin barrier. Avoiding these elements and maintaining your skin are excellent steps towards a healthy skin barrier and overall health. 

How To Repair Your Skin Barrier

Protecting and encouraging skin barrier repair often works best through a holistic approach that treats the skin and body as a whole. Here are a few key practices for a healthy barrier: 

  • Gentle Cleansing: Opt for mild, hydrating cleansers to avoid stripping the outer layer of skin of its natural moisture. 
  • Avoid Harsh Ingredients: Steer clear of skincare products containing alcohol and sulphates, as these can create or worsen a damaged barrier.
  • Moisturize: Use moisturizers rich in ceramides and vitamins to strengthen the barrier.
  • Sunscreen: Crucial for skin barrier protection, sunscreen shields your skin from harmful UV rays. Interested in learning more about how to choose the right sunscreen for you? Check out our blog on sunscreen selection for our tips and tricks. 
  • Diet & Hydration: Beyond our daily skin care routines, maintaining proper hydration and consuming foods rich in nutrients are pivotal for overall skin wellness and a healthy skin barrier. Antioxidant-rich foods like fruits and vegetables contribute to skin vitality, while sufficient water intake keeps the skin hydrated from the inside out and helps prevent water loss. 

Nourishing the skin barrier is fundamental to achieving and maintaining healthy skin. The skin barrier functions best when regular and consistent care is applied to ensure overall skin health. By understanding the signs of a damaged skin barrier and taking preventative measures, we can proactively care for our skin.

The skin is the body’s first line of defense against the environment. Talk to your professional Skin Therapist about how you can ensure maintaining your skin includes fostering a healthy skin barrier.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Skin Barrier

Some of the signs of a damaged skin barrier include dryness, dehydration, itchy skin and eczema. Additional indicators may present skin conditions such as rosacea and redness, chronic skin irritations, delayed wound healing, and hyperpigmentation.

A healthy skin barrier is characterized by a smooth, flake-free texture on the skin, including even tone and natural radiance. Healthy skin is calm, without feeling tight, itchy or uncomfortable.

Some ingredients to look for in skin care products include ceramides, fatty acids, squalane, and hyaluronic acid, all of which are known to enhance and promote a healthy skin barrier.

The skin on the face consists of three main layers: the epidermis, the dermis, and the hypodermis, or subcutaneous fatty tissue. Each of these layers of skin plays a crucial role in our overall skin health. The epidermis is the outermost layer of skin and can be broken down into 5 additional layers within the epidermis. The upper epidermal layer, the stratum corneum, is the outermost layer of skin that is critical to skin barrier functions and protection.

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