Strengthen your skin barrier to get a radiant complexion, increase moisture retention, and dodge sensitivities — everyone in the know agrees. But how to repair your skin barrier? We’re glad you asked. In this post, we reveal everything you need to know about the skin’s protective barrier, from what role it has, what damages it, and what happens when it’s compromised to what you can do to strengthen it so that your complexion stays healthy and resilient.
Buckle up because there’s a lot to unpack.
What is the skin barrier?
The skin barrier — which also goes by the epidermis or stratum corneum — describes the outermost layer of the skin. This top layer of skin is made up of keratinocytes (keratin cells that produce ceramides), melanocytes (cells that produce melanin to protect against U.V.), and langerhan cells (the ones that fight bacteria and viruses). Other components that make up the skin barrier include fatty acids, cholesterol, and proteins.
What is the skin’s barrier role?
The top skin layer serves as the body’s first line of defense against external aggressors (like bacteria, pollution, and dust), hindering them from entering the skin. Additionally, the skin barrier holds water inside, mitigating moisture loss, also referred to as transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Simply put, it has a key role in preventing skin dehydration, dullness, premature wrinkles, and sensitivities.
How do I know my skin barrier is damaged?
You’ll know you’re dealing with a damaged skin barrier as soon as you notice your skin getting inflamed, dry, itchy, flakey, or acne flare-ups. Also, when you observe a sudden sensitivity to products you were used to, your skin defense system is likely weak and needs you to reinforce it.
When the skin barrier is sensitized, it can’t fulfill its protective role anymore, so dust, bacteria, and irritants get into the skin, meaning inflammation, breakouts, and sensitivities are more likely to occur.
What damages your skin barrier?
Usually, a damaged barrier results from prolonged sun exposure, harsh products (like cleansers with sulfates) that strip the skin of essential moisture, acne-fighting actives (such as benzoyl peroxide and sulfur), and over-exfoliation. Also, poor knowledge of how to mix skincare ingredients may be a leading cause of a weakened barrier.
Aging, not hydrating enough, or drinking too much caffeine or alcohol are other factors that disrupt your skin barrier’s normal function.
Does aging weaken the skin’s barrier?
Aging has a major influence on the skin barrier due to the degradation of collagen and elastin. Sebum, which is needed to protect the surface and maintain moisture, also decreases with aging. In turn, this increases transepidermal water loss and leads to dehydration. All these make the skin’s barrier more fragile and susceptible to external damage.
Because skin loses lipids with aging, it’s essential to have in your routine squalane (an oil-like substance that mimics sebum) and oils rich in linoleic acids, such as sunflower, soybean, and canola oils.
How to repair a damaged skin barrier
Above everything, it’s essential to simplify your skincare routine, cutting off products you don’t necessarily need. Just go to the basics:
- Use a gentle cleanser that doesn’t strip the skin of moisture. Skip aggressive cleansers containing SLSs, and wash your face with lukewarm water and a gentle formula that balances your skin’s pH.
- Apply a barrier-replenishing moisturizer containing skin-identical ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids — they help reinforce the barrier from within.
- Dodge products that contain drying alcohol (like ethanol and alcohol denat) and fragrances.
- Quit exfoliation until your skin is back to normal, and don’t add new products to your routine.
- Avoid products with high concentrations of retinol and aggressive acne treatments; use a hydrating and repairing serum instead.
How to strengthen your skin barrier
Prevention is better than cure, so strengthening your skin barrier helps you avoid further damage, and here is how you do it.
Use humectants with occlusives to dodge dehydration
Since a broken barrier is strongly linked to dehydration, you should ensure you don’t allow water to evaporate from your skin in the first place. As such, every time you apply humectants, you should trap them with occlusive agents. While humectants (like hyaluronic acid, panthenol, and glycerin) draw water from the environment into the skin, occlusives (like petrolatum, shea butter, and squalane) form an invisible veil on the skin’s surface to prevent its evaporation.
(Hint) It has been shown that if you use humectants when the humidity in the environment is less than 70%, they will pull water from the inner layers of the skin, bringing it to the surface and allowing it to evaporate. The result? Dehydration. That’s why you should seal your hyaluronic acid serum with an occlusive moisturizer.
Every day, the skin is exposed to free radicals like U.V. and pollution, which can weaken the barrier by destroying collagen and elastin fibers and impairing hydration. Thus, it’s essential to defend your complexion with antioxidants, which work on a cellular level to neutralize free radicals. Look for vitamin C, vitamin E, niacinamide, and resveratrol, as these are the most potent ones that also help reinforce the protective barrier. Interestingly, vitamin C is a major player in the formation of the skin’s barrier lipids, so have it on your radar.
Look out for your skin’s pH
The pH of your skin (ranges between 4.5 to 5.5) greatly impacts how the protective barrier functions. When its level is compromised, it can trigger dryness, sensitivities, irritation, or dermatitis. Related to skin pH is the acid mantle. This is a thin film on the skin surface (above the barrier) made up of fatty acids, lactic acid, and amino acids, responsible for blocking toxins, bacteria, and pollution from entering the skin. The acid mantle’s ideal balance is slightly acidic, at a pH range between 4.5-5.5. If this score gets too alkaline, skin dries and becomes sensitive.
Your derm can measure the skin’s pH level, but you can also do it at home with a pH strip test. To maintain the proper pH level in your skin, you need to limit the use of astringent products, prolonged sun exposure, or washing your face too often, moisturize, and use facial oils.
Ingredients to reinforce and support the skin barrier
Ceramides are lipids that make up about 50% of the total skin’s lipids. Their role is to form the epidermal barrier, and they are known as the glue that holds the cells together to keep the barrier integer and hinder moisture loss. So, it goes without saying that you need a moisturizer with ceramide in your routine to enhance your skin’s ability to seal in moisture and fortify your skin barrier.
P.S.: Aside from ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids are also important components of the skin’s barrier, so consider using a product that contains them all; there are plenty of them, like SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore.
What’s the ingredient that’s able to take water from the environment and pull it into your skin as it binds to water molecules? That’s right, hyaluronic acid. You can use this water-loving agent in serums since their itty-bitty molecules sink into the skin, shooting benefits right in. For excellent outcomes, use a combination of low molecular hyaluronic acid, like sodium hyaluronate — for long-term hydration — and large molecular hyaluronic acid for instant smoothness and plumpness.
Face oils are considered heroes in boosting the protective barrier. They create a protective layer on the skin to trap moisture in. Consider olive, sunflower seed, coconut, jojoba, oat, and argan oils, as they’re rich in fatty acids (omega 3, 6, and 9), known to have intense barrier repair effects, and improve the skin’s natural moisturizing factors.
Vitamin B5 is a tremendous active that binds water into the skin since it’s one of the most potent humectants. Actually, it has been found that panthenol maintains skin integrity and hinders TEWL when used in formulations of 1.0%.
Peptides are amino acid chains naturally found in the skin and act like building blocks of proteins needed for resilient skin. When used in skincare formulations, peptides induce collagen production, strengthening the skin and improving elasticity and firmness. That said, adding a peptides-enriched serum to your routine can help consolidate the protective barrier while protecting your skin from fine lines and wrinkles.
Welp, our skin is made up of amino acid chains, so it’s self-evident why you need them to strengthen your skin barrier. They are natural moisturizing factors (NMF) that promote skin healing, increase moisture retention and maintain an appropriate skin microbiome (the one that contributes to barrier function).
In addition to being an antioxidant that preserves collagen, niacinamide helps build keratin and ceramides, both needed for a robust skin barrier. This makes niacinamide one of the best ingredients you can add to your routine to strengthen your skin and preserve its integrity.
Centella asiatica is one of the best picks to keep your skin barrier strong because it’s an antioxidant that shields the complexion against damage and spurs collagen growth, too, especially due to its asiaticoside, asiatic acid, and madecassic acid compounds. When used along ceramide, Centella asiatica has been shown to strengthen the skin barrier.
Since sun damage is a culprit of a compromised skin barrier, don’t forget about sunscreen. A cleanly formulated SPF without oxybenzone, octinoxate, fragrances, or parabens completes the puzzle of a thorough barrier defense system. An SPF moisturizer acts as a shield that keeps environmental attacks at bay, and you need it every single day. Apply sunscreen as the last step of your morning skincare routine.
Products to repair and strengthen the skin’s barrier
We’ve discussed the best skin barrier repair products, so take a closer look and pick your favorite here.
Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.
- Yatsuhashi H, Furuyashiki T, Vo PHT, Kamasaka H, Kuriki T. Effects of Glycogen on Ceramide Production in Cultured Human Keratinocytes via Acid Sphingomyelinase Activation. J Appl Glycosci (1999). 2021 Jun 11;68(2):41-46. doi: 10.5458/jag.jag.JAG-2020_0012. PMID: 34429698; PMCID: PMC8367632.
- Clayton K, Vallejo AF, Davies J, Sirvent S, Polak ME. Langerhans Cells-Programmed by the Epidermis. Front Immunol. 2017 Nov 29;8:1676. doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2017.01676. PMID: 29238347; PMCID: PMC5712534.
- Lefèvre-Utile A, Braun C, Haftek M, Aubin F. Five Functional Aspects of the Epidermal Barrier. Int J Mol Sci. 2021 Oct 28;22(21):11676. doi: 10.3390/ijms222111676. PMID: 34769105; PMCID: PMC8583944.
- Chambers ES, Vukmanovic-Stejic M. Skin barrier immunity and ageing. Immunology. 2020 Jun;160(2):116-125. doi: 10.1111/imm.13152. Epub 2019 Dec 4. PMID: 31709535; PMCID: PMC7218662.
- Harwood A, Nassereddin A, Krishnamurthy K. Moisturizers. [Updated 2022 Aug 21]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (F.L.): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK545171/
- Silva SAME, Michniak-Kohn B, Leonardi GR. An overview about oxidation in clinical practice of skin aging. An Bras Dermatol. 2017 May-Jun;92(3):367-374. doi: 10.1590/abd1806-4841.20175481. PMID: 29186250; PMCID: PMC5514578.
- Ponec M, Weerheim A, Kempenaar J, Mulder A, Gooris GS, Bouwstra J, Mommaas AM. The formation of competent barrier lipids in reconstructed human epidermis requires the presence of vitamin C. J Invest Dermatol. 1997 Sep;109(3):348-55. doi: 10.1111/1523-1747.ep12336024. PMID: 9284103.
- Vaughn AR, Clark AK, Sivamani RK, Shi VY. Natural Oils for Skin-Barrier Repair: Ancient Compounds Now Backed by Modern Science. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2018 Feb;19(1):103-117. doi: 10.1007/s40257-017-0301-1. PMID: 28707186.
- Camargo FB Jr, Gaspar LR, Maia Campos PM. Skin moisturizing effects of panthenol-based formulations. J Cosmet Sci. 2011 Jul-Aug;62(4):361-70. PMID: 21982351.
- Solano F. Metabolism and Functions of Amino Acids in the Skin. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2020;1265:187-199. doi: 10.1007/978-3-030-45328-2_11. PMID: 32761577.
- Gehring W. Nicotinic acid/niacinamide and the skin. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2004 Apr;3(2):88-93. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-2130.2004.00115.x. PMID: 17147561.
- Bylka W, Znajdek-Awiżeń P, Studzińska-Sroka E, Brzezińska M. Centella asiatica in cosmetology. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2013 Feb;30(1):46-9. doi: 10.5114/pdia.2013.33378. Epub 2013 Feb 20. PMID: 24278045; PMCID: PMC3834700.
- Anggraeni S, Umborowati MA, Damayanti D, Endaryanto A, Prakoeswa CRS. Role of Centella asiatica and ceramide in skin barrier improvement: a double blind clinical trial of Indonesian batik workers. J Basic Clin Physiol Pharmacol. 2021 Jun 25;32(4):589-593. doi: 10.1515/jbcpp-2020-0510. PMID: 34214362.