There’s an art to keeping your skin barrier supple, strong, and balanced — and doing so is the key to staying clear and radiant.
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Any dermatologist worth their salt will tell you that one of the secrets to a beautiful complexion is a healthy skin barrier. The barrier is the outermost layer of skin (aka the stratum corneum) and "your body's protection against the outside world, blocking bacteria, pollution, irritation, and injuries," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., a dermatologist in New York. In fact, when you experience common skin woes, such as redness, irritation, and dry patches, a compromised barrier is often to blame. 

That's why skin-care experts tout a well-functioning skin barrier as the answer to a clear, radiant complexion. Here, pros explain how to best take care of it to improve your 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."

The physical barrier is often described as a brick wall because that's exactly what it looks like under a microscope. The skin cells are in stacked rows, and the lipids (ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids) act like mortar. When this structure is intact, it keeps water and other beneficial substances in and irritants, including bacteria and chemicals, out, says Dr. Cohen. (FTR, deeper layers of the skin do not have the same consistency or protection.)

But when you develop a damaged skin barrier — from extreme temps, scrubs, harsh soap, sun exposure, genetics — "microscopic cracks or tears in the wall form, letting irritants in and causing inflammation that exacerbates free radical damage, aging, and conditions like eczema, rosacea, and acne," says Dr. Zeichner. Disruptions are frequent because, unlike a brick wall, our skin barrier is neither watertight nor impermeable. It's a living, breathing layer that needs to be maintained.

How to Maintain a Healthy Skin Barrier

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)?

Support Your Microbiome

In addition to skin cells and lipids, your skin barrier holds an invisible ecosystem of diverse microorganisms — trillions of them. These good bacteria and fungi form what's called the microbiome, which "supports optimal barrier function," says Mona Gohara, M.D., a dermatologist in Connecticut. "They're like microscopic Smurfs, a busy community of organisms that work together and have jobs to do, like communicating with the immune system or aiding in wound healing."

To reinforce the healthy microflora on your skin, you can apply a serum or a cream that contains topical postbiotic (like Lactobacillus ferment) and prebiotic ingredients (sometimes derived from oat extract or minerals from thermal water) that help feed them and keep the ecosystem in balance. Consider Symbiome The Answer Reparative Serum (Buy It, $200, symbiome.com), which contains Lactobacillus ferment as well as anti-agers like peptides and growth factors. (Related: This Probiotic Beauty Line Will Let Your Skin Microbiome Thrive)

Otherwise, be sure to avoid harsh soaps and scrubs. "These can strip the skin and alter the slightly acidic pH of our skin, which is necessary for proper skin-cell functioning and reinforcing a healthy microbiome," says Dr. Zeichner.

Symbiome The Answer Reparative Serum

Keep Irritants In Check

It's impossible to keep your skin barrier completely undamaged. It functions as the first line of defense, so, of course, it's going to take a licking from a barrage of elements. "Anytime you walk outside on a cold, windy day, or take a long, steamy shower, or repeatedly rub your arm against your sports bra as you run, you're compromising your barrier," says Dr. Gohara.

There are many more sneaky culprits: sun exposure (one more reason why sunscreen is a must), over-scrubbing the skin, and overusing active ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and retinoids. (Dermatologists love both but want you to apply them smartly.) "Any of these minor insults to the skin's surface can make your skin prone to all kinds of issues, like acne, rosacea, or dermatitis," says Dr. Gohara. "But your goal shouldn't be avoiding all potential irritants. Instead, make it about managing them and then repairing your skin barrier at the end of each day."

Take a Gentle Approach to Skin Care

It's important to adopt an everything-in-moderation motto, says Dr. Zeichner. You can't avoid cold weather or indoor heating in the winter, but you can keep your showers brief and not so hot to prevent stripping your skin of natural lipids. And you can be wise with your use of a face scrub, a washcloth, a body brush, chemical exfoliants like AHAs, and active ingredients like retinoids and vitamin C. "To overdo skin care is human, but it can cause more harm than good," he says. "So plan to use these formulas twice a week at first. After a few weeks, ramp up to three times if your skin tolerates them."

This isn't to discourage you. "Retinol, for example, is one of the best ways to strengthen skin since it boosts collagen and encourages new healthy cells to rise to the surface," says Dr. Zeichner. "When you apply it, follow the sandwich technique to ensure you're protecting the barrier." Right after cleansing with a gentle formula like Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser (Buy It, $12, amazon.com). Then, put on a lightweight hydrating serum with humectants, such as Kiehl's Vital Skin-Strengthening Hyaluronic Acid Super Serum (Buy It, $52, sephora.com), follow up with retinol, and top it with a moisturizing cream that contains ceramides to lock in the hydration of the serum, such as The Nue Co. Barrier Culture Moisturizer (Buy It, $65, thenueco.com).

Or you could use a moisturizer that contains retinol. Hydrating serums and creams won't dilute the retinol and will help prevent and repair irritation. No matter your routine, double moisturizing with a hydrating serum and then a cream is a smart move. "I do it every time I moisturize," says Dr. Gohara.

Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser
Kiehl's Vital Skin-Strengthening Hyaluronic Acid Super Serum
The Nue Co. Barrier Culture Moisturizer

Use Soothing Skin-Care Ingredients

Using soothing ingredients on a day-to-day basis can help keep your skin barrier intact. Opt for creams that contain ceramides, a natural part of the skin and found within the upper barrier, such as the Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Cream (Buy It $48, sephora.com). 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.

Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Cream

Go Easy On the In-Office Treatments

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 treatments since some products and services that you use to improve your 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, says Dr. Cohen. 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.

Experts 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," says Dr. Tanzi. "Even more gentle cleansers and products can be a problem if overused."

Signs Your Skin Barrier Is In Trouble

When your barrier is in real trouble, it sends you SOS signals. "It starts flaking or cracking, looks red, feels tight or itchy, or stings when you apply lotion," says Dr. Gohara. You might develop dandruff, adds Dr. Fusco, or experience inflammation and general discomfort. "Dysfunction of the barrier causes irritation and rashes, and heightens the risk of allergy to things applied to the skin," says Dr. Cohen.

This means it's time to use a barrier treatment, which has occlusive ingredients including cholesterol, mineral oil, lanolin, and petrolatum. "These ultra-emollient balms and creams act as a protective, breathable sealant that locks in hydration and provide an optimal environment for skin healing," says Dr. Zeichner. Try Paula's Choice Resist Barrier Repair with Retinol (Buy It, $33, paulaschoice.com), Dermalogica UltraCalming Barrier Repair (Buy It, $47, dermalogica.com), or Belif True Cream Aqua Bomb (Buy It, $38, sephora.com) to help strengthen the skin's natural barrier and seal in moisture. Apply a layer of a thick salve at night as the last step in your routine.

For a true diagnosis, however, it's best to visit a derm, as sensitive or hormonal skin that gets disrupted from the inside can be mistaken for skin barrier problems, says Dr. Cohen.

Paula's Choice Resist Barrier Repair with Retinol
Dermalogica UltraCalming Barrier Repair
Belif True Cream Aqua Bomb