Have you ever felt your skin feeling dry, tight, and… itchy? Does your holy grail moisturizer now sting and burn? What you could be experiencing is an impaired skin barrier. Now that winter is finally here, and practically all moisture has left the air, there’s a high chance you may experience some of these symptoms. We’re here to shed light on what it means to have an impaired skin barrier, how to identify it, and how to heal it.
The skin barrier, what’s it all about?
The skin barrier (also named the moisture barrier or acid mantle) is our natural protective shield against pollutants, environmental aggressors, harsh chemicals, and other toxins and pathogens from entering our bodies through the skin.
Structured like that of a brick wall, these “bricks” (also known as corneocytes) are surrounded by intercellular lipids (ceramides, natural lipids, and cholesterols) that make up the “mortar” that glues the structure together. This system can be found on the outermost layer of skin, known as the stratum corneum. This is also where you’ll find your melanin producing cells called the melanocyte cells, which give our skin our pigmentation.
Within these corneocytes cells, the Natural Moisturizing Factor (NMF) components help to contribute to the continual hydration of our outer skin layer. This naturally-occurring moisturizing system can include amino acids, peptides, and organic acids, which are essential for keeping our skin barrier healthy.
But the skin barrier doesn’t just protect outwardly, oh no. It also carefully safeguards our precious water reservoirs, making sure our skin remains supple, balanced, and radiant. However, when impaired or damaged, the skin can lose its ability to retain water and irritants can easily enter through the ‘cracks’ between the ‘bricks.’ This can result in damaged, dry, flaky skin, inflammatory reactions or premature skin ageing.
How do I know when my skin barrier’s impaired?
These small, invisible ‘cracks’ allow valuable water to escape, leaving skin feeling tight, dry, and sensitive. Other telltale signs of a compromised skin barrier include scaly patches, flakiness and peeling, textural roughness, discolouration, stinging, burning, or itching, and even increased breakout activity. Skin can also grow hot to the touch, and in some cases, coupled with groups of small bumps.
The ‘itch’ factor.
With the onset of transepidermal water loss from an impaired skin barrier, the itch-associated nerve fibres become activated. This starts the ‘itch-scratch’ cycle that, when given into, can lead to even more barrier damage, resulting in a stronger itch response. To help overcome this relentless barrage of itchiness, topical formulations containing emollients are considerably effective, just like our barrier-restorative Day Hack Matte Moisturizer.
What can cause a melanin-rich skin barrier to become impaired?
There’s a lot that can stir up trouble for our skin barrier, such as pollution, smoking, and stress. Due to melanin-rich skin thriving in heat and humidity, insufficient solar energy coupled with colder climates are often the main cause of skin barrier impairment. This can be exacerbated by the use of harsh, unadapted skincare products, or aggressive skincare habits such as over-exfoliation and prescription retinoids. With all of these combining factors, it’s even more important to remain attentive of your skin health.
Other skin barrier damaging factors include:
- Washing your face with hot water (try lukewarm or cold water instead)
- Skipping moisturizer (we recommend using twice daily, especially if you have dry skin)
- Medications that list dryness as a side effect (speak with your healthcare professional)
How to heal a compromised skin barrier.
Step 1: Hydration, hydration, hydration.
A damaged skin barrier requires plenty of hydration to restore and replenish itself, so look out for moisture-binding ingredients such as sodium hyaluronate, glycerin, and sorbitol. Ceramides also assist with creating a replica of our protective barrier, while humectants help attract and retain water. You can find them in our Day Hack Matte Moisturizer.
Step 2: Hydrate, but from the inside out.
During winter, our body loses moisture. Keep your body temperature regulated, your skin glowing, and proper circulation of essential nutrients and oxygen to promote overall well-being by drinking water at regular intervals, even if you don’t really feel thirsty.
Step 3: Reduce that inflammation.
Prioritize skincare that uses biodynamic ingredients (ingredients that the skin understands), along with pre- and post-biotics to help maintain the skin’s good bacteria, encouraging a stable microbiome and a healthy immune system during the barrier healing process.
Step 4: Press pause on some products.
Right now, your skin barrier is very fragile and needs all the gentle care you can give. That may mean slowing down on your harsh exfoliating treatments, strong retinoids, or high percentage acids.
Step 5: Adopt healthy lifestyle habits.
Eat what’s in season; fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, and pulses, as they’re full to the brim with immune-boosting properties and antioxidants. Avocados, organic, and unprocessed oils are all especially good at supporting cellular integrity, keeping skin soft and supple. Polyunsaturated fats and trans-fats (soy, corn, and canola), impair intercellular communication and should be avoided. And of course, stress less! Although easier said than done, please remember that stress can create inflammation in the skin.
Step 7: Supplements.
A lack of solar energy in colder climates also cause melanin-rich skin to experience a vitamin D deficiency, which affects the micro nutrition and immunity of the skin, leading to dryness. We recommend visiting your local health professional about a daily intake of vitamin D3, along with other health-boosting vitamins E and C to keep you healthy this winter.
When in doubt...
Be gentle with your skin this winter, remember that everything good comes in moderation. Choose hydration first, and never, ever itch. If you’re ever in doubt, reach out to your dermatologist, aesthetician, or healthcare professional to identify whether you may be experiencing an allergic reaction, skin barrier damage, or something different altogether. Let’s put our best skin barrier forward!