Your Skin's Barrier: Why It's Such a Big Deal

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Flip through a beauty magazine or check out your favorite skincare website, and you’ll probably see at least a couple mentions of your skin’s barrier. The term’s been getting a lot of attention lately, with a slew of new products claiming to repair it. But why has this become such a big deal? Well, because it IS a big deal: How your skin barrier functions can play a huge role in your skin’s health!

What is the Skin's Barrier?

You might be wondering what the heck your skin’s barrier is in the first place. Simply put, it includes the outermost layers of skin; essentially what you see on the surface. When that surface skin is healthy, it appears and feels smooth, soft, and plump (like a baby’s skin). In contrast, a damaged surface skin looks dry, rough, dull, and dehydrated.

This isn’t just an aesthetic issue. How your barrier functions is crucial because if it’s damaged, then it’s difficult, if not impossible, to repair issues like wrinkles, post-acne red marks, dry skin, extra-sensitive skin, and breakouts – no matter how hard you’re trying to get rid of them!

According to the National Rosacea Society, there’s growing research suggesting that an impaired barrier function could play a role in the heightened sensitivity rosacea sufferers experience when they’re exposed to irritants. That’s just one example of how important it is to have a barrier that’s healthy and functioning at its best.

What Damages the Skin's Barrier?

The old saying, "prevention is the best cure" applies to your skin’s barrier. Avoiding damage can go a long way to making sure your barrier remains healthy. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Don't use water that is too hot or too cold; both are irritating to skin.
  • Avoid soaking in water until skin “prunes” (that pruning is a sign of barrier damage).
  • Stop using harsh scrubs or over-scrubbing, which can tear the skin’s surface.
  • Don’t use drying cleansers, including soap, which remove essential moisturizing substances from your skin.
  • Don’t use skincare products that contain irritating ingredients.
  • Don’t overdo it when it comes to products with high amounts of bio-active ingredients like AHA, BHA, retinol, or anti-acne medications. Find a concentration that works for you but doesn’t cause irritation, even if this means you don’t use the product daily.
  • Avoid unprotected sun exposure, which can cause all sorts of skin damage, along with immune system impairment.

How to Fix a Damaged Barrier

If your skin’s barrier is already damaged – or you just want to make sure it doesn’t become that way – a using skincare products that will give your skin what it needs to heal is critical. The best way to do that is to pay close attention to the ingredients in every step of your skincare routine. Healthy skin contains an abundance of what the Paula’s Choice Research Team calls skin-identical or skin-repairing ingredients. We’re talking about fatty acids, cholesterol, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and glycerin (just to name a few). If you’re not sure exactly what’s in your skincare products, you can consult our Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary for much more information on skin-identical ingredients.

Avoid fragranced skincare, as fragrance is a problem for everyone’s skin. Gentle is the way to go when trying to repair your skin’s barrier, so avoid potentially damaging fragrant oils (like lavender and all types of mint and citrus).

Protect your skin from UV light every day. Sun exposure is one of the leading causes of impaired barrier function, so make certain you wear an antioxidant-rich sunscreen rated SPF 30 or greater every day. If you need some pointers on the right way to use sunscreen (and yes, there is a right way!), see this article on how to apply sunscreen to make sure you’re getting the most out of your SPF.

You might also want to consider applying active products like AHA or BHA exfoliants and retinol treatments at different times of the day if applying them at the same time results in redness or flaking. For example, you can apply your exfoliant in the morning, and retinol product at night.

By following these steps, you can see smoother, softer, and yes, even younger-looking skin. If you’ve been doing all you can to improve your skin without the kind of results you’re hoping for, a few simple but effective changes can finally get the skin you’ve been wanting!

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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