What Is Your Skin’s Moisture Barrier? Plus, How to Support It

July 08, 2024
Writer Lauren Levinson
By: Lauren Levinson | skincare.com by L'Oréal
Bathroom countertop with hair brush, toothbrush in a cup, and Kiehl's Ultra Facial Advanced Repair Barrier Cream

If you spend any amount of time reading beauty blogs or scrolling through #skintok, chances are good you’ve come across the term “skin barrier” before. While the term calls to mind a big, impenetrable shield that protects your skin from harm, the skin barrier (also known as the moisture barrier) is a bit more complicated than that. It does help protect your skin, but it performs several other important functions, too. But in order to work properly, it needs to be well cared for: a damaged skin barrier can lead to an array of skin concerns, including dryness, irritation, and even premature aging.

We tapped Dr. Jeanne Eyde, a board-certified plastic surgeon based in Michigan, and Dr. Margarita Lolis, a board-certified Mohs surgeon and cosmetic dermatologist, to share what you need to know about the skin barrier. Ahead, learn what the skin barrier does, how to tell if yours is damaged, and how to care for your skin barrier to promote resilient, healthy-looking skin.

What Is the Skin Barrier and What Does it Do?

The skin barrier, known amongst dermatologists as the stratum corneum, is the outermost layer of your skin. According to Dr. Lolis, it’s composed primarily of dead skin cells and lipids (such as ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids), arranged in a brick-and-mortar-like pattern.

This invisible shield, Dr. Eyde says, “serves as protection against the entry of perils such as bacteria and allergens from the environment” that can damage your skin. It also helps protect against excessive water loss to help keep your skin hydrated, smooth, and healthy-looking. You can think of it as a personal security guard for your skin, there to help protect and shield your body’s largest organ.

How To Tell if Your Skin Barrier Is Damaged

Repeated exposure to stressors, overuse of harsh skincare ingredients, neglecting moisturizer, and even over-cleansing can disrupt your skin barrier. Having a damaged skin barrier can leave you susceptible to a host of unwanted skin concerns, from dryness and dehydration to irritation, sensitivity, and more. If you’re experiencing any of the following concerns (and your usual skincare routine isn’t helping address the problem), your skin barrier may be in need of some TLC.

  • Dry skin: Dryness is an indication that your skin isn’t holding onto water effectively, which often means your skin barrier isn’t working as well as it should.
  • Sensitivity: As mentioned earlier, one of your skin barrier’s main roles is to help protect your living skin from external irritants. If it’s damaged, however, those irritants can affect your skin and may lead to redness, irritation, or itching. In fact, studies have shown that sensitivity goes hand-in-hand with skin barrier dysfunction.
  • Breakouts: If you’re experiencing more breakouts than usual, a damaged skin barrier could be to blame, per the Cleveland Clinic.
  • Flaky, peeling skin: Flakiness, peeling, and cracking all indicate that your skin is losing more water than it’s taking in—another common sign that your skin barrier needs some extra care.

If you’re unsure whether your skin concerns are due to a damaged skin barrier—or want advice on how to fix a damaged skin barrier—consider scheduling an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist. They can help you get to the root of the problem and offer advice on how to restore your skin barrier.

How To Repair Your Skin Barrier

First things first: Nothing can repair a damaged skin barrier overnight. Your skin will heal itself, but that process can take time—up to a few months, in some cases. That being said, there are things you can do to help support your skin in the meantime.

“Begin by washing the skin only twice daily with lukewarm water and reducing exfoliation to once a week,” Dr. Eyde suggests. Limit your use of stronger exfoliants like scrubs or retinoids, at least until your skin begins to bounce back, and try to steer clear of potential irritants like fragrances or alcohol.

Keeping your skin hydrated is also a must for skin barrier repair. “The use of occlusive moisturizers that contain glycerin, hyaluronic acid, or petrolatum [can help in] preventing transepidermal water loss and sealing in moisture,” notes Dr. Lolis.

Look for a gentle, nourishing option designed specifically for damaged skin, such as Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Advanced Repair Barrier Cream. The intensive moisturizer contains colloidal oatmeal and beta-glucan and helps support skin barrier function for smooth, healthy-looking skin. Plus, it helps soothe and relieve irritation and discomfort, making it a great pick for those with sensitivity due to a damaged skin barrier. We also love the SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2. The powerful cream is designed to help support skin’s natural self-repair process while improving the look of skin tone and texture. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly buy, try the L’Oréal Paris Age Perfect Cell Renewal Midnight Cream. It boasts a rich yet non-greasy texture and deeply moisturizes the skin, creating the optimal environment for skin barrier repair.

What Is the Skin Barrier and How Do You Care For It?

How To Protect Your Skin Barrier

Whether or not you’re dealing with a damaged skin barrier, adopting a protective skincare routine can help ensure your skin looks and feels its best. “As a rule of thumb, you want to practice gentle skincare,” says Dr. Lolis. “This entails taking a quick lukewarm shower, patting dry, and moisturizing while your skin is still damp.” Applying your skincare products immediately after showering while your skin is wet helps the products absorb and locks in moisture.

Every morning and evening, start by washing your face with a mild, non-drying cleanser. We love CeraVe Hydrating Foaming Oil Cleanser because it’s suitable for sensitive skin and uniquely designed to help support and maintain the skin barrier. Once you’re done, lightly pat your skin dry and apply a hydrating serum, then lock in all that moisture with a gentle moisturizer, such as CeraVe Moisturizing Cream.

Don’t forget to wear sunscreen during the day, as shielding your skin from UV damage is one of the best ways to help support a healthy skin barrier. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) advises using a broad-spectrum formula with an SPF of at least 30 and applying it every two hours and after sweating or swimming. We’re fans of the La Roche-Posay Anthelios Ultra-Light Fluid Sunscreen SPF 60 since it layers well under makeup, but any broad-spectrum sunscreen you like will work (you can find more of our favorites here).

What Is the Skin Barrier and How Do You Care For It?

Remember that skincare isn’t one-size-fits-all, and what works for one person may not be as effective for the next. For personalized advice on how to repair your moisture barrier and support your skin, visit a board-certified dermatologist.

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