Why Skin Barrier Is So Important

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Does this sound familiar? You're diligent about taking care of your skin every day, being sure to cleanse, protect your skin from sun damage, and apply moisturizer. Yet it seems no matter what you do or how much money you spend, your skin doesn't improve.

Frustrating, right? You just can't figure out what you're doing wrong, and your skin just doesn't improve. While there are many reasons this could be happening, one factor to check is whether or not the products you're using are too harsh for your skin! It can come down to one critical element of skin care, and that's carefully protecting the barrier (outer layers) of the skin. Simply put, if the skin's barrier isn't protected, your skin will not improve!

What is the Skin's Barrier?

From head to toe, the skin's barrier includes the outermost layers of skin, the skin you see on the surface. It functions to keep skin moist, smooth, and keep the bad stuff out. When the skin's surface is healthy and undamaged it feels and looks smooth, soft, plump, and definitely not dry. When the skin's outer layers are damaged and unhealthy, you get dry, rough, dull, dehydrated-looking skin.

When your skin is healthy, there is an abundance of the vital substances it needs, such as fatty acids, cholesterol, lecithin, glycerin, glycosaminoglycans, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides. The Paula's Choice Research Team refers to these important ingredients as skin-identical or skin-repairing ingredients, and research has shown they're critical for healthy skin. When we review moisturizers and serums for any skin type, we are always looking for a blend of these substances. Why? Because if the outer layers of the skin aren't healthy, then it's difficult, if not impossible, to repair wrinkles, heal red marks from acne, reduce blemishes, eliminate dry skin, and on and on!

What Damages the Skin's Barrier?

Keeping the skin's outer layers healthy means you need to prevent and repair barrier damage. Here's how you can stop repeatedly damaging your skin:

  • Don't use water that is too hot or too cold; both are irritating to skin.
  • Avoid soaking in water for more than a few minutes (when skin "prunes," that's a sign the barrier was damaged).
  • Stop using harsh scrubs or over-scrubbing because they tear into the skin's surface, quickly damaging its barrier.
  • Don't use soap or other drying cleansers that remove the essential substances your skin needs to be healthy.
  • Never use skin-care products that contain irritating ingredients.
  • Keep away from highly fragranced skin-care products, including those with "essential" oils because they also cause irritation.
  • Be careful when using products with high levels of bio-active ingredients, such as AHA, BHA, retinol, or anti-acne medications. You need to experiment to find the mix and/or concentration that your skin can handle.
  • Having facial peels done too frequently can eventually have negative results.
  • And, of course, the worst factor is unprotected sun exposure (if your skin changes color after sun exposure, you are slowly but surely killing it).

Now that you know what not to do, you can take immediate steps to stop and correct the damage, allowing your skin to heal.

How to Fix a Damaged Barrier

Helping repair the skin's outer layers requires using the right skin-care products, and they must be gentle and brilliantly formulated! Even though you think you're using great skin-care products—because they're from a spa, because a doctor recommended them, because celebrities rave about them, or because they're expensive—the truth is many such products contain little to no really beneficial ingredients, and some actually contain ingredients that damage the skin's barrier.

A shocking fact (it even shocked us!): Daily use of even one problematic product can lead to barrier damage that your skin tries desperately to fix, but, especially as we age, skin becomes ill-equipped to keep up with the daily onslaught of damage.

Here's our step-by-step guide for weeding out the bad products and making sure your routine works to replenish, not deplete, your skin's barrier:

  1. Go to Beautypedia to find the best products for your skin type and concerns. Using only products that contain skin-healing ingredients will enable you to take really brilliant care of your skin.
  2. Examine the ingredient list of every skin-care product you're using. You can check our reviews on Beautypedia or consult our Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary to learn which ingredients are the most beneficial for healing and repairing the skin's surface.
  3. Think gentle! Everything you do to skin should respect its outer layers.
  4. Consider using only fragrance-free products, such as those from Paula's Choice (you'll find other recommendations on Beautypedia). Research is clear that almost all fragrances, natural or otherwise, are a problem for everyone's skin.
  5. Be sure to protect your skin every day, rain or shine, with an antioxidant-rich sunscreen rated SPF 15 or greater (and greater is better). Reducing sun damage will make the most significant, lasting difference in the skin's barrier function.
  6. Apply active products at different times if you find that applying them at the same time results in dryness or flaking. For example, apply your exfoliant in the morning, and apply your prescription retinoid or retinol product in the evening.

Barrier Repaired!

By following the steps above and being consistent with your skin-care routine (plus avoiding things that we know damage the skin's barrier, as explained above), your skin can absolutely become smoother, softer, and, yes, younger-looking. Ongoing use of gentle products, combined with daily sun protection, will reduce wrinkles and brown spots and give your skin a radiant glow, plus you'll notice your skin heals faster and more evenly.

It's amazing to think that all of these benefits stem from keeping the skin's barrier intact and healthy—and now you know why you haven't been seeing the improvements you were hoping for. With a few simple but effective changes, you can turn all of that around—your skin will thank you!

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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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