7 Expert Tips On How To Repair Your Skin Barrier

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.” 

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7 Simple Winter Skincare Rules To Put Into Practice Now

Ah yes, it’s winter again. Forget your bones, you can probably feel it on your face, now home to dry, flaky skin. Seeking solace in a favourite face oil or moisturiser might seem like the only answer (and they can help, more on this later), but there are a number of other things to be aware of when it comes to your winter skincare regime. If you refuse to let your skin suffer as a result of plummeting temperatures this year, read British Vogue’s seven rules of winter skincare – they’re simpler than you might think.

Keep your skin barrier strong

“As we move into winter, our skin is exposed to variations in temperature and humidity, as well as wind and rain, which can place stress on our delicate skin barrier. It’s the perfect time to rethink your skincare routine to battle environmental stresses,” explains consultant dermatologist Dr Thivi Maruthappu. The key indicators of skin barrier disruption are tight, irritated, itchy, and dehydrated skin.

Even in the months when the weather is less temperamental, our skin barrier is subject to disruption – excess use of stripping skincare products and external aggressors like pollution can all affect it – but it’s especially important it’s looked after in winter. Look for skincare that contains ingredients like niacinamide (try Paula’s Choice Clinical 20% Niacinamide Treatment), which “increases ceramide production in the skin, is anti-inflammatory and fights uneven pigmentation”, explains Maruthappu, as well as ceramides themselves (check out CeraVe), lipids, and richer creams that lock moisture in.

Medik8’s new H.E.O. Mask is exactly the tonic for winter skin, as it contains humectants, emollients and occlusives in optimal ratios, to first deeply hydrate, and then lock in moisture. Use it once or twice a week to tackle dehydration and dryness. Maruthappu is also keen to point out that upping your intake of healthy fats helps moisturise the skin from within – look to her Instagram page for sources of barrier-boosting fatty acids. “Look after your skin barrier and it looks after you,” she says simply.

Nail your nighttime regime

It’s at night that our skin goes into repair and restore mode, so it’s key to get your evening skincare routine in check. Facialist Debbie Thomas recommends cleansing with a non-drying acid cleanser – “look for polyhydroxy acids (PHAs), as they are the kinder cousins of alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs)” – like Exuviance’s Gentle Cream Cleanser, and then following up with an active product. “I alternate retinol with peptides, which are the second most proven ingredient when it comes to skin health and regeneration after retinol, and then apply a ceramide-rich hydrator to seal in the actives and protect the skin,” she explains.

Thomas is quick to warn about retinol, however, and says that though you might assume winter is the best time to start using it, the skin is already prone to becoming irritated and dry in the cooler months, so it’s important to tread carefully. “It can take several weeks for the skin to acclimatise to retinol use – it’s common to experience some dryness and redness – so if your skin already goes this way in winter, the combination of both could be unbearable and difficult to deal with. My main advice is not to overdo it.” Those already using retinol can continue as normal.

Dial down the exfoliation

When flakes strike, sometimes it feels like the only route is to exfoliate them away. Actually, this can further impair the skin barrier, leading to more skin issues. “I tend to advise reducing the frequency of exfoliation to once or twice a week,” says Maruthappu, “And avoid combining physical exfoliants, like grainy scrubs, with chemical exfoliants, like alpha or beta hydroxy acids, as this can lead to redness and irritation – particularly if you are also using a retinoid product.” The secret? Don’t overdo it with your skincare – less (and gentle) is more.

Load up on antioxidants

One of the biggest challenges for our skin in winter is the constant changes in temperature – moving from the heat to the cold outside wreaks havoc on our skin. Spending time inside with less fresh air also has its issues: “Recycled air has more toxins in it and central heating removes water from the atmosphere, which in turn removes water from the skin,” explains Thomas, who is a big fan of keeping an air purifier in the room you spend the most time in to promote healthy skin.

Antioxidant-rich skincare is also important, as it helps defend the skin against micro-toxins caused by recycled air, as well as those from pollution, UV and blue light damage, all of which are very much real, even in the depths of winter. Look for ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin E, resveratrol and niacinamide.

Avoid oils if you’re oily

Don’t assume that the cold months mean you have to switch your favourite moisturisers for face oils. While drier skin types can benefit, oilier ones should steer clear. “I generally recommend face oils for those with dry skin, as oils tend to sit on the skin surface and prevent further moisture loss,” says Maruthappu. “But the added benefit of a separate moisturiser can help to moisturise deeper layers of the skin. I tend to advise against oils in oily or acne-prone skin, as this can trigger breakouts by causing further congestion.” Those with oily skins should instead stick to non-comedogenic formulas that contain ingredients like dimethicone, ceramides or hyaluronic acid.

Heavier isn’t necessarily better

Just as with oils, thick and heavy formulas aren’t always best for the skin – although they do have their place in some skincare regimes. Thick, nourishing balm cleansers are a wonderful way to treat skin to some pamper time – try Chantecaille Rose De Mai Cleansing Balm – but they won’t necessarily hydrate skin. “If you apply a lot of heavy products to the surface, your skin’s sensors read this as not requiring true hydration, so they won’t absorb the required water into the deeper layers of skin,” explains Thomas. “After a time, the deeper layers become lazy and unhealthy, which eventually means more dryness and more irritation on the upper layers.” To remedy this, look to lots of hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid (a popular one is Oskia’s Isotonic Hydra Serum), and squalane, and simply seal them in with good hydrators, as mentioned earlier. “The best way to hydrate your skin is from within, so drink lots of water too,” advises Thomas.

Vitamin D supplements are a must

If you’re already an avid British Vogue reader, you’ll know the importance of taking a vitamin D supplement in winter; most in the UK aren’t getting enough year-round, let alone in the colder months when the days are shorter and darker. It’s important for our skin, too. “Vitamin D is key for the skin’s defences,” says Thomas. “Inflammatory conditions, like acne, rosacea, and eczema often flare up when we are deficient in it.” On top of that, a lack of it can negatively affect our mood, causing further hormonal imbalances, and meaning our skin is infinitely more likely to misbehave.

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