A well-functioning outer layer is the secret to great skin.
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You can't see it. But a well-functioning skin barrier can help you battle everything things like redness, irritation, and dry patches. In fact, when we experience common skin problems, many of us don't realize that the skin barrier can be to blame. That's why both dermatologists and skin-care brands tout a well-functioning skin barrier—the outermost part of skin—as the answer to great skin.
Here, we talked to experts about how to best take care of the skin barrier to improve our skin's health *and* appearance.
Skin Barrier 101
For the uninitiated, the barrier itself is actually made from multiple layers "of flattened cells termed coenocytes," explains Joel Cohen, M.D., a dermatologist in Greenwood Village, Colorado, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. "These layers are surrounded by and held together by ceramides, cholesterol, and lipids."
Some studies use the bricks and mortar analogy: The combination of cells (bricks) held together by lipids (mortar) form a sort of waxy exterior that's analogous to a brick wall, which creates protection for the skin from environmental stressors. (Deeper layers of the skin do not have the same consistency or protection.)
More importantly, the barrier doesn't just protect the skin from harmful substances—including bacteria and chemicals—from entering the body. It also prevents water and other beneficial substances from leaving the skin, Dr. Cohen explains.
Keeping It Healthy
As explained above, a healthy skin barrier helps our skin react better to both external and internal stress, making skin less sensitive and less prone to dryness or flakiness. So what can you do to give yourself thicker skin (literally)?
For one, using soothing ingredients on a day-to-day basis can help. Opt for creams that contain ceramides, a natural part of the skin and found within the upper barrier. Niacinamide is another ingredient that boosts the skin barrier by encouraging ceramide and collagen production. Hyaluronic acid, which keeps moisture from escaping the skin, and vitamin B5, which helps to promote healing, are other ingredients to help build up the top layer of your skin.
Another way to protect your barrier, especially if your skin is prone to redness and irritation, is with a less-is-more approach when it comes to in-office and at-home treatments, since some products and services that we use to improve our skin can actually weaken the barrier, says dermatologist Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., director of Capital Laser & Skin Care and a professor at George Washington University School of Medicine.
For example, some treatments, including micro-needling and laser procedures to treat wrinkles, work by poking the skin and creating an injury, which damages the skin barrier. It's in the skin's healing process from these wounds that it's able to improve, Dr. Cohen explains. Just be careful during this repairing period to avoid further harming the skin barrier, points out dermatologist Francesca Fusco, M.D., at Wexler Dermatology in New York. "For a period of time after the procedure, the skin barrier is temporarily altered and sensitive, so nourishing, hydration, and special care is critical," she says. The docs also note that the risks of using a harsh laser and harming the skin barrier can be greater than the reward for those with sensitive skin.
"It is always better to preserve the naturally occurring barrier produced by your skin rather than strip it and try to support it later with products," Dr. Tanzi says. "Even more gentle cleansers and products can be a problem if overused." (Related: 4 Signs You're Using Too Many Beauty Products)
When to Worry
Even if you're not one for lasers, disturbing the skin's barrier is easier than you think, adds Dr. Fusco. "Things that disturb the barrier include harsh chemicals, frequent long bathing with hot water, overuse of retinol, and in the case of scalps, over blow-drying and overuse of chemicals," she says. The damage occurs when the lipid barrier gets stripped away and leaves deeper layers of the skin exposed. "Dandruff is a great example of what results from a disrupted skin barrier." (Related: 8 Shower Mistakes That Are Messing with Your Skin)
Skin that feels flaky and oily at the same time is another sign that the barrier is not working. "Dysfunction of the barrier causes irritation and rashes, and heightens the risk of allergy to things applied to the skin," Dr. Cohen says.
For a true diagnosis, it's best to visit a derm: When it comes to skin barrier problems, it's easy to get confused because sensitive or hormonal skin that gets disrupted from the inside can seem like a problem with the barrier, he adds.
4 Products for a Barrier Boost
As more women focus on the health of their skin—rather than how it looks—companies are developing products aimed at boosting the upper layers of the skin. Incorporating a barrier-focused serum into your routine is especially important in winter months when skin tends to be drier. Many of the creams for repairing a weakened barrier are light, which means those with drier skin will need an extra dose of moisture.
Here are four products to try:
Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Cream: The ceramide-filled moisturizer helps protect the natural skin barrier and prevent water loss. ($48; sephora.com)
Paula's Choice Resist Barrier Repair with Retinol: The moisturizer uses emollients to help build up the skin's barrier with a dose of anti-aging retinol for a double-duty night cream. ($33; paulaschoice.com)
Dermalogica UltraCalming Barrier Repair: The thick, waterless moisturizer includes emollient silicones and evening primrose oil to help strengthen the skin's natural barrier and protect against environmental damage. ($45; dermstore.com)
Belif True Cream Aqua Bomb: The gel-like moisturizer uses herbs to strengthen the skin's turnaround properties and plantain for moisture balance. ($38; sephora.com)