Damaged Skin Barrier? Experts Share Exactly How to Repair It

8 min read


Tell me you’re see it, too: #skinbarrier is suddenly everywhere. The hashtag has over three billion views and has taken over beauty TikTok. But what is the skin barrier? And why is everyone talking about it? Before Beauty TikTok made the term popular, conversation surrounding the skin barrier could only be found in the dregs of internet forums and niche social media accounts. I know, because I had to wade through masses of unhelpful information myself. Sure, I’d probably seen and promptly ignored them in a high school bio textbook, but that wasn’t going to tell me why it suddenly hurt to put on all my skincare products. And it definitely wasn’t going to recommend the best skin barrier repair products.

We’ve all been there: getting overenthusiastic about skincare. (My personal vice? Chemical and physical exfoliators. What can I say, I love an at-home microdermabrasion treatment—then feeling it for days.) Your face feels like it’s pulsing, it’s tight no matter what you do, and applying anything but the gentlest of products hurts way more than you can stand. When this started to happen to me more often, it took me a while to realize what it was. Then even longer to realize why. I’d been rough on my skin without giving it back the hydration and moisture it needs to heal.

Featured image from our interview with Iskra Lawrence by Michelle Nash.

Image by Jenn Rose Smith

The Secret Behind a Healthy Skin Barrier

In speaking with April Gargiulo, the founder and CEO of cult-favorite beauty brand Vintner’s Daughter, I learned the key to a healthy skin barrier: a balance of moisture and hydration. “In the world of nutrients, there are water-soluble nutrients and there are oil-soluble nutrients,” she said. Most people don’t understand the difference—and how critical it is to have both. “Moisture is oil. Hydration is water.” If you’re stripping your skin of both, your skin barrier will give up on you.

I asked cosmetic chemist, founder, and CEO of Acaderma, Dr. Shuting Hu, for answers on how to heal your skin barrier. Read on to find out if your skin barrier is damaged and how to fix it. I’ll start with some good news: thankfully, many of the effects of a damaged skin barrier can be reversed.

Run, don’t walk, to learn more about the best skin barrier repair products.

What is your skin barrier?

Dr. Hu gave me the medical what and why behind the skin barrier. According to her, “The outermost layer of your skin, or Stratum Corneum, serves as a protective shield that protects you from environmental stressors, irritation, and inflammation.”

She broke it down even further. “Think of your skin like a brick wall. Your skin is made up of ‘bricks’—the proteins from your skin cells—and is held together by ‘mortar’ which are lipids and fats that create a strong, healthy barrier.” To protect the foundation of our skin, we have to keep this lipid barrier healthy.

As a beauty founder, protecting the skin barrier is a big part of Gargiulo’s work. Her products work in tandem to support skin health, which starts at the skin barrier.

As she put it, the skin barrier is “there to do two things. To protect and to defend—keeping aggressors out, and defending your skin against things that could cause irritation. And then it is there to protect what is in your skin—mostly hydration. And so you need both sides of the coin to achieve your healthiest skin.”

Image by Michelle Nash

Why is the skin barrier important?

For that coveted dewy glow, a healthy skin barrier is crucial. It’s your line of defense against dehydration and damage. According to Dr. Hu, “it is important to have a healthy skin barrier as its main function is to protect your skin and body from external aggressors such as toxins, chemicals, and allergens while simultaneously regulating and maintaining your body’s water levels. Without the skin barrier, your body would not be able to retain any water and you would be in a constant state of dehydration.”

Image by Michelle Nash

How do you identify a damaged skin barrier?

But how do you know if your skin barrier is healthy? How can you tell if you have a damaged skin barrier?

Symptoms such as dryness, itching, and inflammation can be signs that there is a disturbance in your skin barrier. Beyond self-inflicted, exfoliation-related beauty faux pas, Dr. Hu lists of common causes, including:

  • oxidative stress (free radicals)
  • environmental factors such as UV radiation and pollution
  • overexposure to blue light

But even the best skin barrier repair products can’t help if the problem is your lifestyle. According to Dr. Hu, these harmful lifestyle factors can include:

  • high-sugar diets
  • stress
  • lack of quality sleep
  • frequent use of harsh products and ingredients
  • over-cleansing with solvents, detergents, perfumes, and other irritating chemicals
Image by Michelle Nash

What happens when you damage your skin barrier?

When I damaged my moisture barrier, I found out the hard way: a throbbing, stinging pain when I tried to apply my glycolic acid toner. Sensitivity, redness, and inflammation are the most obvious signs of a damaged skin barrier—but they’re not the only signs.

“The existence of chronic inflammation in the epidermis, the outermost layer of your skin, will damage the skin barrier and induce redness, dryness, or irritation,” says Dr. Hu.

She explains further, that the long-term effects of a damaged skin barrier include the loss of collagen, hyaluronic acid, and other anti-aging molecules, which causes wrinkles and loss of elasticity in the skin.

How do you heal a damaged skin barrier?

To fix the damage caused by overworking your skin, nourish it with fewer nutrient-dense ingredients. “Focus on hydration and moisture,” encourages Gargiulo. “Focus on a proper pH for your skin and those nutrients that help balance and add strength and resilience to the skin.”

Ceramides (thick proteins in your skin) are the best of the best when it comes to superstar skin healers. “Ingredients like ceramides are essential and widely used to repair skin barriers by ‘filling’ gaps in your brick wall of cells,” recommends Dr. Hu.

Just don’t get trapped in a cycle of damaging and trying to repair your skin, she warns. “You want to also address what could be causing inflammation. Using anti-inflammatory ingredients while also repairing the damaged cells is crucial to fully heal your skin barrier.”

Image by Michelle Nash

The Best Skin Barrier Repair Products for a Healthy, Glow Complexion

Every product is curated with care by our editors and we’ll always give an honest opinion, whether gifted or purchased ourselves. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a small commission at no cost to you.

CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser with Ceramides and Hyaluronic Acid

One hard truth about restoring your skin barrier is that you might have to reset your routine from scratch. Seemingly harmless products like your cleansers might contain potential irritants. You can’t go wrong with CeraVe’s gentle cleanser which fortifies with hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and glycerin instead of stripping your skin.

The Nue Co Barrier Culture Cleanser

This product deeply cleanses your skin without being abrasive. Specifically made to support your skin barrier, it protects against pollution and locks in moisture. Protect your pH with this dose of prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics.

Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Liquid

Dr. Jart+’s slate of skincare products is a holy grail for anyone with dry or sensitive skin. To rebuild your skin barrier, replace your toner with this supportive, ceramide-rich liquid. Its complex contains five ceramides to supercharge the skin with strengthening agents.

Vintner’s Daughter Active Treatment Essence

This essence provides barrier-building hydration to form what April Gargiulo calls a “symphony of nutrients that the skin immediately recognizes as its own.”

Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum

For intense moisture, pair the essence with this silky, strengthening serum. Filled with whole, reparative botanicals, it’s luxury in a bottle.

African Botanics Marula Intense Skin Repair Balm

Slather this thick balm onto your skin and feel it turn into a fast-absorbing serum on your skin. Filled with vitamins, shea butter, and oils, it’s a perfect cocktail for your barrier with the best texture.

OSEA Atmosphere Protection Cream

OSEA’s nature-first approach makes its products perfect for combating environmental and pollutant damage. Its formula is full of seaweed, shea butter, and omega-rich oils to shield your skin from irritants in the air.

Acaderma Oasis Barrier Booster

Acaderma’s soothing serum strengthens the skin barrier and immediately reduces irritation with immune-boosting beta-glucans that also help protect against oxidative stress.

CeraVe Moisturizing Cream

Start as you mean to continue, as they say. Dr. Hu recommends this CeraVe cream for repairing the skin barrier, noting that it “includes three essential ceramides that work together to lock in skin’s moisture and help restore your skin’s protective barrier.”

This post was originally published on April 22, 2022, and has since been updated.


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