Everything You Need To Know About A Damaged Skin Barrier: Causes, Remedies, Best Products + Expert Tips
Repairing a damaged skin barrier will certainly improve the aesthetic appearance of your skin—but this barrier holds importance for your overall health, too. It's easy to get caught up in the superficial side of skin care, but you can't forget that your skin is an organ—the largest organ on your body.
Just as any other organ dysfunction would have implications for your overall health, the skin isn't any different. And while we've commercialized products, devices, and treatments—skin care starts with barrier care.
We asked dermatologists for the 101 on barrier repair from signs of damage to best repair remedies and more. Let's dive in.
What is the skin barrier?
First things first—let us explain what exactly the barrier is. "The skin barrier starts with the top layer of the skin called 'epidermis,'" board-certified dermatologist Kseniya Kobets, M.D., MHS, FAAD, tells mbg.
"This layer is made up of exfoliating skin cells that turn over every 28 days. This skin layer has channels that allow water to be absorbed and evaporated and has hydrating ingredients like ceramides, free fatty acid, and linoleic acid, to maintain a healthy skin barrier that protects us from external pollution, sun damage, and pathogens like bacteria, yeast, and viruses," she adds.
Now you know the very basic function of the skin barrier. Up next, a quick breakdown of each part of the stratum corneum in a bit more detail.
RELATED: Everything You Need To Know About A Damaged Skin Barrier
What makes up the skin barrier:
"The skin barrier is comprised of a chemical, physical, and immunological barrier. The epidermis is composed of five layers," board-certified dermatologist and founder of Bergen Dermatology Naana Boakye, M.D., MPH, tells mbg. Here, a bit more about each layer:
- Proteins: Think of the proteins, or keratinocytes, on your skin as the "brick," of the brick and mortar.
- Lipids: The lipids, or fats, can also be seen as the moisture barrier in the skin and the mortar completing your skin's initial defense layer. This part is also known as the moisture barrier, and it's made up of fats like ceramides, fatty acids, squalene, etc.
- Skin microbiome: The skin microbiome, sometimes called the skin flora, is the term for the trillions of bugs1 that live on our skin.
- Skin's immune system: Believe it or not, your skin has its own immune system. In fact, your skin can even release antimicrobial peptides2 to help rebalance your microbiome (think of it like teamwork).
- Acid mantle: Finally, there's a layer of acid film that sits on your skin called the acid mantle. This layer protects the skin from bacteria, helps the microbiome flourish, and locks in moisture.
What the skin barrier does & why it matters
As you can tell, the skin barrier isn't just how your skin looks but rather how it lives, too. In turn, a healthy skin barrier means a healthier you, and vice versa.
"It protects us from mechanical injury, low humidity, cold, heat, sun, wind, chemical exposure, bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other pathogens," board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., said about the barrier and added that "a healthy barrier is critical to normal skin function."
And this isn't just skin deep—research has demonstrated a link between skin dysfunction and various health conditions caused by chronic inflammation. In one study, researchers connected the use of barrier repair moisturizers with reduced pro-inflammatory cytokines in the blood, highlighting the importance of the skin's protective role in our overall health: Namely, that poor barrier function is linked to inflammation that can trigger other health concerns.
Not only that, but it's literally what we think of when we think of us, our skin. When you look in the mirror, you're looking at your skin barrier. It's quite literally the most recognizable part of you.
Signs of a damaged barrier
It's safe to say that you probably know what your skin looks like when your barrier is functioning normally. If you've never been intentional about topical skin care, then you may not even know what it could look like at its best. But either way—realizing your skin barrier is out of wack isn't always easy, either. To follow, a few telltale signs to help you out:
How can you tell the difference between a rash or allergic reaction and a damaged barrier?
6 things that could be damaging your barrier
If the signs above apply to you, then your barrier might be damaged. To find out what may have triggered it, scan through the following common causes—from lifestyle factors to skin care products and more. It's not always easy to play detective at home, but this list should give you a good start:
Harsh skin care routines
While there are plenty of factors that contribute to a damaged skin barrier, board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine Jeannette Graf, M.D., says skin care products might be the most common culprit.
"The most common is over-stripping the skin of its natural oils," Graf says. "This can be done by washing your face too much and over-exfoliating the skin," she adds. While retinol, AHAs, and BHAs have wonderful benefits, they should be used in moderation (as with skin cycling).
Plus, Graf says these actives should be used in conjunction with a barrier-supporting routine. Translation: Use one active product, not five. If you're looking to exfoliate, use one exfoliating serum or physical wash, not both—you get the idea.
How often you should exfoliate will depend on your skin type, goals, and any current skin conditions you're dealing with. Here's more on proper exfoliating cadence if you want to dive deeper.
Know this: Your gut and skin are directly connected. To put this into perspective, "About 7 to 11% of people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), for instance, have psoriasis3," board-certified internal medicine doctor Vincent Pedre once told mbg.
"Gut inflammation eventually can become systemic inflammation. And that, along with oxidative stress, blood sugar imbalances, and other problems4, can all show up on your skin—especially if you are genetically predisposed to these conditions," he adds.
But what foods are the most triggering? "The simple sugars, when digested, cause rapid insulin spikes that result in the downstream effect of inflammation, which, in turn, leads to skin barrier breakdown," board-certified dermatologist Rachel Westbay, M.D., FAAD, of Marmur Medical tells mbg.
Even acne, the most common skin condition, can be improved when focusing on gut health. "One study found a probiotic supplement improved acne in 80% of the 300 participants3. Among their benefits, probiotics can help modulate immunity and inflammation, reducing acne in the process," Pedre said.
What's more, one study noted by the American Academy of Dermatology reported that women who drank two or more glasses of skim milk a day were 44% more likely to have breakouts5.
Another study noted on the AAD demonstrated that a low-glycemic index diet may result in fewer pimples. Not sure which foods are considered high on the glycemic index? Check out this story.
"Lacking nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids can be an issue, as well," Westbay says. "Derivatives of omega-3 fatty acids are thought to influence the skin barrier by acting as transcription factors that increase the synthesis of filaggrin, an integral protein that brings together other structural proteins in the outermost skin cells to actually form the skin barrier," she adds.
When your body's cortisol levels are spiked, your skin shifts. A few bouts of stress can cause you to produce more sebum that could lead to increased breakouts6 (yes, stress acne is a real thing).
What's more, chronic stress can lead to an imbalanced microbiome in which the bacteria responsible for acne can flourish.
And to top it all off, your skin may have a harder time dealing with existing acne and scarring when you're really stressed. One study on stress and wound healing found that stress can actually slow down healing7, which can make healing from breakouts even more difficult.
"UV exposure damages the skin barrier by causing free radicals, which subsequently leads to burns and skin cancer," Boakye notes. Plus, when your skin gets to the point of peeling off (as happens with severe sunburns), you're literally removing a layer of your skin.
You can repair the skin from things like sunburns, but you can never fully repair sun damage. This is why it's so essential to prioritize UV protection via face and body sunscreen. Even if it's cloudy, you should still be wearing sunscreen daily both to prevent UV damage and encourage healthy skin aging.
Regardless of lifestyle factors, those with certain skin conditions may be more prone to barrier damage than others. "The two most common conditions dermatologists think of when we consider someone an inherent risk of skin barrier dysfunction are eczema and rosacea," Westbay notes.
In part, this is because those with eczema and rosacea already have dry skin to begin with due to a natural lack of ceramides in the skin. This means they're just a bit closer to a compromised barrier without being exposed to any other triggers.
This is why it is so important for those with eczema and rosacea to visit a dermatologist for assistance. If you have pre-sensitive skin and use harsh topical products without knowing, get sunburned, etc., the reaction will be much more severe and difficult to repair.
Having sensitive skin naturally
Those with sensitive skin already have a compromised skin barrier as well. Remember how the barrier functions as a protective shield? Well, that applies to "normal" skin, or skin that isn't as sensitive.
When that shield is weakened, it isn't as able to perform this role, allowing irritants to penetrate the skin and cause major and chronic disruptions in the form of rashes, inflammation, texture changes, burning, and so on.
However, if your skin is not typically sensitive but has been as of late, then you might have a compromised skin barrier at the moment. Don't worry—you can repair it. More on that next.
How to heal your skin barrier
Address any habits that may be damaging the skin.
Check the list above and write down (or make a mental note) of what applies to you right now. Are you over-exfoliating? Going outside without SPF? Are you more stressed than usual?
Determine what factors are directly contributing to your damaged barrier right now and eliminate them, or manage them to the best of your ability.
Use barrier-supporting skin care + avoid irritants.
When your barrier is damaged, you should tread very carefully in terms of topical products. You'll want to stay away from fragrance for the time being, as a damaged barrier is more susceptible to developing allergies or sensitivities.
We have a lengthy list of your best-bet ingredients for topical barrier repair in a bit, but here's a quick list of what to avoid, as that's just as important:
- Fragrance (again, this is important)
- Chemical exfoliants like AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs
- Retinol in any form
- Physical scrubs
- Astringent toner
- UV exposure (even protected)
- Chlorine or salt water
Your go-to routine might seem simplified, but that's the point. The daily ritual for a compromised barrier will include a gentle cleanser, hydrating serums, ceramide creams, and non-fragranced occlusive oils to lock in hydration. Here are more tips to calming the skin, specifically reducing redness.
Tend to the microbiome.
In order to feed your skin's microbiome, consider adding a topical product with pre- or postbiotics to your routine. These can be found in serums, essences, face mists, or moisturizers.
Support the barrier from the inside.
As you now know, your skin is sensitive to what's happening inside your body—but it will respond to positive triggers, too. Do your best to consume loads of water to support your hydration levels and prevent dehydrated skin and consume skin-loving ingredients.
Skin supplements are one easy way to essentially ingest skin care—think ceramides, hyaluronic acid, antioxidants, etc. If you're on the hunt, this guide will help you choose the best one for your skin and provide expert-approved picks.
A+ ingredients for a damaged skin barrier
Now that you know what to avoid when tending to a damaged skin barrier, keep the following ingredients on your go-to list:
- Amino acids
- Fatty acids
- Panthenol (vitamin B5)
- Hyaluronic acid
- Aloe vera
- Collodial oatmeal
- Shea + mango butter
Best barrier-repair serums
Ceramide Barrier Serum
Instant Smoothing Serum
Milk Drops Ceramide Serum
How long does it take to heal?
Luckily, the skin is an incredibly resilient organ. This means it can certainly be healed. In fact, it doesn't take too long.
Here's a quick estimate as board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., FAAD, once explained: For a severely damaged barrier, as is with a sunburn, it will take a minimum of a few days to repair the skin barrier. However, for mild damage, as occurs with over-exfoliation or increased dryness, you might even be able to repair the barrier in just a few hours—if you take the right steps like those above.
Best moisturizers for damaged skin barrier
Dr. Whitney Bowe Beauty
First Aid Beauty
Ultra Repair Cream
How long does it take a damaged skin barrier to heal?
Luckily, the skin is an incredibly resilient organ and can be healed. In fact, it doesn't take too long. For a severely damaged barrier, as is with a sunburn, it will take a minimum of a few days to repair the skin barrier. However, for mild damage, as occurs with over-exfoliation or increased dryness, you might even be able to repair the barrier in just a few hours—if you take the right steps.
Is my skin barrier permanently damaged?
If your skin barrier has been compromised for more than a few days to a week, you should visit a dermatologist. While compromised skin barriers do heal with time and proper care, skin conditions like eczema and rosacea can make this process more difficult.
What should I avoid with a damaged skin barrier?
If your skin barrier is damaged, avoid the following:
Fragrance (again, this is important)
Chemical exfoliants like AHAs, BHAs, and PHAs
Retinol in any form
UV exposure (even protected)
Chlorine or salt water
Phew—that was a lot. Your skin barrier is incredibly important for your health, but it's also easily damaged. To repair a damaged skin barrier, avoid irritating ingredients, procedures, and devices. Opt for hydrating, soothing topical products and prioritize hydration from within as well. To learn more about the skin barrier (and some exciting new developments), check out this story.
RELATED: Barrier Creams vs. Moisturizers: Which Should You Use?
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.