Imagine the skin of a baby, clear; soft, glowing, and tender. Would you ever wash your baby with harsh soap twice a day? Scrub her using spices, shells, or grains three times a week? Slather on acids nightly? We’d never do this to our precious babies, but it’s essentially what many of us are doing to the delicate skin barrier on our faces every day.
When we’re not gentle with our skin barrier and respectful of its fragile nature, we dismantle and weaken it. This not only causes extreme sensitivities but also expedites the manifestations of aging and breakouts. However, just as the skin barrier can get damaged, it can also be repaired. Let’s explore what your skin barrier is and how you can replenish it back to health.
The skin barrier—also called, the barrier function, moisture barrier or lipid barrier—is located in the stratum corneum, the top layer of the epidermis. It consists of corneocytes (flattened skin cells), ceramides (waxy lipid molecules), cholesterol and free fatty acids. Dr. Peter M. Elias, an expert on epidermal biology, likened the skin barrier to a brick wall: The corneocytes are the bricks and the ceramides, cholesterol and free fatty acids are the mortar, or cement, holding those bricks together.
The skin barrier is veiled by a mixture of fats and water, the hydro-lipid film. The water component of the hydro-lipid film is called the acid mantle since its main role is to keep your skin’s pH mildly acidic, which is the optimal environment for healthy microorganisms to flourish and for harmful microorganisms to die.
Your skin barrier is responsible for all aspects of your skin’s beauty and health. The lipids in the skin barrier provide softness, bind skin cells together and help to prevent dehydration by keeping water molecules and natural moisturizer factors (NMF) locked inside the stratum corneum ensuring firmness and plumpness. They also prevent bacteria, allergens, and environmental pollutants from penetrating the skin and triggering inflammation. This means that if you’re looking for calm, uplifted and glowing skin, your skin barrier must be nourished with gentle loving care.
As we age, lipids naturally decrease, particularly after the age of 40. This ultimately leads to dryness, flakiness, wrinkling, sagging and fine lines. But if you haven't hit 40 yet, you’re not in the clear! The lipids in the skin barrier can also be depleted by environmental factors, lifestyle habits, and personal care. For example, sun exposure and pollution can oxidize the lipids in the skin, triggering DNA damage. Harsh cleansers containing sulfates can diminish the skin barrier by stripping it of natural oils.
Once the skin barrier is weakened and the "mortar" is no longer able to hold the cells together and keep moisture in, irritants (bacteria, pollution, allergens, chemicals, etc.) penetrate the skin, leading to inflammation. Skin can become red, itchy, flaky, swollen, cracked and painful. Eczema, psoriasis, and breakouts are common with a compromised barrier, as are dullness, sagging and fine lines.
We repeat: You can trace all your complexion problems back to an impaired skin barrier.
The good news is that no matter what your skin type or concerns are, you can restore your skin barrier (after all, our bodies were built to heal!). Do note that some aspects are out of your control, such as aging and genetics, but there are plenty of factors you can control. On top of eating healthy and quitting smoking (which are excellent solutions for pretty much any problem in life), follow these tips to start:
Ditch the harsh skincare products. Many skincare products (especially those that aim to remedy acne) might temporarily fix your problem in the short run, but with continued use, can disrupt and weaken the skin barrier. A perfect example is foaming cleansers containing sulfates that remove oils and beneficial bacteria. Don’t worry, there are plenty of ingredients amenable to sensitive skin that can perform just as well if not better than their traditional counterparts. For example, kaolin clay and tea tree essential oil are amazing for clearing acne. Using these gentle, nature-given ingredients instead of benzoyl peroxide can do wonders if you have sensitive skin and need a bit of a skin detox.
Don't overdo anything. We're taught that exfoliation is crucial in removing dead skin cells and clearing pores, but too much can be counterproductive. Over-exfoliating can cause surface micro tears and remove multiple layers of skin cells causing redness and extreme sensitivity. Physical exfoliates like spices, seeds, and nutshells are especially harsh. Cleansing with aggressive formulas or too often can starve your barrier from balance. Trust—you can be super gentle with your skin and nurture it to its healthiest state!
Quit stressing! Science shows that short bursts of fleeting stress are actually good for you, as it fires up your immune system. But feeling stressed out on a regular basis? That weakens the skin barrier by slowing down the healing process, leading to all types of skin issues. Stress can also cause certain skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis to flare up. On top of that, getting little exercise or sleep will further weaken your skin barrier. Make sure to increase the quality and quantity of both of these (and your stress will probably decrease while you’re at it!).
Use skin-identical ingredients. Remember we mentioned your skin barrier comprises substances like ceramides, cholesterol, and free fatty acids? When these things diminish, it makes perfect sense to replenish them to keep your skin barrier strong. For example, using a skincare product containing ceramides will help moisturize your skin—over the long term—while preventing those pesky dry flakes. Ceramide 3, which you can find in Harmony Omega 3|6 Recovery Serum, will also help stimulate cell turnover, keeping fresh, healthy cells on the surface of your skin to create that youthful glow.
Protect yourself against free radical damage. Free radicals are unstable molecules that damage skin cells leading to wrinkles, sagging, dull skin tone, but they can be stopped or neutralized by antioxidants. Look for items that contain antioxidants, like stable forms of vitamins A, C and E and green tea extract, when choosing your skin care products. Find these amazing protective ingredients in our Sanctuary Vita 3 | Anti-Ox Defense Serum.
Use sunscreen like your life depends on it. UVA rays penetrate deep through the skin barrier to cause DNA damage, leading to premature aging with symptoms that include wrinkling, age spots, and dull, dry skin. The best way to prevent this damage is by using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that also contains antioxidants. A broad spectrum sunscreen is one that fights off both UVB and UVA rays, and includes an antioxidant will help beat free radical damage.
Your skin might not be beating like your heart but it’s working hard to protect you—and it never rests. Your skin barrier, in particular, works hardest of all to keep toxins and other undesirables out. It also simultaneously keeps moisture in, giving you that lovely plump, fresh look. Make sure you support and treat your skin barrier with tender and loving care—and don’t be surprised if all your irritating skin problems start to vanish!