Experts Discuss What The Term Skin Barrier Means And How To Strengthen It

Skin Barrier

A lot has been said about the ‘skin barrier’ in recent times and many of us are rushing to buy products to help ‘heal and protect’ it. It’s probably one of the most talked about terms in the last few months. But let’s be clear, just because there’s now a lot of information and talk around the skin barrier on social media, doesn’t mean this is just a passing trend or fad. Dermatologists and experts everywhere have been talking about the importance of this invisible barrier for years!

In fact, all the chatter on social has inspired other offshoot trends around it like the buzz of ‘slugging’ (coating the face in petrolatum or Vaseline that aims to protect the skin barrier). So, what is this skin barrier really? What causes it to get damaged, and what really works to repair it? We spoke to the experts to find out.

Skin Barrier 101

Hyderabad-based Dr. Nishita Ranka Dermatologist, Medical Director & Founder of Dr. Nishita’s Clinic for Skin, Hair & Aesthetics enlightens, “The skin barrier is essentially the outermost layer of the skin which is known medically as stratum corneum. The skin and this barrier, more importantly, has a vital function of protection against any microorganisms, dust, pollution, directly entering the internal environment of the body.”

Dr Renita Rajan, Consultant Dermatologist, RENDER Skin and Hair in Chennai explains further, “Though we may not visualize ourselves thus, but we are all waterproof organisms. That’s food for thought the next time you take a shower, or jump into the pool!” She points out that this waterproofing is provided by the outermost layer of the skin, where the dead skin cells and their erstwhile contents, which fuse together to form a permeability barrier. “This is a very effective barrier against most molecules, but not a complete one. Smaller molecules may still permeate into the skin, through channels like say, hair follicles. By and large, this barrier serves to protect the deeper layers of the skin, from germs at the most basic level to atmospheric pollutants and ions.”

So, what makes up this super-efficient invisible barrier? Dr Nishita points out that the skin barrier primarily comprises the stratum corneal cells which are keratinocytes. “Apart from that it has ceramides, it has cholesterol and it has free fatty acids and all of this interlink and form strong barriers against anything from entering into the skin.”

Dr Renita shares that the skin surface film is what is known as an oil-water interface – a hydrolipidic film, where the skin interacts with the environment. “This skin surface film is made up of squalene, wax esters, long chain fatty acids, triglycerides and similar compounds. These are derived both from the dead skin cells as well as from the secretion of the oil glands in the skin. The ratio of these components makes the difference between a healthy and an impaired skin surface barrier. Of course, the ratio and the density of this barrier varies depending on the different body sites.”

What Compromises It?


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How does one then know whether their skin barrier has been compromised? What are the signs to look out for before actually reaching for a barrier repair cream or serum? “An unhealthy skin barrier would essentially mean that the skin is damaged, broken at places, has a few cuts at places or has a lot of dryness because of either scratching too much or not enough hydration or using drying ingredients, especially on the face, so the skin could look irritated or it could have a lot of flaking at places,” points out Dr Nishita.

Dr Renita further explains that the skin barrier can be compromised in a number of conditions right from allergies to sensitive skin to acne. “The exact pathway of barrier damage in each of these conditions is quite different,” she says. So, while some conditions like eczema may be associated with inadequate skin lipids, in acne, it may be too much of the wrong kind of lipid. “So, there is no single or specific manifestation of an impaired barrier. For example, barrier damage in ageing may show up as an increase in skin surface roughness because of decreased skin sebum, in acne, the barrier damage may mean more bacterial infection and more angry acne. Even vitamin deficiencies can cause barrier damage, typically like zinc deficiency – so it doesn’t always have to be a skin surface insult to cause barrier damage. So, while unhealthy barrier can take many avatars, a healthy barrier is what you see in sun-protected, young skin – supple, soft with good viscoelasticity.”

Besides medical conditions, Dr Nishita says that over-exfoliation can also damage the skin barrier. “What exfoliation essentially means is to slough off the top layer of the dead skin that is present, but when you overdo it, you are exfoliating even the barrier cells which are actually needed. So, if one overdoes any form of physical or chemical exfoliation, or over scrubbing your face or using too many active ingredients, you could easily damage the skin barrier.” 

She adds that some skin types can be more susceptible to skin barrier damage, that is those with autoimmune skin conditions like ichthyosis which is severe dryness of the skin which can happen from young age. “If you have this condition called atopic dermatitis where the skin is dry, irritated and red that means the barrier is going to be compromised. The barrier is also damaged in skin conditions like psoriasis. In all these cases, additional care is required.”

Healing & Caring For That Invisible Barrier

Skincare barrier

Both the experts agree that ingredients such as ceramides and hyaluronic acid are good, non-comedogenic options for facial skin. “Thick emollient creams and lotions which are full of lipids and fatty acids and ingredients like this which help in restoring the normal function of the skin barrier work well,” adds Dr Nishita.

Going a step further, Dr Renita shares her expert thoughts and tips on how one can protect their skin barrier and its proper functioning.

Tips To Protect Barrier Function

  1. Ditch Toners: Many toners contain hydroxy acid exfoliants – exfoliants do not require long hours of contact to work. Leaving toners on the skin for long hours, or using exfoliants like glycolic, lactic or salicylic acids for overnight application is quite unnecessary and causes barrier disruption.
  2. Sunscreen FTW: A sunscreen is the best way to keep the barrier happy. UV rays disrupt the barrier, and preventing daily barrier disruption with sunscreens should be a default part of the skin routine.
  3. Slather On Your Moisturiser: Regular skin moisturising is very important. It is best to follow a three-minute rule, that is, to moisturise within three minutes of bathing or washing the face. Body moisturisers need to be heavy, since the body does not have as many sebaceous glands as the face, where the moisturising should be non-occlusive. Using vegetable oils which are comedogenic and have a higher triglyceride level does more damage than help on the face, but are reasonably effective for the body. 
  4. Check On Deficiencies: Micronutrient deficiencies can lead to barrier damage. A balanced, protein sufficient diet makes a big difference. Collagen supplements have been found to improve skin hydration and the skin barrier.
  5. Don’t Fret With Tret: Tretinoin is a prescription drug which can damage the barrier over time. This is best used under supervision by your dermatologist. However much you admire your beauty influencer, tret is a not a trend, but a treatment – best left to the doctors.

If you’ve been taking notes, also check out this article on our Editor’s picks of ceramide-infused products for a healthy skin barrier.

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