Skin Barrier 101
One of my biggest goals when opening Skin Ritual was to clear up the all-too-common confusion surrounding skin care, and to help our clients gain a better understanding of how their skin functions. But when talking about skin health, and how to best maintain it, there is one factor that simply cannot be (but unfortunately often is) ignored: the skin's barrier.
This barrier is vital to skin health and normal function, and its impairment is the root cause of many common skin problems - from chronic redness, to sensitivity, to dehydration.
So First Lets Get Into What This Barrier Actually Is:
A great way to think about your skins barrier is like a brick and mortar wall. The bricks are the dried out, keratinised cells in the outermost layer of your skin. The mortar is the intercellular matrix - a mixture of lipids (fats), cholesterol and healthy bacteria that live on your skin.
When healthy and strong, this barrier is highly impermeable (one of the reasons product penetration can be so hard to achieve!), and works both to prevent the loss of essential moisture from the skins' surface, and to prevent the entrance of harmful irritants or micro-organisms into the skin.
When The Barrier Is Impaired
An impaired barrier can cause a whole host of problems in the skin. Imagine your brick wall again, but this time the mortar is leaky and full of holes and weak spots. The bricks are misshapen, leaving still more gaps in the wall.
An impaired barrier cannot perform its protective function, and leaves the skin vulnerable to harmful micro-organisms, moisture loss and irritants. It also leads to sensitivity to skin care products - without an intact barrier, ingredients will penetrate far deeper into the skin than they should, causing inflammation and irritation.
Signs that your skin barrier might be impaired include:
- increased sensitivity to skincare products, even those which you have used without irritation in the past
- persistent or increased tendency toward redness
- skin flaking
So How Does The Barrier Become Impaired?
An impaired barrier can occur for several different reasons, but hands down the most common cause is your skin care. There are several ways that your skin care can be impairing your barrier:
- You could be using high quality, medical-grade skincare products - that are just not suitable for your skin.
- You could be using the right products, the wrong way. For example, using an exfoliant too often, or using too much of an active serum.
- You could be using over-the-counter skin care products that contain irritants and harsh ingredients such as sulphates, artificial fragrances, or drying alcohols.
Other potential causes of barrier impairment include:
Environmental Conditions - colder, drier climates and seasons can increase surface moisture loss and impair the skin's barrier by depleting the essential lipids in our barrier.
Ageing - As we age, the amount of lipids present in our skin decreases significantly, depleting those essential lipids in our barrier.
Sickness - when you are sick, your skin's wound healing time slows, your lipids can be depleted, and your skin's blood supply is usually compromised due to the body prioritising internal organs.
Emotional Stress - emotional stress causes an increase in the production of stress hormones, and the body being in a constant state of "fight or flight" means prolonged reduced blood supply to the skin which compromises healthy function.
How to Maintain A Strong, Healthy Barrier
- employ a less is more approach, and make sure you are using your skincare correctly
- consult with a skin care professional to ensure that you are using the right products for your skin
- avoid over-exfoliation
- when in cold climates or during the winter months, give your skin's barrier some extra support by adjusting your skincare accordingly (eg. introduce additional hydration products, or switch from a gel to an oil/cream-based cleanser)
- introduce an Essential Fatty Acid supplement into your diet such as Evening Primrose Oil