How to repair a damaged skin barrier for stronger, healthier skin

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The skin barrier is getting a lot of attention right now, but what actually is it? And what happens if you overload yours?

Our skin goes through a lot.

From keeping out everyday pollution and providing protection against UV rays – not to mention regenerating at mega-speed, thanks to our (sometimes) overzealous application of skincare acids – our skin can take a bit of a beating, and the results aren’t always pretty.

But what really happens when you damage your skin barrier? And are there ways you can speed up the repair process? Here, we explain all.

What is the skin barrier?

We might hear about it a lot – but what is our skin barrier? In a nutshell, the skin barrier comprises of the uppermost layers of the skin – which help protect the deeper layers of the epidermis below. Often referred to as the stratum corneum or acid mantle, it helps to stop the passage of irritants and allergens through the skin and into our body, and also protects our skin from losing excess hydration – something that’s referred to as trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL).

“The skin barrier is traditionally described as a brick wall,” explains Michael J Cork, professor of dermatology at The University of Sheffield. “The bricks are skin cells and the mortar is the lipid lamellae that surround the skin cells.” Meaning, a healthy skin barrier is a strong brick wall, with no holes or damage to the bricks and mortar; a damaged skin barrier forms cracks, which allows irritants to get in and moisture to get out.

What happens when you damage your skin barrier?

“A healthy skin barrier means your skin is functioning at its best,” says Daniel Isaacs, director of research at Medik8. “To keep it healthy, it needs the right balance of humectants, emollients and occlusives. If the balance of these three components is off, it can result in dry, dehydrated and sometimes even sensitised skin.”

But how is our skin barrier damaged and what can we do to stop it? “Our skin barrier can become damaged due to a number of reasons,” explains Jennifer Rock, facialist and founder of Skingredients. “For example: using the wrong ingredients or too many exfoliants or misusing skincare products.”

And that’s not all. Everything from stress and pollution to UV rays and blue light exposure can all compromise our skin barrier. So, it’s important to keep yours in tip-top shape if you want to protect your skin from developing other issues.

How to rebuild your skin barrier

“Unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all barrier fix,” says Rock. “If your skin barrier is impaired, your skin will suddenly become tighter, more easily irritated, there may be patches of flakiness and redness and it may look duller due to dehydration.

To get your skin back on track, I’d suggest reducing your use of exfoliating acids for a short while, perhaps a week or two, and opting for very nourishing, fatty ingredients.”

Ceramides are one of the fats you find natively in your skin, and research suggests that they greatly support the skin’s barrier.

Antioxidants are a go-to when your skin is in any way stressed, irritated or tired, as they can help to soothe the skin while protecting it from further damage.

And it’s important to up your levels of hydration: in particular rebalancing the levels of humectants, emollients and occlusives.

  • Dr.Jart + Ceramidin Cream

    Dr Jart Ceramidin Cream

    If you think of your skin barrier like a brick wall, the skin cells are the bricks while the mortar consists of important lipids and ceramides. This buttery cream replenishes low ceramide levels to bring back bounce and brightness.

    Shop Dr.Jart+ Ceramidin Cream at Boots, £30

  • CeraVe Facial Moisturising Lotion No SPF


    Packed with three types of ceramides to help maintain a healthy skin barrier, this cult Cerave face cream also contains hyaluronic acid to help lock moisture in. We recommend going for the no SPF version, as you should always apply a separate SPF to ensure your face is getting enough protection.

    Shop CeraVe Facial Moisturising Lotion No SPF at lookfantastic, £9.75

  • Avène Aqua Gel

    Avene Aqua Gel

    Inspired by innovative Japanese formulas, this lightweight gel is packed full of ingredients, including Avène’s cult Thermal Spring Water, to soothe, soften, hydrate and protect your complexion.

    Shop Avène Aqua Gel at lookfantastic, £20

“Wearing SPF daily is also integral for your skin, so don’t neglect that if you’re trying to keep your barrier in good nick,” says Rock. “On the inside, essential fatty acids (such as omegas) are important in maintaining normal skin function, and the ingestion of some strains of probiotic barrier have been shown to improve skin barrier function, such as L-paracasei.” 

Protect your skin barrier with these hardworking hydrators

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