Here’s the thing: Just because you’ve adopted a full-fledged beauty routine doesn’t mean your skin isn’t going to have its set of challenges. While chronological (intrinsic) aging is often to blame, your lifestyle habits and the environment you live in could also compromise your skin’s moisture barrier.
Why is a moisture barrier for skin so vital to protect? Your skin — the largest organ of the body, accounting for about 15% of the total body weight in adult humans — consists of several layers, each of which possesses unique, vital functions. Many protective actions occur in the stratum corneum — otherwise known as your protective barrier, moisture barrier, or acid mantle.
However, even though the skin is an imposing guardian, there are times when it loses its luster and shows signs of a damaged skin barrier. Research suggests eczema, rosacea, and acne vulgaris are just of few of the many conditions caused by a broken skin barrier — though more research is needed on the association with AV.
By now, you probably want to know how to repair your skin barrier, but before providing those tips (with product suggestions to boot), let’s take a closer look at the critical role your skin’s moisture barrier has concerning general skin health.
What Is A Moisture Barrier?
The outermost layer of the epidermis, the stratum corneum, plays a crucial role in maintaining one’s skin moisture barrier, which helps retain water while protecting against bacteria and environmental aggressors like pollution and harsh weather conditions.
Numerous biochemical changes (or reactions) take place to and in the skin cells as they migrate from the bottom layer of your epidermis (stratum basale) to the top layer for this barrier to function appropriately.
Additionally, external and internal factors, such as irritants (think cleansing products, certain skincare ingredients, environmental pollutants), certain skin conditions, some medications, and health-related problems, can potentially disrupt your moisture barrier.
Moisture Barrier Skin Structure
The overall structure of the stratum corneum in the basic sense can be compared to a brick-mortar network. The proverbial “bricks” are the interconnected corneocytes — layers of which allow the skin’s epidermis to perform barrier function. The “mortar” consists of natural moisturizing factors and lipid bilayers. More specifically, the epidermis contains three types of cells:
- Keratinocytes form what you think of as your “skin.” They are commonly referred to as bricks, with natural oils, ceramides, and cholesterols providing the glue that anchors them together into a primarily impermeable wall.
- Melanocytes are the cells responsible for producing melanin give our skin its natural skin tone. Melanin also absorbs ultraviolet radiation and protects underlying structures from UV damage.
- Langerhan cells help support the skin’s immune response to bacteria, fungi, and viruses.
The lipids in the natural moisture barrier are made up of about 50% ceramides, 35% cholesterol, and 15% fatty acids, all of which contribute to why our skin looks and feels the way it does when it’s in a healthy state.
How Can I Tell If I Have A Damaged Skin Barrier?
There’s no such thing as “perfect” skin, but when the moisture barrier is intact, your complexion is smooth, clear, plump, well-balanced (not too dry, not too oily), and has a healthy glow.
However, a damaged skin barrier has small, microscopic cracks in the skin, which makes it easier for moisture to escape and irritants to enter. Essentially, your skin has lost its primary source of protection. Common signs of a broken skin barrier include dryness, dehydration, irritation, itchiness, flakiness, cracks or fissures, rough texture, increased sensitivity, and advanced (or new) breakouts.
What Causes A Damaged Skin Barrier?
A compromised skin barrier knows no bias. It can affect any age. However, certain lifestyle habits — and how you take care of your skin — can typically direct you to the cause at hand.
- Chronological age: You can’t fight this one. The moisture barrier naturally becomes more vulnerable as we get older.
- Genetics: Some skin types tend to have a weaker protective barrier.
- The use of incorrect products for your skin type: Particularly those formulated with harsh ingredients that may be harmful to your health as well as your moisture barrier.
- Overuse of acidic skincare products: Think alpha and beta hydroxy acids, fruit extracts, vitamin C. It could also be that you’re using an acid that’s too strong for your skin type or condition.
- Lack of sleep: If you’re not getting enough shuteye, your skin doesn’t have a chance to repair itself properly.
- Stress: Stress hormones negatively affect the epidermal barrier by decreasing epidermal lipids and structural proteins, decreasing stratum corneum hydration, and increasing transepidermal water loss.
- Washing or showering with hot water: Overly warm temps cause transepidermal water loss (TEWL), leading to a damaged skin barrier.
- Over-exfoliating: Removing dead cells is typically good for skin health, but if you’re using the wrong formulation for your skin type or condition or exfoliating too often, you’re more susceptible to compromising your skin’s barrier.
Aside from OTC scrubs and peels, retinol can also have adverse effects — mainly if you use too much too soon. That doesn’t mean these aren’t effective forms of exfoliation. Just execute some precautions when using them.
- Some skin devices: Home skin tools can enhance your routine, but some devices such as dermarollers and oscillating cleansing brushes can be too abrasive on some skin types.
- The elements: Harsh or dry climates (including air conditioning), UV radiation, pollution.
- Drinking alcohol: Wine, spirits, and beer dehydrate the skin, depriving it of the moisture and nutrients it needs to keep our complexion looking radiant.
- Smoking: Along with breaking down collagen and elastin, which causes the skin to lose tone and luster, lighting up has a significant impact on the skin’s moisture levels, including the epidermal barrier.
- Medication: Certain medications have a drying effect on the skin, so check with your doctor before starting a new prescription so you’re aware of the side effects and can prepare for them.
- Poor diet: It’s no secret that what you put into your body shows up through your skin. While further research is needed, studies have suggested that changes in diet can impact the gut microbiome within one day with potential implications for the skin barrier.
- Lack or void of using a moisturizer: While some of the points on this list are either beyond your control or more challenging to overcome, forgoing a moisturizer is not one of them. We’ll get more into why moisturizing is crucial for maintaining a healthy skin barrier next.
How to Repair Skin Barrier
You can’t control the aging process or the environment, and we’re not here to lecture you about lifestyle habits like smoking, alcohol consumption, poor sleep habits, or a diet lacking vital nutrients. Only you can govern the personal changes needed to improve your damaged skin barrier. With that in mind, let’s focus on skincare specifics.
Simplify Your Skincare Routine
Whether you’re a bonafide product junkie who likes to mix up your routine or a die-hard brand loyalist, streamline the amount — and type — of products you’re using. Keep things simple until your skin starts to look and feel like its old self again.
Take a break from potentially irritating ingredients like acids, retinol, and highly-fragranced formulas for all your skincare products.
Reach for the Right Cleanser
When it comes to your cleanser, opt for a gentle, non-foaming (sulfate-free) cleanser formulated with ingredients like glycerin, hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and aloe. Never use wipes or bar soap.
Remember to wash with tepid (lukewarm) water. Hot H20 dilates capillaries and can impair the skin’s moisture barrier — especially in the winter when the skin’s barrier is typically the most fragile.
Ease Up on Exfoliation
At least temporarily. One of the challenges with exfoliating is that people either do it too much or use the suitable medium or strength for their skin type. When you exfoliate too often, you’re damaging your skin’s moisture barrier, which enables vital moisture to escape. The result is skin that feels tight, dry, and irritated.
When you’re trying to repair a damaged skin barrier, lay off the exfoliating step for two weeks. Slowly work it back in once your skin starts to look and feel better. If you tend to use a textured, more abrasive washcloth, swap it out for a softer, microfiber version.
When you resume the exfoliation process, stick to using your product of choice three to five times a week versus daily. If the frequency wasn’t the issue, consider trying a different formula that’s more suitable for your skin type. Not sure? Tap a dermatologist or licensed esthetician, so you don’t have to repeat the same cycle.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the sun is responsible for 90% of the visible changes to the skin, so something as simple as making sunscreen a regular part of your routine can significantly impact the development of aged skin and a damaged moisture barrier.
Many people neglect to understand that you still need to protect your skin on cloudy days, too. The American Academy of Dermatology reports that up to 80 percent of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays can penetrate the skin even when there’s cloud cover.
Apply an SPF of 30 or higher regularly and generously every day — rain, snow, or shine.
Be Mindful of Highly-Fragranced Products
We’re not saying all fragrance is terrible. In fact, some people prefer a slight scent to their product. Or, they desire products infused with natural essential oils that not only smell great but have skin-loving benefits, too.
However, fragrance sensitivity is when an individual experiences some level of irritation or an allergic reaction to ingredients, chemicals, or combinations of ingredients in products. So, when it comes to repairing a broken skin barrier, it’s better to seek out fragrance-free formulas for the time being until you can determine the root of the cause.
Experiment With Slugging
If you’re into TikTok, then you may have heard (or seen) of slugging, the Korean skincare trend that involves caking your skin with petrolatum or Vaseline to help improve the skin’s moisture content. Check out the detailed article on this viral trend from Elle, our in-house Biochemist, to see if it might be an option for you.
Choose a Barrier-Repairing Moisturizer
As we mentioned earlier, not moisturizing is one of the leading causes of a damaged skin barrier — yet it’s also one of the easiest to remedy! Research has found that moisturizers improve skin barrier repair and maintain skin’s appearance by acting as humectants, emollients, and occlusives — each boasting a specific beneficial action. Humectants draw in moisture, occlusives lock in that moisture, and emollients keep the skin soft and smooth. Some examples of these ingredients include:
- Hyaluronic acid
- Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs)
- Amino acids
- Sugar alcohols (glycerin, sorbitol, xylitol, etc.)
- Aloe vera
- Fatty acids
- Mineral oil
Formulyst Super Hyaluronic Water Moisturizer, $29
Formulyst knows that hyaluronic acid is the key to healthy, hydrated skin, which is why the Super Hyaluronic Water Moisturizer was created. This formula contains sodium hyaluronate, the salt form of hyaluronic acid, an exceptional ingredient for adding hydration to the skin.
As a humectant, sodium hyaluronate draws in moisture from the environment and can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. Formulyst Super Hyaluronic Water Moisturizer is also enriched with jojoba oil, apricot kernel oil, and squalane to promote soft, smooth skin.
Dermalogica Barrier Repair Moisturizer, $49
This unique waterless formula calms skin that has become sensitized due to skin barrier damage. This formula features the brand’s UltraCalming Complex featuring oat and plant botanicals to protect against environmental aggressors and minimize discomfort from itching and burning sensations.
Meanwhile, evening primrose and borage seed oil help protect from irritants. Vitamins C and E work together to combat the free radicals that can lead to barrier damage in the first place.
Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream, $58
Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream is the brand’s number one moisturizing cream for dry, compromised skin that provides ultra-lightweight 24-hour hydration. It’s recommended for all skin types, including those with a compromised skin barrier.
This nourishing cream contains a high concentration of squalane, which is found in the skin lipid barrier of humans and animals, therefore playing an essential role in skin lubrication and protection. Topical application of squalane helps replenish the skin’s lipid barrier, resulting in softer, smoother skin.
CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, $11.62
Don’t be fooled by the plain packaging and low price point. Nearly 40,000 five-star reviews will tell you that this moisturizer packs a punch. Dermatologists developed this profoundly hydrating cream for the face, but one can also use it on the body where the skin’s moisture barrier can also be damaged.
Non-greasy, CeraVe Moisturizing Cream boasts a patented MVE Delivery Technology to release a steady stream of hyaluronic acid and three essential ceramides throughout the day and night.
Vanicream Moisturizing Skin Cream, $8.99
Vanicream is a dermatologist-developed line. It’s made with sensitive skin in mind and is free of fragrance and dyes. Primary hydration sources are petrolatum, sorbitol, and propylene glycol.
Petrolatum (derived from petroleum) is an emollient that works to condition and soften the skin. Sorbitol is a humectant that draws in moisture to prevent water loss and dryness. Propylene glycol is also a humectant that hydrates skin, making it easier to absorb other active ingredients. It’s used in small amounts in skincare products and shouldn’t be a cause for concern if you’re worried about toxicity.
First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream, $36
This head-to-toe moisturizer by First Aid Beauty can be used daily to prevent dry skin and help alleviate dry, itchy, and red skin.
The main active ingredient in First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream Intense Hydration is 0.5% colloidal oatmeal, a skin protectant that has been used for centuries to soothe and heal the skin and reduce inflammation and redness. There are also several emollients in the Ultra Repair Cream, including shea butter and squalane.
La-Roche Posay Toleriane Double Repair Moisturizer, $19.99
This moisturizer for sensitive skin was formulated to protect the natural skin barrier and replenish lost moisture. It provides 48 hours of hydration, thanks to ingredients like niacinamide (vitamin B3), glycerin, ceramide-3, and La-Roche Posay prebiotic thermal water.
Niacinamide is an excellent ingredient for sensitive skin. Studies have shown the ability to reduce redness or blotchiness, yellowing, and wrinkling. Glycerin is an emollient that helps the skin retain moisture. Ceramide-3 helps soften skin and has been shown to reduce transepidermal water loss (TEWL) after irritation. According to one study, prebiotic thermal water can help improve skin microbiota diversity and reduce dryness and inflammation.
Cetaphil Rich Hydrating Night Cream With Hyaluronic Acid, $10.99
You can rest assured that this gentle and cost-effective formula has been dermatologist tested and clinically proven safe for sensitive, damaged skin. It’s chock-full of nourishing, non-comedogenic ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin, sweet almond oil, glyceryl stearate, along with vitamin E to help ward off UV damage.
Avene Skin Recovery Cream, $35
This cream is suitable for all skin types, but it was still formulated explicitly with minimal ingredients to provide deep hydration while preventing and soothing irritation. Key elements include plant squalene, parcerine, glycerin, and Avene thermal spring water. Plant squalane is a natural emollient that helps skin retain moisture.
Parcerine is a patented ingredient that calms irritation and redness. It also helps restore any damage to the hydrolipidic barrier, the barrier that protects skin from pollutants and irritants. Glycerin also acts as an emollient, providing hydration and softening skin. Avene thermal spring water is a calming ingredient that also soothes and softens.
Skin Moisture Barrier: The Bottom Line
If you truly want to know if your skin’s barrier is damaged, listen to your skin. Don’t hesitate to speak to a dermatologist if something doesn’t look or feel right or you seem to have developed a condition like eczema, psoriasis, or acne.
Remember, stinging doesn’t always mean a product is working, and just because our skin sometimes has to go through an adjustment period with ingredients like retinol doesn’t mean that the barrier wasn’t compromised in the process.
The good news is you can take steps to repair your skin’s moisture barrier. Simplify your skincare routine, ease up on exfoliation, avoid harsh ingredients and fragrance, wear SPF daily, and choose a moisturizer with a combination of humectants, emollients, and occlusives.
After eliminating the issue causing the problem, it takes about two to four weeks to bring your skin back to its previous state. Just remember that your skincare routine can’t repair lifestyle habits like smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and lack of sleep.
“Jean KANITAKIS. Anatomy, histology and immunohistochemistry of normal human skin.” European Journal of Dermatology. 2002;12(4):390-401.
“Rosso JD, Zeichner J, Alexis A, Cohen D, Berson D. Understanding the Epidermal Barrier in Healthy and Compromised Skin: Clinically Relevant Information for the Dermatology Practitioner: Proceedings of an Expert Panel Roundtable Meeting.” J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2016;9(4 Suppl 1):S2-S8.
“Baldwin H, Alexis AF, Andriessen A, et al. Evidence of Barrier Deficiency in Rosacea and the Importance of Integrating OTC Skincare Products into Treatment Regimens.” Journal of Drugs in Dermatology : JDD. 2021 Apr;20(4):384-392. DOI: 10.36849/jdd.2021.5861. PMID: 33852244.
“Ehrhardt Proksch, Regina Fölster-Holst, Jens-Michael Jensen,Skin barrier function, epidermal proliferation and differentiation in eczema,” Journal of Dermatological Science, Volume 43, Issue 3, 2006, Pages 159-169, ISSN 0923-181.
“Thiboutot D, Del Rosso JQ. Acne Vulgaris and the Epidermal Barrier: Is Acne Vulgaris Associated with Inherent Epidermal Abnormalities that Cause Impairment of Barrier Functions? Do Any Topical Acne Therapies Alter the Structural and/or Functional Integrity of the Epidermal Barrier?.” J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2013;6(2):18-24.
“Murphrey MB, Miao JH, Zito PM. Histology, Stratum Corneum. In: StatPearls.” StatPearls Publishing, Treasure Island (FL); 2021. PMID: 30020671.
“Cleveland Clinic. Skin.” Updated October 13, 2021.
“Plasencia I, Norlén L, Bagatolli LA. Direct visualization of lipid domains in human skin stratum corneum’s lipid membranes: effect of pH and temperature.” Biophys J. 2007;93(9):3142-3155. doi:10.1529/biophysj.106.096164.
“Maarouf M, Maarouf CL, Yosipovitch G, Shi VY. The impact of stress on epidermal barrier function: an evidence-based review.” Br J Dermatol. 2019;181(6):1129-1137. doi:10.1111/bjd.17605.
“Parke MA, Perez-Sanchez A, Zamil DH, Katta R. Diet and Skin Barrier: The Role of Dietary Interventions on Skin Barrier Function.” Dermatol Pract Concept. 2021;11(1):e2021132. Published 2021 Jan 29. doi:10.5826/dpc.1101a132.
“Photoaging: What You Need to Know About the Other Kind of Aging, Skin Cancer Foundation.”
“Sunscreen FAQs,” American Department of Dermatology Association.
“Purnamawati S, Indrastuti N, Danarti R, Saefudin T. The Role of Moisturizers in Addressing Various Kinds of Dermatitis: A Review.” Clin Med Res. 2017;15(3-4):75-87. doi:10.3121/cmr.2017.1363.