How to Know if Your Skin Barrier is Damaged

How to Know if Your Skin Barrier is Damaged








By Britton Strickland, Ph.D.

FEB 13, 2023



Sometimes referred to as the “moisture barrier” or “acid mantle,” the skin barrier is a term used to describe the function of the outermost layer of our skin. The skin barrier is composed of dead skin cells and, when properly cared for, is an excellent shield against the external aggressors present in everyday life. This outside layer is faced with the task of protecting your body from a constant barrage of UV rays, pollutants, topical products containing harsh ingredients, and stress, all of which can weaken the skin barrier and alter the visible appearance and tone of the skin.

Unfortunately, many products in the market aimed at reversing these visible signs of aging skin, such as acid peels and retinoids, can further contribute to skin barrier damage, as they strip your skin of natural oils and have the potential to damage the molecular structure of the skin barrier. When the skin’s moisture barrier is damaged, this can cause inflammation, redness, and flaky skin that can become difficult to manage. That is why it is important to know the signs of a damaged skin barrier, as much of this damage can be prevented and reversed.

This blog will discuss how you can know whether your skin barrier is damaged or not. It will describe the visible signs of a damaged barrier, how it feels (or doesn't feel), and the first signs in recognizing where and how your skin barrier may be damaged.

How do you know if your skin barrier is damaged?

When the skin barrier becomes disrupted, the skin is more prone to irritation and water loss. This may result in any of the following visible signs of a damaged skin barrier1:
  • Dry, flaky skin
  • Itchy and irritated skin
  • Painful areas, particularly burning/stinging after application of products
  • Breakouts and roughness
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Fine lines and wrinkles
  • Increased skin infections
  • Delayed wound healing
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How do you fix/repair a damaged skin barrier?

The largest cause of a damaged skin barrier, particularly in younger individuals, is due to the overuse of harsh ingredients in cleansers, exfoliants, toners, and acne treatments. Repairing a damaged skin barrier starts with one simple idea: less=more. Although the answer to “how much is too much” is different for every skin type, there are a few steps you can take to build the right skin care regimen that will help prevent or fix a damaged skin barrier2:

Evaluate your skin care products

Evaluate your skin care products and ask yourself “why” you are using them. Sometimes we can get distracted by the newest and greatest products that we often overlook how they interact with other products for our skin.


Consider taking a break from your complex regimen

Consider taking a break from your complex regimen and take notes. For a few weeks, consider setting aside some skin care products and reevaluate how your skin is reacting to less ingredient exposure.

This is especially important if you’re already experiencing the signs of a damaged skin barrier and if you’re using harsh exfoliants or acne treatments (e.g., retinols, peels). Take note of how your skin changes or improves over the few weeks that you avoid these products. And be sure to give yourself enough time (usually a full few weeks) for your skin to restore its natural balance.


Cleanse gently and moisturize liberally

During this time, use a gentle gel cleanser and a daily peptide moisturizer with no fragrances or additives. Also, consider using a moisturizer with specific “functional” ingredients that can help with skin barrier repair (i.e., ceramides, hyaluronic acid, fatty acids, niacinamide).


Slowly reincorporate your products, one by one

Once you have given your skin a break, reintroduce your topical skin care products one at a time. Depending on your skin type and damage, you may need to wait 3-4 weeks before adding other products.


Consult a dermatologist

If there is underlying inflammation or disorders to your skin barrier that is not resolving, consult an expert on how to better optimize your skin. Some instances of skin barrier damage are due to underlying skin disorders, such as rosacea and atopic dermatitis.

Can a damaged skin barrier heal itself?

A compromised skin barrier can be repaired, but it takes time and care. Written within the code of our skin’s DNA is a natural ability to heal itself, but these processes can be disrupted or delayed due to inflammation and cell dysfunction. Self-repair is possible by removing products from your face and body care routine that may be causing inflammation and irritation. Skin barrier repair can be accelerated by maintaining proper moisture in the skin. This can be done by avoiding hot showers, moisturizing regularly, and optimizing your diet with whole and healthy foods2,3.

How long does it take a broken skin barrier to repair itself?

The timeline of repair is based on the extent of the damage and your skin condition. Noticeable improvement in skin condition and skin barrier function can occur in as little as a couple of weeks, but some cases require up to 6 months to return to a normal state4.

There are other factors, such as your skin’s natural microbiome, that can also promote skin barrier healing. Recent research has uncovered commensal bacteria that can generate ceramides to enhance skin moisture 5.

How do you know if your skin barrier is healing?

Healthy, hydrated skin is smooth, plump, and radiant. With time and a revamped skin routine, your skin barrier will begin to function like normal and regain its texture and color. Areas of dryness will become less flaky and itchy. Red patches of skin will begin to fade. As inflammation is reduced and your skin returns to a state of homeostasis, this will result in visible repair and regeneration of damaged areas. However, have realistic expectations for your goals and skin type; stress only worsens it!

Is my skin barrier permanently damaged?

The skin barrier can be permanently damaged, but this is usually related to an underlying skin condition and is rare. Procedures such as surgeries and injections can also cause permanent damage or changes, but certain medications and products can provide improvement. Permanent damage often does not recover on its own, so be sure to consult an expert with any skin concerns.

Conclusions

  • The skin is the largest organ of our bodies and is responsible for protecting us from harmful environmental factors such as UV rays, bacteria, and viruses. The skin barrier is an important part of our skin, as it helps to keep the skin hydrated and healthy. The skin also has a natural ability to heal itself.
  • A damaged barrier can be caused by environmental factors and overuse of functional skincare ingredients. Most barrier damage is repairable, which starts by reevaluating each skincare product you use and only moisturizing for a few weeks.
  • Nurturing a damaged skin barrier with moisturizer and addressing underlying inflammatory factors can help keep our skin barrier functioning as best as possible.

Sources:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31454051/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5608132/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1451215/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4973620/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35123653/
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