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. Beauty boutique and drugstore shelves are packed with products that aim to protect and rejuvenate your skin. Some of them exfoliate, some plump, and others moisturize. 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.
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: cholesterol, fatty acids, ceramides. 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.
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
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.
When your skin barrier is not functioning properly, you may be more prone to developing the following skin symptoms and conditions: dry, scaly skin, itchiness, rough or discoloured patches, acne, sensitive or inflamed areas, and bacterial, viral, or fungal skin infections.
The first step is to take care of your skin. Good skin care not only keeps your skin soft, strong, and healthy, but helps you avoid skin problems as you age. Follow these tips:
- Avoid too much sun. Harsh UV rays can disrupt your skin barrier and speed up skin aging. It can also cause dark skin spots, wrinkles, and raise your risk for skin cancer. To protect yourself from the sun, you should:
- Use broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. Use ones that are at least SPF 15.
- Avoid the sun during peak times — 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — when the sun’s rays are the harshest.
- Protect your skin with clothes especially during hot and humid months. Use long sleeves, pants, and wide-brimmed hats to block UV rays from your skin.
- Moisturize daily. Moisturizers hold water in your skin barrier. Most are water-based and contain ingredients such as glycerin and lactic acid that pull water into the skin, helping to keep it smooth and elastic. For best absorption, put your moisturizer on while skin is still damp. Ask your dermatologist if you’re not sure what types of creams or lotions you should use.
- Be gentle. Tugging and pulling at your skin can disrupt the skin barrier. You should: Avoid long, hot baths or showers, Pat your skin dry with a towel, Use gentle soaps or cleansers, Shave carefully (cuts or scratches can lead to infection or irritation), and Don’t scratch aggressively.
- Eat healthy. Research shows that a good, healthy diet with whole foodsand healthy fats can keep your skin looking best. Diets rich in fish oil, antioxidants, or fish oil supplements can help with skin elasticity and keep it looking younger. Drink plenty of water to keep your skin hydrated. Good-for-your-skin foods include:
- Carrots, apricots, and other yellow and orange fruits and vegetables
- Green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Salmon, mackerel, and other fatty fish
- Don’t smoke. Smoking can age your skin and cause wrinkles. It narrows the bloodvessels on the skin, restricting blood flow. This cuts down oxygen supply and dries skin. Smoking also affects the collagen and elastin levels in your skin. These protein cells provide elasticity to the skin. And smoking increases your risk for skin cancer. If you’re not sure how to quit smoking, ask your doctor.
- Manage stress. It can throw your hormones out of whack and trigger skin problems like acne flare-ups.
- 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. 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 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 defence against everything the environment can throw at you. Keeping it healthy is much more than a cosmetic concern.