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What is a skin barrier and why is it so important?

Here’s everything you need to know..

Whether you’re a skincare junkie with a bathroom cabinet bursting with products or a beginner who just enjoys a basic routine, chances are you’ve heard about the importance of looking after your skin barrier. But while many of us know that a healthy-looking skin barrier equals good skin (thanks to every skincare commercial, ever), most of us don’t have a clue what it actually is.

And that’s okay! We’re not all skin wizards around here. But what it does mean is that we’re probably doing a pretty average job at looking after it, hey? To break down what a skin barrier is and how to keep it looking healthy, Skin Virtue’s Founder Nina Gajic explains exactly what we need to know.

What is a skin barrier?

Your skin barrier is basically the outmost layer of your skin (the stratum corneum - if you want to get fancy), and your first line of defence. Picture it like a security guard for your skin. It keeps the good stuff in (moisture) and blocks out all the bad stuff - bacteria, pollutants, irritants and all the other annoying things trying to mess with your skin (rude!).

To get a little bit science-y on you, Gajic explains that your skin barrier is made up of things called corneocytes and lipids – which basically hold everything together. “These corneocytes and lipids resemble a brick and mortar structure. The corneocytes (or skin cells) make up the bricks and the lipid interface make up the mortar.” Still with us?

“When the skin barrier is damaged, the normally tight arrangement between these skin cells and lipids are lost, allowing external irritants to penetrate the skin more easily, and leads to more water leaving our skin. This is known as Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL),” said Gajic. The result? Seriously unhappy skin. “As well as inducing sensitivity and irritation, this can show up visibly in the form of redness, rashes, hives and dry dehydrated flaky skin.” Who knew our little ol’ skin barrier did so much?!

What’s the best way to keep your skin barrier looking healthy?

Whether your skin is sensitive or not, prevention is better than cure (that old chestnut, we know). Building up a strong skin barrier will not only benefit the appearance of your skin in the long run (and who don’t want good skin?!), but also make your skin more resilient. “The best way to protect the skin barrier is to help strengthen the skin barrier function,” said Gajic. See! We told you.

Along with avoiding products and techniques (we’re looking at you, exfoliation) that rob your skin of those delicious lipids, Gajic suggests incorporating some specific moisture-boosting ingredients into your skincare routine. “At Skin Virtue, we include ingredients such as ceramides, niacinamide, panthenol and free fatty acids in our formulations, at optimal levels, for specific skin types,” said Gajic. “For example, drier skin types require higher concentrations of ceramides and free fatty acids than oilier skin types.” By opting for ingredients that work to replenish and preserve the skin, Gajic said you’ll help rebuild your skin’s barrier function by, “activating the skin’s natural defence mechanisms and the stratum corneum hydration.” We love stratum corneum hydration! “This will help reduce TEWL, skin roughness and the chance of micro-organisms penetrating the skin, therefore reducing the impact that they have on the skin.”

How do you know if your skin barrier is damaged?

It’s easy to know when something’s up with your skin barrier – you’ll be able to see and feel a difference in your skin. To put it short: “Your skin will feel uncomfortable,” said Gajic. If you’ve ever gone a little too hard with your serums and actives and noticed your skin kind of freaked out (read: inflammation, irritation and all that other fun stuff) - that, friends, is a damaged skin barrier.

“If you experience redness, itching, tightness or stinging when you apply a product that is a sure sign that something is not right,” said Gajic. So, is it just cosmetic products with harsh ingredients we need to be careful with? Well, not necessarily – there are some other culprits you need to look out for, too. “Our skin’s pH is affected by a number of internal and external factors, e.g. skin moisture, sweat, sebum, genetic predisposition and age as well as detergents, cosmetic products and occlusive dressings,” said Gajic.

How do you repair a damaged skin barrier?

Okay, you’re going to want to write this down. If you’ve really done a number on your skin and you’re suffering symptoms such as itchy skin, flakiness and roughness, you need to boost hydration and seek out specific products for your skin type. “Look for products that include humectants (moisturising ingredients) such as glycerin or hyaluronic acid, as well as barrier replenishing ceramides - and actively apply them,” said Gajic. Meaning? Be consistent!

“I see so many bathroom cabinet posts on Instagram full of an array of luxurious products and I wonder why people have so many products in their cabinet. I'm guessing that the product didn't work for them or it didn’t suit their skin, or they are not actively applying the products?” Looks around guiltily. Rather than slapping on a million different serums and lotions, Gajic said the most important thing is to make sure you’re using correct products for your skin type. “Good habits are key,” she said. “A good skincare regime will not work for you unless you use it as recommended.”

The best place to start? Your cleanser. According to Gajic, choosing the right cleanser is one of the most important steps when it comes to your skin’s pH and barrier function. “Aggressive cleansers that strip your skin can both disrupt and exacerbate sensitivity,” she said – which is everything your poor skin does not need right now.

If you have normal to oily skin, Gajic recommends using Skin Virtue’s Super Clear Cleanse. “It's our slightly higher acidic pH cleanser (pH 4) that effectively balances oil and removes grime and debris from the skin, helping to create the perfect environment for happy and healthy-looking skin.” “For normal to dry skin types, Skin Virtue’s Pure Nourish Cleanse is fantastic. It is a mildly acidic cream cleanser (pH 6) that is designed to preserve the lipids within the skin and help the skin to maintain moisture levels.”

What should you avoid if you have a damaged skin barrier?

In terms of what to avoid, you’re going to want to stay away from any harsh ingredients that might disrupt your skin further. Things like harsh soaps, exfoliants and vitamin A are a big no. Don’t even think about it. Gajic also recommends steering clear of foaming cleansers. “Personally, I am not a fan of cleansers that bubble or foam - this usually means that they have a high pH level which can strip the skin barrier.”

A moisture barrier can be a pretty tricky thing to repair – so it’s also not a good time to start experimenting with home remedies. “Another thing to be mindful of is food – yes, food! Since we are spending a lot of time at home lately, we’re seeing a lot of influencers bring their kitchen ingredients into their bathroom cabinet. I have seen a few DIY face mask suggestions that are not a very good idea.” Eek! “Keep your lemons for your tea or water and save your apple cider vinegar for your salads,” Gajic said. “These ingredients are too acidic to be beneficial to your skin and will strip away that protective barrier we want you to preserve.” Suffering from chronically dry, scaly and thickened skin? It’s probably best to head to your dermatologist or GP to seek some medical advice.

What is your go-to product for smooth, hydrated skin?

Tell us at skinninja@skinvirtue.com