The biggest skincare lesson worth learning this year? Good skin health is all about a robust skin barrier. Blame it on the red, itchy skin many of us have suffered from thanks to overzealous use of actives, or perhaps it’s the switch to a more intuitive approach to our skincare routines – whatever it is, skin barrier health is trending, with a casual 129.5 million views on the search term “skin barrier repair”on TikTok. And long may it continue.
“In dermatology, our skin barrier is known as the epidermis,” explains dermatologist Dr Mary Sommerlad. “It can be disrupted by intrinsic or extrinsic factors, and often a combination of both. Intrinsic factors include skin barrier diseases that have a genetic component, such as eczema and ichthyosis and high levels of stress and illness.”
Meanwhile, extrinsic factors include excessive exposure to harsh weather elements, such as too much sun or wind, or extremes of temperature (think going from a heated room to the biting cold outdoors – one reason why compromised barriers often show themselves at this time of year); exposure to potential chemical irritants, such as certain active skincare ingredients, like AHAs and retinoids; and soaps containing SLS or any physical irritants that can scrub the skin. Not to mention pollution, smoking, poor sleep and allergens.
Skin barrier aggressors are everywhere, but the most overwhelmingly common reason for impairment in consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto’s clinic is “the overuse of actives and using too many products all at once”, she says. “The skin becomes overwhelmed, and, as a result, the barrier becomes compromised.”
How to know when your skin barrier is impaired
“If you struggle to keep moisture in and your skin feels dry and tight, you might be suffering from an impaired skin barrier,” says Dr Emma Craythorne, consultant dermatologist and chief medical officer at Klira. “It can be ashy or flaky, and can feel irritated (or sting) after any chemical formula is applied. You might also experience acne breakouts, rosacea and eczema.”
Skin might also appear redder or darker than its original colour, plus itchiness is a common symptom. “The texture is likely to change, and feel bumpier and rough,” says Dr Sommerlad. Those with sensitive skin are more predisposed to suffering from an impaired skin barrier, so need to be extra vigilant about keeping it strong and healthy.
Age is also a factor, says facialist Sarah Chapman. “As we get older, our skin slows down its own production of lipids, ceramides and hydrators, which are three key components that make up the skin barrier.”
So, how to repair your skin barrier when it’s kaput?
Simplify your skincare routine
The first thing you should do is identify and exclude any triggers that may be contributing to skin barrier damage. “Strip your skincare routine back and keep it simple,” recommends facialist Katharine Mackenzie Paterson. “Think cleanser, moisturiser and SPF – remove any retinoids or acids, in particular.” When it comes to your cleanser, she recommends opting for a nourishing, calming and fragrance-free cleansing milk or cream, like iS Clinical’s Cream Cleanser or La Roche-Posay’s Toleriane Dermo-Cleanser. Stick to your skincare routine and “try not to chop and change too much because it takes weeks to get things under control”, says Dr Craythorne. “It can actually get worse before it gets better.”
Restore and repair
Look for ceramide-rich moisturisers and incorporate hyaluronic acid into your routine to soothe and hydrate the skin, says Dr Sommerlad. “I recommend Vichy Mineral 89 as a good serum, followed by a comforting moisturiser,” she says. With an array of restorative moisturisers for every budget on the market, Dr Craythorne recommends La Roche-Posay’s Cicplast Baume B5, Cetaphil’s Rich Night Cream and SkinCeuticals’ Epidermal Repair – all will help restore the skin barrier to its former self.
As well as hyaluronic acid, “seek out barrier-building ingredients like ceramides, niacinamide and fatty acids,” recommends Dr Marco Nicoloso, aesthetic doctor at Ouronyx. “They will all help improve dryness and strengthen the barrier.” To take down inflammation and help instigate the reparative process, facialist Shane Cooper recommends trying red light therapy – you can use an at-home LED mask or visit a facialist. He combines it with lots of rich skincare formulas to help restore moisture.
Gently does it
It might sound obvious, but as well as paring back your skincare routine, it’s important to avoid anything that manually exfoliates the skin, like overly rough face cloths or scrubs. “You should also use lukewarm water to avoid further irritation,” says Dr Mahto, who adds that there’s no quick fix, but if you incorporate these tips, skin should heal as quickly as possible. “I would conservatively say that you can expect to see an improvement in the barrier in three to four weeks – for longer-term damage, it can take upwards of three months.”
Cut actives out…
Then reintroduce them slowly – but only when skin is healthy again. “Reintroduce one active at a time (for example, use retinoids for a few weeks before adding a vitamin C or liquid exfoliator back in), but if you have chronic skin barrier dysfunction, you should always opt for more gentle actives,” says Dr Sommerlad. For example, you might swap retinol for a retinaldehyde (Medik8’s Crystal Retinal is a great option) because it is gentler on the skin. In terms of acids, seek out PHAs rather than AHAs. “And use fluid-based sunscreens as they require less rubbing in than creams – I love Vichy’s Capital Soleil and Garnier’s Ambre Solaire Anti-Pollution because they also contain niacinamide,” adds Dr Sommerlad.
How to prevent further damage
“Like everything in life, a healthy skin barrier is all about moderation and balance,” says Mackenzie Paterson. “Try to avoid any triggers that have caused it in the past, and don’t chop and change the products you’re using every five minutes.” Take a holistic approach to your routine and listen to your skin, especially when adding a new active ingredient, advises Chapman, who says it’s all about starting slow and allowing the skin time to adjust.
Protection is key, so “use an antioxidant-rich serum or moisturiser and broad-spectrum SPF every morning to protect your barrier from UV, pollutants and other environmental aggressors” and prioritise sleep. That’s when the skin’s natural repairing and rebuilding processes peak, and, without it, skin can suffer.
Lead a balanced lifestyle
Balance is key in your skincare routine, but what goes on internally also manifests on our skin, so leading a healthy lifestyle is key to healing and preventing future problems making a comeback. “Ensure you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, with lots of rich fatty foods, like nuts, fruit and fish,” recommends Cooper, while Chapman’s big advice is to start taking a high-quality omega oil supplement every day. “You will notice a huge difference in your skin’s resilience and overall health.”