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Our Guide To The Skin Barrier And How To Keep It Happy

What is an impaired skin barrier, what causes it and how to treat it

At Renude, we often see clients who are showing signs of skin barrier damage without realising this is what has happened. Understanding the state of the skin barrier is extremely important to our experts in deciding the most appropriate products to build into a skincare routine. Here we give the lowdown on what the skin barrier is, why it is so important, and how to repair it if yours is damaged. 

What is a Skin Barrier?

Skin is your largest organ, weighing in at 3.6 kilos and covers 2 meters squared!  Your skin is comprised of 7 main layers of cells with specific functions that help keep our bodies functioning healthily. 

The outermost layer of the epidermis is the stratum corneum or skin barrier. Skin health is determined by the barrier and how well it functions. This layer is made up of rough keratinised cells that work to protect your body from the environment. The skin’s barrier has the most important job of protecting your body from environmental assault, chemicals, and balancing the hydration levels in the skin.  

What is a healthy skin barrier?

A healthy skin barrier is layered like a brick wall. These layers consist of stratum corneum cells made of keratin (the bricks)  and the lipids (the mortar) that hold it together. The lipid layer consists of cholesterol, free fatty acids and ceramides. When the barrier of your skin is on its best behaviour it will naturally exfoliate itself, hold in hydration and protect allergens and toxins from entering the body. When the skin’s barrier function is off-balance these functions do not work properly. The skin’s barrier function is essential to healthy skin. It is our shield from the outside world. 

How do you know if your skin barrier is damaged?

Your skin is very intelligent and it will let you know something is wrong. Common symptoms of an impaired skin barrier would be:

  • Irritation

  • Redness

  • Itchiness

  • Burning/stinging

  • Increased occurrence of blemishes

  • Dryness/flaking/scaly patches

A compromised barrier is a sign your skin needs to be repaired. If we don’t listen to the signs and symptoms of an impaired barrier, damage can occur to the skin and you may increase the chance of infection in the skin. 

Common causes of an impaired skin barrier 

Over exfoliation.

Exfoliation is key to healthy skin and can feel amazing. However, you need to be careful not to over-exfoliate your skin. When beginning an exfoliation routine it’s best to be mindful of how your skin reacts to the exfoliant being used. Just because a product’s directions are to use every day or AM and PM doesn’t mean that’s best for your skin. Skincare is flexible and if your skin can only tolerate exfoliation 1x a week that’s ok. We’re all unique and our skin is no exception, so our routine should reflect that.

Dry environments or extreme temperatures

Extremely dry, hot or cold environments can cause the skin to lose hydration at a faster rate than normal through evaporation through the skin. (For the geeks - this process is known as TEWL - trans-epidermal water loss). This explains why in the winter we experience more episodes of dry skin.

Lack of sleep.

As we sleep our skin naturally repairs itself. When you lack sleep this process is interrupted and the skin cannot produce adequate lipids to support the barrier of the skin. 

How to repair a damaged skin barrier

The skin is incredibly complex and is continually renewing itself, so it is possible to repair a damaged skin barrier. You need to ensure your skin has all of the support it needs to undergo it's own repair mechanisms. Here are 3 simple steps:

Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise!

When your skin barrier is damaged, it’s due to a lack of lipids so you need to replace these topically. Choose a moisturiser containing lipids such as ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids. The fastest way to heal the barrier is to choose options with occlusive ingredients to create a shield on the skin to prevent trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). When the skin barrier is damaged, the skin will try to heal itself, but an increased level of TEWL due to the damage will make it very hard for the skin to repair. Creating a barrier to prevent TEWL using occlusive ingredients or specific barrier cream will allow the skin to go into repair mode to heal it’s barrier. 

Get back to basics.

Simplify your routine by using a gentle hydrating cleanser, and hydrating moisturiser or specific barrier cream. This simple routine will allow your skin to heal. Avoid using exfoliants such as acids, and scrubs on the skin as they will cause further irritation. It’s best to avoid active ingredients completely until the barrier has healed, then you can start to reintroduce ingredients slowly to target your skin goals. 

Use tepid water to cleanse.

Hot water will strip the skin of essential hydration, tepid water is best to cleanse with when experiencing a compromised barrier.

What ingredients can heal my skin’s barrier?

  • Natural lipids - e.g. Cholesterol, Phytosphingosine, Ceramides

  • Niacinamide - This encourages natural ceramide production and acts as an anti-inflammatory

  • Natural Moisturising Factors (NMF) - e.g. Urea, Sodium PCA, Lactate

  • Non-NMF Humectants - e.g. Hyaluronic Acid, Glycerin, Panthenol 

  • Soothing ingredients - e.g. Aloe Vera

These ingredients will repair the skin’s barrier by replacing essential lipids, increasing the hydration levels in the skin and calming inflammation and irritation. When your skin is experiencing the signs and symptoms of an impaired barrier look for these ingredients as a guide to healing your skin. 

How long does it take to repair your skin barrier?

The process of healing the barrier will take patience, but less is definitely more when healing the skin. We would typically recommend continuing with a barrier-repairing routine for a full skin cycle (around 6 weeks), to ensure new skin cells have been generated and the barrier is back to healthy functioning. It can be tempting to introduce all those exciting new ingredients sooner, but you must let the skin heal fully before introducing any active ingredients back in. When skin is starting from a point of optimum health you will get you the best results. So, stay strong and repair your barrier function!


Melody Carl
Melody Carl
Renude Skin Expert