Chronically dry, inflammation-prone skin is a dead giveaway that you suffer from a compromised skin barrier. When your barrier is compromised, your skin isn't able to do its two primary functions: inhibit trans-epidermal moisture loss (i.e., the evaporation of water through the skin) and protection from environmental pollutants, irritants, allergens, microbes, and more. Here, we outline the importance of the skin barrier function, plus ways to support it both internally and externally.
Why is keeping your skin barrier strong so important?
An overly permeable skin barrier is what holistic board-certified dermatologist Mamina Turegano, M.D., refers to as a "leaky" skin barrier—sort of like a leaky gut—and it can act as an underlying cause of inflammatory skin conditions ranging from acne and eczema to even allergic reactions like hives.
"It protects us from mechanical injury, low humidity, cold, heat, sun, wind, chemical exposure, bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other pathogens," explains board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., stating that, "a healthy barrier is critical to normal skin function."
Supporting your skin barrier isn't just superficial either: It has repercussions for overall health, too. Board-certified dermatologist Leslie Baumann, M.D., points to the results of a 2019 study delineating the link between skin dysfunction and various health conditions caused by chronic inflammation. In the 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 internal health conditions.
A balanced microbiome is the skin's best defense, as it functions something like an immune system for your skin. First up: Maintain a healthy gut flora with probiotics. The gut-skin connection has been extensively studied, and the research shows there's a direct link between your gut and skin flora1. So if you have poor gut health, you are more likely to have similar issues with your skin. Probiotics can help by managing the healthy bacteria internally.
"In patients with atopic dermatitis and other inflammatory conditions, external microbes are a huge source of flares, so I look for ingredients that can balance the skin flora," Turegano says. "By having healthy bacteria on the skin, the bad pathogens are less likely to take over and cause inflammation."
Thanks to the surge of research about the skin microbiome, sophisticated biome-supporting technologies have emerged. And like most skin care items, not all formulas are created equal: For example, many probiotic strains aren't able to survive in topical formulas (thanks to preservative system), so be sure to use brands that have evidence their technologies are able to support live organisms. If you'd rather skip that entirely, postbiotics are a cutting edge area of development, in which researchers are able to identify key outputs (like very specific peptides and fatty acids) from live bacteria strains on the skin, the replicate them for topical application.
Or if you're a do-it-at-home sort of beauty fan, it can also be found in fermented foods like yogurt, if you want to DIY a mask for yourself.
If you have a compromised skin barrier, most dermatologists will tell you to find products with ceramides and phytoceramides. King shares, "Ceramides are thought to be the most important component for maintaining barrier function" as it is one of the very building blocks of our skin cells. It helps to use the "brick and mortar" analogy to envision the role of ceramides in skin. Think of it like this: If collagen and elastin make up the structural part of the skin, and the skin cells are the bricks, ceramides are the cement between the bricks. If the mortar degrades with cracks and openings, then all sorts of things can make their way in and wreak havoc.
"Ceramides are fatty molecules that make up the natural skin barrier and help to retain moisture," elaborates Marisa Garshick, M.D., FAAD. "Specifically, ceramides serve as the glue that helps keep the skin cells together." It is the integrity of these cellular components that determine barrier function. Research shows that when applied topically, phytoceramides dramatically improved the rate of repair of a damaged stratum corneum2 (top skin layer).
Fatty acids are found in many botanical oils, like coconut and avocado oil, as well as nutrients like vitamin F. These support the skin's lipid barrier, which reduces water loss, soothes discomfort, and bolsters suppleness.
Additionally, most derms also encourage you to consume them: "You need to be consuming sufficient amounts of healthy fats, which can be obtained from the diet," says King. Salmon is one of the most popular fatty fishes recommended by dermatologists; omega-3 fatty acids can also be supplemented in fish oil or fish oil capsule form. Turegano adds that nuts—particularly almonds and walnuts—are especially beneficial nuts to incorporate for the skin.
Squalane or squalene
This lipid is naturally found in your skin's sebum. Previously it was harvested from shark liver, making it a very controversial skin care ingredient (for good reason), but recent developments in the last several years have made so that the molecules are better able to be derived from plants, such as olives. (Fun fact: the difference between the two comes down to if it's hydrogenated or not, and has nothing to do with the sourcing. A common misconception!) And research shows some advantages for the skin as an emollient, antioxidant, and for hydration3.
Humectants are any ingredient that pulls in and holds water, like glycerin and hyaluronic acid. Humectants cannot heal the skin barrier on their own; however, they provide an essential task of keeping skin moisturized while you repair your skin barrier function. As King tells us, these ingredients hydrate the epidermis while you seal in and retain the water with an outer layer of lipids. Check out our favorite hyaluronic acid serums here.
Topically, use humectants first, followed by an occlusive cream or oil—this will speed up the repair of any compromised skin barrier. You can also look for hyaluronic acid supplements, which have been shown to retain skin moisture at the cellular level. Not only is HA responsible for keeping skin looking healthy and hydrated, but it is integral to our body's healing process4. When we're hurt, our bodies actually produce more hyaluronic acid, the synthesis of which increases during tissue injury and wound healing5.
Colloidal oatmeal, oat extract, or oat oil
Turegano adds that oatmeal extract can both also form a protective seal on the skin. It's a natural skin care classic for those with sensitive skin: Research has shown time and again that the extract can soothe inflamed skin through its anti-inflammatory properties6. The many clinical properties of colloidal oatmeal derive from its chemical polymorphism. The high concentration is responsible for the protective and water-holding functions of oat7 and contributes to its antioxidative properties. Additional research shows colloidal oatmeal aided genes related to skin barrier and resulted in recovery of barrier damage8 in an in vitro model of atopic dermatitis.
As for oat oil, it can help with barrier protection as well—in addition to supporting natural ceramide levels. It has been known to boost ceramide levels in the skin, which help to keep skin cells together.
Manuka honey is renowned for its repairing benefits. Clinical studies have shown it to be a very effective technique in healing wounds, burns, and other topical damage because it inhibits the growth9 of harmful bacteria. And given the abundance of antioxidants found in Manuka honey, it is highly anti-inflammatory10 and has been shown to work against dermatitis, acne, and eczema11, all conditions that tend to arise from a damaged skin barrier.
Antioxidants are a vital part of the equation, as they are able to protect skin against free radical damage, inflammation, and oxidative stress—the primary reasons your skin barrier becomes damaged in the first place. The good news is that many botanicals naturally come with antioxidants (like aloe, shea butters, plant oils, many essential oils, and so on), but you can also use targeted options such as vitamin C, E, CoQ10, and more. Check out our full list of the best antioxidants to use for skin care here.
The bottom line.
A strong skin barrier is not just about superficial measures: Keeping your skin healthy has internal benefits, too. And with the right topical products and supplements, you can help your skin repair and protect itself. For more products that can help support your barrier, check out favorite barrier creams.
Jessica Ourisman is a therapist-turned-freelance writer covering topics related to beauty, fashion, and wellness. She has a master's degree in social work from Columbia University and bylines that include Brit Co., TheThirty, PopSugar, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, Cosmopolitan AU, FabFitFun, Glam.com, and more. She is the founder of the blog, Beauty-Stoned, and currently lives in Paris, France, with her two miniature schnauzers.