Skin Barrier Health: An Essential Guide
Life is full of countless responsibilities, so it's easy to deprioritize something like the skin barrier - especially for all you busy mammas out there. And let's face it, it isn't exactly the most enthralling topic for most.
But a strong skin barrier is critical for feeling comfortable, confident and healthy. Plus, a little knowledge and some simple changes can make a big difference. So join us as we delve into the basics, review common causes of damage, and provide practical tips on how to keep it strong and vibrant.
Understanding Skin Barrier Structure and Function
The skin barrier consists of several different elements that work together to form a protective layer around your body. Like a shield, the skin barrier protects us from environmental factors, prevents water loss, maintains elasticity and cell turnover, fights oxidative stress, and defends against toxins, irritants and pathogens.
When your skin barrier is in good shape, your skin feels smooth, resilient, bouncy and comfortable. A compromised skin barrier, however, can feel sensitive, dry, tight or uncomfortable, and experience ongoing skin challenges like acne.
A core component of our skin barrier is the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the epidermis. It resembles a protective “bricks and mortar” structure made up of lipids, protein and cells. The ‘bricks' are corneocytes (old, flat skin cells) held together by a lipid matrix ‘mortar’ (predominantly ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids). Within the skin cells, notable compounds include proteins and the natural moisturizing factor.
The pH environment of the stratum corneum is acidic. When sebum and amino acids in sweat combine, they create a thin layer known as the acid mantle. This acidic environment offers protection from unwanted bacteria and other pathogens. The natural pH of each person’s skin varies, but on average it sits at a pH of about 4.5-5.5.
The microbiome, another critical element, is a diverse community of microorganisms that live on the skin's surface. A healthy, robust microbiome is crucial to maintaining skin health and homeostasis. It supports the acid mantle's pH level, competes with harmful microbes, and even impacts the skin's immune response.
These interconnected components make the skin barrier truly remarkable. It is also important for each to remain balanced and intact as they symbiotically rely on one another for proper barrier function.
How the Skin Barrier Can Become Damaged
If you experience discomfort or new skin issues, your skin barrier may be compromised. Symptoms like tight, dry or flakey skin may signal a lack of natural oils. Dull, rough, itchy or less ‘bouncy’ skin may indicate dehydration. Redness, increased sensitivity and inflammatory conditions like acne, rosacea or eczema can also result.
Various factors compromise barrier integrity. Common culprits include:
- Over-cleansing: Too frequent or overly powerful cleansers can strip away the oils on your skin and disrupt its microbiome. Ironically, this can also stimulate your glands to overproduce sebum and worsen condition like acne.
- High pH cleansers: Traditional soap is alkaline. It does a great job of cleansing dirt and oil and has it's place when used sparingly. However, soap’s high pH can disrupt the acid mantle, causing dryness and/or compromising the skin’s ability to fight bad bacteria.
- Over-exfoliating: While exfoliation assists with cell turnover, overdoing it with strong acids can remove protective elements and disrupt the microbiome. Physical scrubs or abrasive tools may also create barrier breakage and leave skin vulnerable.
- Irritants: Ingredients like fragrance, essential oils, certain preservatives and cleansing agents, retinoids, or very high levels of actives may be irritating to skin. Some may cause allergic reactions, either immediately or over time. Consider household items that you come into frequent contact with, like laundry and dish detergent or cleaning products. Clothing or hair rubbing skin, and exposure to chlorine are others to be aware of.
- Too many products: When we layer a lot of skincare, it’s easier to disrupt our natural barrier. Additionally, if you need to wash off a ton of product, it can lead to a cycle of over cleansing - and then having to replenish what you've stripped away! This also increases the potential for overexposure to frequently used ingredients.
- Dehydration: Not drinking enough water can impact skin's hydration levels. Perhaps it goes without saying that water is needed to support proper cellular function, elasticity, promote healing and flush out toxins.
- Lifestyle: A diet lacking in sufficient or essential nutrients can compromise the health of your skin barrier. Certain substances (e.g. smoking, excessive alcohol, etc.) can also accelerate free radical formation and cause inflammation, which can negatively impact skin.
- Environmental Conditions: Exposure to harsh weather conditions, such as extreme temperatures, low humidity, UV rays and pollution, can weaken the skin barrier.
- Hormones: Hormone levels may affect moisture balance and function. During stages like pregnancy, postpartum and menopause, surges or dips in hormones may make the skin barrier more prone to dryness, increased oiliness, heightened sensitivity and/or increased susceptibility to certain skin conditions.
- Stress: Chronic stress has been linked to skin barrier dysfunction, potentially exacerbating skin conditions. Lack of sleep can also impact the skin barrier’s healing function.
- Genetics: Some things are out of our control, and unfortunately genetics can play a role in inflammatory conditions. You could be doing all the things and still struggle with issues like eczema. In these cases, talk to a medical provider about what options can help.
How to Keep Your Skin Barrier Strong and Healthy
Now that we have a better understanding of the skin barrier and how it can become damaged, here are actionable steps for helping to keep it strong. Some of these are easier to address than others, so start with what's doable!
- Gentle Cleansing: Opt for mild, fragrance-free cleansers that won't strip away your skin's natural oils. Look for “pH balanced” products, or those with a pH close to that of your skin. As a rule of thumb, creamy, oil or milky cleansers are often more gentle versus gel and foam cleansers. Consider cleansing only at night, and doing a warm water rinse in the AM.
- Moisturize Strategically: Choose a barrier strengthening moisturizer containing ingredients like ceramides, sterols, squalane and fatty acids to build the lipid layer and increase your skin's ability to retain hydration. Everyone benefits for having replenishing lipids in their routine, even if you have “oily” skin (plus, depriving your skin of oil can actually result in an overproduction of sebum). Use a more “occlusive” cream or balm if skin if extra dry or you may be exposed to harsh weather.
- Sun Protection: Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen SPF 30+ every single day, and reapply with extended sunlight exposure. Mineral sunscreen tends to be best for sensitive skin. Bonus: look for one that also moisturizes and strengthens the skin barrier.
- Avoid strongly scented products: Watch out for "fragrance" and scope out the ingredients list to see if allergens are listed at the end (e.g. limonene, linalool, citral; a longer list of fragrance allergens can be found here).
- Streamline: Try a “skinimalist approach” that leverages fewer products that each serve a broader, multi-functional purpose. Too many products at once can actually contribute to skin reactivity. Even with fewer products, be wary of those that market above-average concentrations of actives: though it may be tempting to fast-forward results, it’s easy for the barrier to become damaged.
- Eat a nutritious diet: It’s easy to get overwhelmed by so many dietary restrictions and supplement recommendations. Overall, we think a diverse diet of whole foods rich in a rainbow of natural colors is the way to go for vitamins and antioxidants. Omega 3 fatty acids found in certain fish, seeds and nuts are also important. Yogurt and fermented foods offer probiotics. Talk to a trusted medical provider if you think certain foods may be contributing to ongoing skin conditions, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Drink enough water: Rule of thumb is drink 64 ounces of water a day, but you may need more if living in a dry climate, or while pregnant or breastfeeding. Add in some electrolytes especially if you’ve sweat a lot; a glass of slightly salty lemon water in the morning may help if you feel chronically thirsty. In very dry climates, try sleeping with a humidifier.
- Reduce stress, in a non-stressful way :) We are sure you’ve heard it already: exercise, do yoga, meditate, get more sleep. If you can, GREAT! But we all know that when life is hectic — especially if you are pregnant and/or have kids – those suggestions may feel unrealistic and discouraging. So, try for activities that bring you joy or relaxation. Dancing, music, seeing friends, going to a comedy show, get outside or take an uninterrupted shower or bath. Things like movement, laughter, community, fresh air or taking a break reduce stress. Start with 15 minutes a day if that’s all you can! Hopefully you’ll feel happier and your skin will benefit, too :)
Final Note: When it Comes to Skincare, Prioritize a Healthy Barrier
Given all of the above, hopefully it is clear that skin barrier health goes far beyond the products we put on our skin. But, for all you moms and minimalists looking to maximize your skincare routines, creating one that focuses on skin health and strengthening the skin barrier is a great way to reap cascading multi-level benefits.
Syll Botanics are always formulated with skin barrier health in mind. Our multi-tasking serums like The Face & Eye One and The Body & Hair One feature moisturizing, nourishing and barrier strengthening superstars like vitamins, antioxidants, ceramides, squalane, and virgin plant oils that are rich in sterols and optimal fatty acids.
We also strike a careful balance with our scent science. We recognize that many 'unscented' products (especially natural ones) can smell a little weird. And as discussed above, strongly scented products - even natural ones - can be irritating.
All of our products are crafted with gentle plant extracts and nutrient-rich carrier oils to create delicate scents that are a treat to experience, without compromising skin. This also sets an important standard for ensuring Syll is appropriate to use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, when the skin barrier (and noses!) are often extra sensitive.
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Please note this information is not intended to diagnose, treat or prevent any disease. If you have a specific medical concern, please consult with a licensed medical professional for personalized care.