What to Know About Your Skin Barrier & How to Protect It
Your skin barrier protects your body from free radicals. Harsh environments are often the cause of damage. Keep it protected using oils, ceramides, and more.
Medically reviewed by Reema Patel, MPA, PA-C
All these products share the fact that they act on your body’s outermost layer, which is called the skin barrier.
But what exactly is your skin barrier, what’s its purpose, and what can cause damage?
In this article, we’ll help answer those questions and also explore the steps you can take to protect and restore this vital defensive layer.
What’s your skin barrier and what purpose does it serve?
Your skin is made up of layers, each of which performs important functions in protecting your body.
The outermost layer, called the stratum corneum, is often described as a brick wall. It consists of tough skin cells called corneocytes that are bound together by mortar-like lipids. This is your skin barrier.
Inside the skin cells, or “bricks,” you’ll find keratin and natural moisturizers. The lipid layer contains:
- fatty acids
This fantastically thin brick wall is literally keeping you alive. Without it, various harmful environmental toxins and pathogens could penetrate your skin and cause adverse effects inside your body.
Additionally, without your skin barrier, the water inside your body would escape and evaporate, leaving you completely dehydrated.
Your skin barrier is essential for your overall health and needs to be protected to help your body function properly.
What can damage your skin barrier?
Daily, your skin defends against a barrage of threats, many of which come from outside your body, and a few come from within.
Some of the external and internal factors that can affect your skin barrier include:
- too humid or too dry environment
- allergens, irritants, and pollutants
- too much sun exposure
- alkaline detergents and soaps
- exposure to harsh chemicals
- over-exfoliation or over-washing
- psychological distress
- genetic factors that may make you more prone to certain skin conditions like atopic dermatitis and psoriasis
The role of the acid mantle
Your skin barrier is slightly acidic. This acidity (the acid mantle) helps create a kind of buffer against the growth of harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi that could damage your skin and lead to infections and other skin conditions.
It’s especially important to protect the acid mantle around wounds since the skin’s acidity is necessary for many of the biological interactions that occur during the healing process.
Sometimes, a health condition like diabetes or incontinence can change your skin’s acidity, weakening this buffer. For people with these conditions, experts recommend slightly more acidic skin care products.
How can you tell if your skin barrier is damaged?
When your skin barrier is not functioning properly, you may be more prone to developing the following skin symptoms and conditions:
- dry, scaly skin
- rough or discolored patches
- sensitive or inflamed areas
- bacterial, viral, or fungal skin infections
How to protect and restore your skin barrier
Given the importance of maintaining your skin barrier and acid mantle, what can you do to keep them both healthy and functional? Let’s look at five strategies that can help.
Simplify your skin care routine
If you’re performing a complicated daily skin regimen involving a basketful of products, you may be inadvertently weakening your skin barrier. Consider talking with a dermatologist or another skin care professional about which products are essential and most effective.
If you’re exfoliating, notice how your skin reacts to the method you use. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, those with sensitive skin and darker skin tones may want to use a soft cloth and a mild chemical exfoliant.
Some types of scrubs and brushes may temporarily damage your skin barrier.
Pay attention to pH
Your skin’s delicate acid mantle hovers around a pH of 4.7. But the pH of some skin products can range from 3.7 to 8.2.
Researchers recommend cleansing with a product that has a pH between 4.0 and 5.0.
Keeping your skin’s pH at a healthy level may help protect you from skin conditions like dermatitis, ichthyosis, acne, and Candida albicans infections. Although not all products list their pH, some do.
Try a plant oil to replenish your skin barrier
Research from 2018 suggests that certain plant oils may help repair the skin barrier and also prevent your skin barrier from losing moisture. Many of these oils have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects, too.
Some of the most effective plant oils to consider using on your skin include:
- jojoba oil
- coconut oil
- almond oil
- argan oil
- borage oil
- rosehip oil
- sunflower oil
- soybean oil
- primrose oil
- black currant oil
There are many ways you can use plant oils on your skin.
You can apply creams and lotions that contain one or more of these oils as an ingredient. Or you can pour a small amount of the oil into the palm of your hand and then massage it gently into your skin until it’s absorbed.
Look for formulations that include ceramides
Ceramides are waxy lipids found in especially high concentrations in the stratum corneum. They are crucial for making sure your skin barrier functions properly.
Research from 2019 shows that products containing pseudo-ceramides may help improve the dryness, itchiness, and scaling caused by a poorly functioning barrier. Ceramide-rich moisturizers may also strengthen the structural integrity of your skin barrier.
Ceramide moisturizers may be especially helpful if you have acne. In acne-prone skin, the barrier is often impaired, and acne treatments can leave skin dry and reddened. Products containing ceramides may also help protect darker skin. According to a 2014 review of studies, darker skin tones were shown to contain lower ceramide levels.
Try moisturizers containing hyaluronic acid, petrolatum, or glycerin
Dry skin is a common problem, and moisturizers are the often-recommended solution.
An occlusive moisturizer aids the skin barrier by reducing the amount of water loss from your skin. These products leave a thin film on your skin that helps prevent moisture loss.
One of the most frequently recommended occlusive moisturizers is petrolatum, which experts say can block as much as 99% of water loss from your skin.
Like occlusive moisturizers, humectants can also improve barrier function. Humectants work by drawing water — either from the environment or from inside your body — and binding it into the skin barrier. Researchers recommend products that contain hyaluronic acid, glycerin, honey, and urea.
HOW TO USE Gently apply moisturizer to your skin immediately after you get out of the shower, when your skin is moist.
Not all skin care ingredients work for everyone. That’s why you may want to try a few different products to determine which one works best for keeping your skin healthy, protected, and well moisturized.
The bottom line
The outermost layer of your skin, known as your skin barrier, defends your body against environmental threats while simultaneously protecting your body’s critical water balance.
Symptoms such as dryness, itching, and inflammation can alert you to a disturbance in this important barrier.
You can help repair your skin’s barrier by:
- simplifying your skin care regimen
- using products with a suitable pH
- using a moisturizer that contains ceramides or a humectant like hyaluronic acid
Moisturizers with petrolatum can also help your skin barrier seal in moisture.
Your skin barrier is your body’s frontline defense against everything the environment can throw at you. Keeping it healthy is much more than a cosmetic concern.