So you've damaged your skin barrier, now what?
If your skin is as dull as a rainy day, let these experts show you the light
You didn’t listen to the instructions on the label of your glycolic acid serum, did you? Don’t worry, every third person we know now laments about redness, irritation and a damaged skin barrier.
My enthusiasm for experimentation with serums, exfoliating masks and creams made my skin glow like a fresh jalebi in the first month. But that glow slowly turned into an unhealthy shine. My skin became flakey, dehydrated and irritated beyond belief.
In all our trials of the hot new products being promoted by our favourite beauty gurus, we could end up impairing our skin barrier. It could be from using retinol too frequently, cleansing more than you need to or mixing acids to create that complex 20-step skincare routine of your dreams. I reached the point where even my cleanser started to sting.
The ‘skin barrier’ refers to the stratum corneum. It’s the outermost layer of our skin which acts as a shield, protecting you from external irritants and contaminants.
“It is made up of skin cells and a lipid interface that glues them together. It’s just like a brick and mortar structure. The main function of the skin barrier is to keep moisture locked in and keep environmental irritants out,” says Dr Sushant Shetty of Kaya Limited.
“When your skin and its barrier function is healthy, the skin cells normally shed to be replaced by younger cells (your skin’s natural exfoliation method), this helps to keep the skin’s moisture intact and keep external irritants out,” he adds.
I’m breaking out, does that mean I have a damaged skin barrier?
Now that everyone’s talking about it, even the slightest redness has us believing we have a damaged skin barrier. Your skin could be reacting to a new product or irritated by being out in the sun for too long. These are temporary and there are other ways to calm that kind of irritation.
A damaged skin barrier worsens with time and takes longer to recover from.
Your skin may start feeling tight and dry, regardless of how much moisturiser you put. Water from deeper layers of your skin starts evaporating because there’s no outer seal to hold it in. This transepidermal water loss can also end up changing the texture of your skin, giving it a slight grainy roughness.
“As your skin barrier continues to chip away, it starts to become more porous. This allows things from the outside to enter and irritate your skin. You can develop tender patches, rashes, acne flares and redness, even open yourself up to infections,” says Dr Medha Gatkare.
Products that your skin had been loving for months could now suddenly start prickling when applied. Your skin is itching and flaking and there’s an overall dullness in your complexion.
What did I do that wrecked my skin’s moisture barrier?
It’s not necessarily what you did, but what you didn’t do. The starting point for healthy skin is using proper sun protection. That means a broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 30. “Use a teaspoon amount to cover your face and neck. If you’re outdoors during the day or even at home and sitting by a window, you need to reapply,” adds Gatkare.
Over-washing your skin or using a harsh cleanser can strip away its natural lipid barrier. Too much exfoliation has the same effect as well, whether using chemical exfoliants like glycolic, salicylic or lactic acid, physical exfoliants like a scrub or manual exfoliation with peel-off masks, facial cleansing brushes and other such tools.
Sudden changes in weather, harsh climate conditions and high levels of pollution can also affect skin.
However, what is out of our control is the effect that growing older has on our skin. Shetty says that with age, our skin barrier weakens and thins out. Dr Dray pointed out that as we get older “we become deficient in ceramides. Ceramides are a key lipid component of our skin barrier that keep in moisture and keep out environmental aggressors. A deficiency increases the tendency of our skin’s barrier to be more impaired.”
These factors don’t apply to just the skin on our face either but all over. Shetty is seeing a good example play out right now — as our hands dry up because of the constant washing, disinfecting and sanitising in a post-COVID world.
Well, it’s happened now. What do I do?
Repairing a damaged skin barrier can be a long journey depending on how bad it is. Assess your skin’s health and start by simplifying your skincare routine.
If your skin is very compromised, then you’re going to want to consult a dermatologist and ditch products that contain any possible irritants like fragrances, essential oils and organic sunscreen filters.
If you’ve just started to notice the signs of a damaged skin barrier, Shetty advises you nip it in the bud by stripping down your skincare routine. “You might be tempted to try the latest trend of a 10-step skincare routine, but go for a simple cleanse, moisturise and protect routine. Any additional hydration you get from serum or toner is an add-on.”
“Wash your face with a mild, pH-balanced cleanser at the most twice a day. Ditch the face scrub for a few weeks and check if your skin barrier improves,” he adds. It doesn’t matter if you have dry or oily skin, use a moisturiser. With gel, creams, lotions and more on the market, you’ll easily find a consistency that works for your skin type.
What skincare products should I be using to help repair my skin’s moisture barrier?
My first instinct was to spend the rest of my days in a pool of aloe gel. While soothing for the skin, it wouldn’t have been very practical given I (sadly) need to be a functional adult. Instead, I started paying attention to the skincare labels, reading through ingredients. I picked products that have soothing and healing ingredients as well as those that could aid the repair process.
Skincare products become key players in your recovery. You need to build up the barrier health, bring back the moisture, calm the irritation and protect it from outside interference.
“Look for ingredients like niacinamide, ceramides and fatty acids that help restore the skin barrier,” says Shetty. Niacinamide has multiple amazing benefits for your skin, including helping build the lipid barrier while ceramides are the lipids that form the barrier.”
Always remember to do a patch test of products before going all out with them on your face.
“Start using it once a week and see how your skin reacts. Do a patch test (with any active ingredients) behind your ear, not your arm or wrist, as the skin here is similar to your face. Wait for 48 hours to see how it reacts,” says dermatologist Dr Niketa Sonavane of Ambrosia Aesthetics.
You will need to bring back hydration and moisture to your skin. Hydrating products are what bring water to your skin cells, that is, hydrating them. Moisturising ingredients make sure that water content remains locked in and strengthen the barrier.
While your skin is in recovery mode it can still be pretty itchy. Instead of anxiously chewing your fingernails till they bleed so you don’t scratch, use products to calm the reactivity.
Shetty suggests going for ingredients like aloe vera, rose and calendula extract. Your skin barrier becomes healthy when you give it time and help it heal itself. It can be a slow process. If you’re getting impatient waiting to see the results, why not pick up a hobby to keep distracted?