A healthy skin barrier equals healthy skin. But how do we ensure it stays in tip-top condition? It is all about balance.
First, a quick dermatology refresher. Our skin has three layers: the epidermis, the dermis and the hypodermis — and the skin barrier is the outermost layer of the epidermis. Made up of skin cells, ceramides and lipids, it forms a physical shield around the entire body and face, serving multiple functions. “It protects from irritants and environmental aggressors, controls the body temperature and manages the movement of water and electrolytes through the skin’s surface,” says Dr. Raj Arora, an aesthetic practitioner based in Surrey.
And the health of the skin barrier can be defined by how strong or weak it is. “When a skin barrier is weak, it manifests as dry, flaky, inflamed or sensitive,” says London-based dermatologist Dr. Sarah Shah. The skin barrier can be compromised and therefore weaken for a number of reasons. “External factors such as extreme weather conditions (both ends of the spectrum are bad: excessive cold weather and too much sun exposure) as well as internal issues such as diet and stress. Also, as we age, naturally our skin barrier can weaken due to a loss of hydration.” This melting pot of factors means our skin barrier is in constant flux but looking after your skin correctly can help assure it stays as strong as possible.
Here are our top 10 tips for maintaining a healthy skin barrier.
Study the Ingredient List
“Detergents such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and harsh ingredients such as alcohol or witch hazel can break down the skin barrier and strip the skin of natural oils causing inflammation and further weakening,” says Arora. Be wary of foaming cleansers (they nearly always contain SLS) and harsh toners enriched with alcohol or witch hazel. Instead, look for products with added ceramides. These lipids, which are produced naturally by the skin, help protect the skin barrier from irritants and aggressors while locking in moisture.
Avoid Extreme Temperatures
Both extremes (super hot and super cold) can cause issues for the skin barrier. “Scorching hot water will strip the skin and weaken the skin barrier while very cold water can increase sensitivity,” says Arora. Your best bet is cleansing your face with tepid water instead and apply the same thinking for baths and showers, too.
Refrain From Over-exfoliation
Try and reduce the amount of physically exfoliating products — for example, scrubs — in your routine. Arora recommends “saving these for a once-a-week facial and using a chemical exfoliant daily instead.” Chemical exfoliant products have ingredients such as AHAs or BHAs that will buff away dead skin cells efficiently without causing damage to the skin barrier. Arora also advises against harsh electric cleansing brushes if your skin barrier is compromised and instead suggests using a device such as the Foreo Luna or PMD Clean. The super-soft silicone brushes are gentler and more hygienic for the skin versus the rough bristles on traditional cleansing brushes.
The healthier we eat, the better our skin barrier — skin-nourishing foods can boost barrier function. “Omega-rich foods such as fish, nuts and chia seeds reach the surface of the skin and in turn make every cell in our body as healthy as possible,” says Shah. “There is plenty of scientific evidence [for example, this study] to suggest that foods rich in antioxidants (e.g. blueberries, whole grains and dark-colored grapes) may have a protective effect on the skin barrier,” adds United Kingdom-trained consultant dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto.
Stress is intrinsically related to skin health, as it disrupts hormone levels (namely cortisol) and increases oil production. “Your skin is the largest organ in your body and it’s important to look after it from the inside and out. Consider incorporating stress-busting rituals such as yoga and meditation into your day to feel less frazzled,” says Shah.
Never Sleep in Your Makeup
Sleeping with your makeup on is bad news for the skin barrier. “Makeup forms an occlusive barrier (a physical block) over the skin and can often result in break-outs. You’re also preventing your skin from recovering from the free radical damage it is exposed to throughout the day,” says Mahto.
A compromised skin barrier, and associated conditions like eczema, can make the skin feel irritated or itchy but scratching is a vicious cycle. “Scratching damages the skin’s barrier even further and prevents its repair,” warns Arora.
Amp up the Antioxidants
Often found in UV rays, free radicals are unstable molecules that can accelerate aging and wrinkles. And antioxidants are the first line of defense against free radicals because they help neutralize these skin-damaging particles. “Include an antioxidant-rich product, for example, one containing vitamin C or vitamin E in your everyday routine,” says Arora.
Stay Loyal to SPF
As anyone who has burnt their skin knows too well, UV rays can seriously damage the skin barrier. And too much sun exposure without sufficient UV protection will lead to red, sore and flaky skin. “UV protection via full-spectrum sun cream will also reduce your long-term risk of developing skin cancers and prevent signs of premature aging including wrinkles, blotchy and pigmented skin,” says Mahto. If your skin is sensitive, opt for mineral-based sunscreens, which contain titanium dioxide or zinc, instead of a chemical formula.
Getting your 2-liter quota of water daily will make sure your skin barrier stays hydrated. “Drinking more water can’t be underestimated when it comes to a healthy skin barrier. It is essential to maintain hydration in our body and levels tend to drop as we age,” says Shah.
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