What is the importance of the skin barrier?
The skin barrier is the outermost layer of skin, also known as the acid mantle or hydrolipidic film. It functions as the film forming barrier between your skin and the environment and plays two key roles.
The first is to keep pathogens (bad bacteria) and environmental aggressors entering the body. It acts like a shield protecting the body and deeper layers of skin from the stress of external factors such as UV damage, pollution, toxins, and bacteria. This defense system helps guard the skin against premature (extrinsic) aging which is caused by these external factors.
The second essential function of the skin barrier is keeping moisture sealed into the skin. This helps the skin stay hydrated which is key for a healthy complexion.
What is the skin barrier made of?
Your skin barrier has a unique structure which allows it to play these two important roles. It helps to think of this structure as similar to a wall made of bricks and mortar. You’ll discover why in a moment.
The skin barrier is composed of dead skin cells and a lipid matrix made up of cholesterol, free fatty acids and ceramides. Your barrier also produces a protective coat called Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF) to help keep itself moisturized naturally.
Now, back to the ‘wall’ structure of the barrier. Think of the dead skin cells as the ‘bricks’ in the wall and the lipid matrix as the ‘mortar’ that surrounds the cells to ‘glue’ them together. Together, the cells and lipids form a barrier to keep external aggressors out while keeping moisture in.
Let’s take a look at the components - cells, lipids, and NMF, in more detail.
Natural moisturizing factor (NMF)
Your NMF is an impressive array of ingredients produced by the skin to keep itself moist. The key components include urea, lactate, amino acids, and Pyrrolidone Carboxylic Acid (PCA). This highly efficient mix of water-soluble, powerful humectants attract and bind water from the atmosphere, drawing it into the skin.
Dead skin cells
Everything has a crucial function in the skin barrier, even dead cells. Building up on the surface the old, dry cells act as a protective barrier against foreign bodies.
Lipids (Cholesterol, Ceramides and Fatty Acids)
Essentially lipids are your skin’s natural fats. They’re vital for helping the skin barrier function maintain its strength, elasticity and keeping moisture sealed into the skin.
Improves skin hydration and forms a barrier to guard against pollution and other environmental stressors.
Cholesterol: Helps improve skin elasticity and accelerate repair.
Minimize trans-epidermal water loss and offer antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
When your skin barrier is strong and functioning optimally, these 3 components (NMF, dead cells, and lipids) work in synergy to support good skin integrity. The barrier is strong, without cracks or damage and skin is hydrated, balanced, and calm.
Signs of a damaged barrier
When the natural lipids are stripped away from the outer layer of skin, the ‘glue’ holding the barrier together becomes fragile and breaks down. Cracks form and become an entry point for pathogens and external aggressors which trigger inflammation.
Moisture also escapes through these cracks.The process of moisture evaporating off the skin is known as trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) and this is one of the main effects of skin barrier damage. Excessive TEWL leads to dryness, dehydration, and even scaly skin.
Signs your skin barrier is damaged include:
Oily skin that feels tight
Signs of aging (fine lines and wrinkles) are more noticeable
What weakens the skin barrier?
Many factors can compromise our skin barrier, stripping away or changing the lipid and moisture content of the skin. This includes environmental aggressors such as pollution and UV exposure, stress, hormones, and skincare routines.
Non-supportive skincare habits that can damage the skin barrier include:
Over cleansing skin
Many cleansers, often those targeted to acne-prone skin, strip the skin of essential moisture and oils (lipids) it needs to function optimally. While you may see short term results in the reduction of acne, harsh cleansers are doing far more long term damage to the skin barrier - which usually leads to more breakouts.
Cleansers that are either too alkaline (baking soda) or too acidic (lemon) disrupt the skin’s natural pH level which needs to remain balanced for a healthy barrier.
Removing dead skin cells with exfoliation also means removing part of the functional skin barrier. Exfoliating should be based on your skin's needs rather than skincare trends and not part of your daily routine. Some people with easily compromised barriers may not wish to exfoliate at all.
UV and pollution
Unprotected sun exposure and pollution take a toll on the skin barrier causing it to weaken and depleting the skin's protective abilities. This results in premature aging dehydration, sensitivity, uneven dullness, and skin tone.
The chemical responses released in your body when you’re under stress impair the barrier function. The result? Skin is more sensitive, reactive and struggles to heal itself. Flares of inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and rosacea can also be triggered by stress.
Your skin barrier changes in response to hormone fluctuations. You may notice differences in skin hydration, elasticity, acne outbreaks, and the speed of wound healing at different times in your menstrual cycle, during pregnancy and menopause.
Prescription medication and even over-the-counter treatments may cause changes to your skin. Birth control, heart medication, and antibiotics are a few of the most common medications to weaken the barrier.
How to protect and build a healthy skin barrier
So, what can we do to strengthen the skin barrier function? Build a barrier health routine. Here are a few of the key ingredients to include in your skin care routine that provide foundational support and promote a well-functioning barrier.
Niacinamide, also known as Vitamin B3, when applied topically has been found to offer skin aging appearance benefits while enhancing barrier function. Niacinamide increases the production of ceramides which contributes to strengthening the skin's barrier function.
Linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid and an essential building block for hydration-promoting ceramides. Topical use strengthens skin making it more effective at locking moisture in and keeping irritants out. Linoleic acid is also brimming with antioxidants and has strong anti-inflammatory properties.
These plant oils are excellent sources of linoleic acid; safflower, flaxseed oil, and sunflower oil.
Jojoba oil aids in the restoration and protection of a healthy barrier thanks to its high content of ceramides. Ceramides help control the production of sebum and moisture and Jojoba oil closely mimics the skin's own sebum.
Offering effective support for a weak barrier, squalane is brimming with omega-6 fatty acids. It helps replenish skin’s lost fatty acids and acts as an emollient sealing moisture into the skin which minimizes trans-epidermal water loss.
As part of the lipid matrix, cholesterol plays a key role in supporting and improving skin barrier function. It is a strengthening and protective ingredient that helps replenish and supplement cholesterol naturally found in the barrier. It’s particularly beneficial for dry and sensitive skin.
3 Simple Strategies for Barrier Support
Your barrier support skincare routine doesn’t need to be, and should not be, complicated.
The daily core steps are cleanse, moisturize and protect. Carefully select products suited to your skin type with high quality, supportive ingredients.
KLUR Gentle Matter is a refreshing, non-foaming gel, gently cleanses and conforms to even the most sensitive skin. A soothing blend of antioxidants, organic botanicals, and mild resurfacing ingredients, delicately lifts impurities while maintaining optimal moisture levels. The result is a deeply-cleansed surface for a more overall hydrated and supple complexion.
Daily Moisturizer - Oils or Creams
Moisturizer helps seal moisture into the skin to combat the excessive trans epidermal water loss of a damaged barrier. Look for ingredients including ceramides, panthenol, fatty acids, and niacinamide in your moisturizing oil or cream.
Mineral-based broad spectrum SPF-30+
SPF 30+ is a must for helping to protect your skin barrier from the damaging effects of UVA and UVB rays. Include sun protection in your daily routine year round - no matter the weather.
Remember the best routine is what suits you. We advocate for minimal routines, gentle consistency, and delicate activities as barrier health is of utmost importance.
Simplified lifestyle changes can also help to improve skin health, for example, healthier sleep routine, diet, de-stressing meditation, and relaxation self-care strategies.
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