What Is the Skin Barrier and How Should We Be Treating It?

woman with hand in face

By now, you’ve likely heard the term “skin barrier” and how important it is to keep it protected. But like many of us, you may have just assumed the meaning of the term. After all, it does kind of seem self-explanatory: any part of skin that needs to be protected sounds like it could benefit from a healthy slathering of SPF. 

And while yes, it is ideal to always shield yourself from UVA/UVB rays, that’s not all. Your skin barrier is the outermost layer of your dermis, and since it does so much work to protect against the elements, it needs lots of TLC, too. We spoke with dermatologists to get a thorough explanation of — and defense plan for — this important part of your complexion.

So, what is the skin barrier — and why should we care?

Dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman likes to picture the skin barrier like a brick wall. “The skin cells, or keratinocytes, are the bricks, while the skin barrier (comprised of ceramides, lipids, and cholesterol) acts as the mortar (or glue) to hold the skin together,” she explains. The skin barrier reduces transepidermal water loss, prevents harmful aggressors — like pathogenic microbes and harmful foreign chemicals — from penetrating into the skin, and is crucial in maintaining a healthy-looking complexion.

 A healthy, sturdy wall appears as smooth, soft, firm skin, while a damaged, crumbling wall will result in skin that looks “lax, wrinkled, prematurely aged, red, irritated, swollen or dry, and cracked,” says dermatologist Dr. Marguerite Germain. “A broken skin barrier leads to irritation, inflammation, and possible infection.”

What’s compromising my skin barrier?

Unfortunately, there are many different factors that can affect the health of this “wall.” Unsurprisingly, aging, dehydration, and sun damage all do a number on your skin’s barrier, but climate, skin ailments (like eczema, psoriasis, roscarea, acne), and even hot showers can cause major damage, too. Winter is a particularly tough time of year for your skin barrier: “Because of its low relative humidity, dry winter air draws moisture from the skin, and if the barrier is not intact, the skin can dry out quickly,” says Dr. Engelman.

But it’s not all bad news: there are factors that are contributing to the downfall of your skin barrier that you do have control over. “Harsh detergents and solvents like alcohol can strip protective skin lipids and ceramides from the skin, damaging the barrier,” says Dr. Engelman. Over-exfoliating also plays a role in the destruction of your skin barrier, so you should also avoid formulas that strip your skin and make it feel tight and dry. This includes certain cleansers, especially those containing sodium lauryl sulfate, and toners containing alcohol and acetone.


 How can I build my barrier back up?

Combining active ingredients and emollients is your best next step in restructuring a healthy skin barrier, brick-by-brick. “Some products, like toners and serums, are meant to penetrate the ‘brick wall’ with active ingredients, and they are the workhorse products that target specific skin concerns,” says Dr. Engelman. “Then we apply lotions and creams, creating a barrier to lock in moisture and active ingredients.” Moisturizers are more likely to penetrate deeply into the skin, further providing a shield.

When purchasing products for your barrier, Dr. Engelman recommends retinols, antioxidants, alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), and niacinamides. AHAs “exfoliate and help release the top layers of dead skin cells, revealing healthy new skin cells and allowing active ingredients to better penetrate,” she says. Dr. Engelman loves the SkinCeuticals® Renew Overnight Cream Dry ($68), because it exfoliates with AHAs, but also helps hydrate with ingredients like aloe, chamomile, and rose. She also recommends the Elizabeth Arden® Skin Illuminating Retexturizing Pads ($56), which “contain five percent glycolic acid to eliminate dry, flaky, and dull skin.”

CeraVe® Facial Moisturizing Lotion AM ($13) is also a great pick to build the barrier, thanks to the niacinamide found in the formula. This is a form of vitamin B3, which not only helps strengthen your skin barrier, but can help reduce hyperpigmentation and inflammation, too. “For aging skin, which tends to have a loss of hydration, niacinamide calms redness and inflammation,” explains Dr. Engelman. “It has similar effects of retinol [with regards to smoothing the skin], however it fortifies from the get-go without sensitivity or irritation.” 

Dr. Germain is a big fan of biomimetic ceramides, which can be found in her overnight cream, Germain RxTM Advanced Restorative Bio-Therapy PLUS ($87). “Biomimetic ceramides help build the barrier back by way of lipid replacement,” she says. Unlike traditional ceramides, which just help your complexion retain moisture, biomimetic ones are developed to specifically replicate the function of existing lipids in your skin. “They are composed of ceramides and complex lipids that naturally occur in skin, but are deficient in skin with a compromised barrier,” adds Dr. Germain. 

Although it’s doable, restoring a healthy skin barrier on your own might not be the most efficient course of action, according to Dr. Germain. She recommends you work together with your dermatologist, who can determine exactly how your barrier was compromised and the best course of action for treatment. “The doctor can treat the irritation and inflammation, or any other condition caused by the broken skin barrier, like chafing and infection,” she adds.

So if you think your skin barrier is weakened, mtake a visit to your dermatologist — and also don’t forget to properly hydrate, eat a balanced diet, and apply appropriate products daily. After all, healthy skin is built from the inside out. And while pampering your skin barrier may seem like it takes too much time and effort, the glowing complexion you’ll see at the finish line will be worth it.

Doctors Dendy Engelman and Marguerite Germain are paid Allergan® consultants.

Some complementary products were provided to the author for the purpose of writing this article.

Product prices may vary from the time this article was written.

Allergan may receive commission for purchases made through links in this article.