Our skin (and everything it does for us each and every day) is something we often take for granted. It is not only responsible for a huge part of our appearance and identity – it’s also the protective barrier between our bodies and the outside world.
Skin barrier function plays a vital role in keeping our skin healthy, but until fairly recently it’s not been talked about much in the online skincare circles or focused on commercially, however I’ve been seeing more and more high street brands focusing on this with different formulations and marketing words. The skins barrier is so much more important than many have given it credit for. For a good number of years many brands have been acid happy and peel crazy (I do LOVE a good skin peel!) but actually taking care of our skin’s barrier function could be the difference between breaking out, inflammation and not – between suffering from dry, scaly, sensitive skin, or getting that gorgeous, flawless glow.
Understanding skin barrier function is the key to healthier, happier skin – and can keep signs of ageing at bay, too.
Skin Barrier Function essentially does what it says on the tin. This can be split into two primary functions – to keep
water in and support the skins essential functions alongside cell communication and to keep harmful stuff out.
The stratum corneum, the outermost layer of skin, is made up of stacks of corneocytes, held together by lipids (fat). If we visualise the skin’s structure as a brick wall, think of the corneocytes as the bricks, and the lipids as the mortar. While brick walls are built to be strong (and our skin certainly is), if we were to remove or compromise the mortar between the bricks, the wall becomes weak and will eventually crumble. This is essentially what happens when barrier function is impaired – skin’s structure becomes compromised, meaning it is less able to do its job as a sophisticated protective portal.
A healthy skin barrier keeps our skin well hydrated, strong, supple and protected against environmental factors such as allergens, toxins, bacteria and pollution.
When skin barrier function is compromised, our skin can no longer prevent water loss or keep allergens, toxins and bacteria at bay leading to dehydrated, dry skin and autoimmune responses (more on this below). From an anti-ageing perspective skin barrier function is also incredibly important. Dehydrated skin ages quicker, as does skin that is excessively exposed to toxins.
A key point is that by supporting the outer most layer it encourages what’s underneath to function in better balance (homeostasis) If its all more balanced under the surface, all cells can get on with their job more effectively instead of having to patch up leaks and respond to irritants, a bit like keeping a sound roof on, rather than having a leaky roof. Interestingly when one part of the system is out of whack it impacts on how all the other parts function, so there can be a domino effect of things going wrong.
We can support this barrier function by not stripping everything away, not continually disrupting the skins PH balance and protecting the skin’s precious resources of ceramides, lipids and the cell structures at its core.
When we’re considering skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis it’s even more important to focus on skin barrier function, and more importantly what goes wrong.
When barrier function is compromised, the cellular structure within skin loses its ability to keep allergens, toxins and bacteria at bay. This allows them to irritate what is now overly sensitive skin, also triggering an autoimmune response which essentially makes things worse. Cue unbearable itching, pain, redness, dryness and raw skin which is only temporarily relieved (or worse, exacerbated) by topical treatment, resulting in a vicious cycle which causes additional stress for sufferers, further impairing skin barrier function.
This is also why eczema and psoriasis are often thought of as ‘hard to treat’ – emollients and barrier creams like E45 will replicate barrier function and act as a ‘sticking plaster’ for these conditions, but they cannot repair it. Therefore skin barrier repair is crucial when considering treatments for these types of conditions. We have to go within and rebuild from a cellular level to properly treat conditions such as this.
Compromised barrier function doesn’t occur overnight with just one peel, or one slightly too vigorous scrub. But over time, certain things you do each day can build up and result in prolonged skin irritation and an impaired skin barrier, which can be symptomless or show signs of dryness, spots, redness and tightness. This cumulative effect of minor insults literally corrodes the matrix of cells preventing optimal skin barrier function.
Often traditional treatments can unfortunately make things worse with conditions such as acne, its so easy to reach for all the acids and peels without supporting with the nourishing ingredients.
– Over-cleansing the skin (plus using strong surfactants and foaming agents)
– Over-exfoliating the skin (especially with harsh physical exfoliants and acids)
– Long-term or yo-yo dieting – in particular those low in fats resulting in an EFA (Essential fatty acid) deficiency
– Long-term emotional stress and anxiety
– Overuse of AHAs and Retinol
– Topical moisturisers containing irritants such as synthetic fragrance, colours etc
– Incorrect ph of products (too acidic or too alkaline)
– UV damage (sun damage)
– Environmental damage (pollution)
– Certain medications
It may be bad news if you’ve been incorporating one or several of these into your daily routine and or suffer from stress or poor diet. But the good news is that armed with this information, you can start to slowly rebuild your skin’s natural defence against the outside world.
I do find some skins cope perfectly fine, so just because your friend’s skin doesn’t respond in the same way as yours it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you, we are all made up genetically differently.
Signs and symptoms of impaired skin barrier function include:
– Dry skin conditions (as detailed above)
– Sensitive skin
– Angry spots and breakouts
– Skin feeling tight after cleansing
– Skin feeling tight without moisture or products
It’s best to book in a consultation with a qualified professional to determine whether skin barrier function is an issue for you, and just how badly impaired it may be. The good news is, with the right care it can be restored and the skin can be in a much happier place. The skin has an amazing ability to restore itself.
So now we’ve covered what not to do, how can you take better care of your skin’s barrier function?
The very first step to support and repair a comprised barrier is elimination. Get rid of anything you’re doing that’s listed above in the first instance to stop what’s triggering irritation and causing corrosion in its tracks.
– Hydrafacial – This is a very popular treatment in many clinics and salons. It is great for brightening and giving the skin a glow HOWEVER if your barrier function is compromised this will be your worst nightmare of a treatment. The skin might feel good for the first 24 hours, however following this your skin is likely to feel dry and sensitive.
– Microdermabrasion – Even though the skin might feel it needs a good exfoliation, the skin needs some care and kindness before jumping into these types of treatments.
– Spa facials with highly fragranced products – Even though some of the formulations might feel very creamy and nourishing, there is likely to be too many irritants which really won’t help.
– LED – This is non-invasive, stimulates collagen production, reduces inflammation and will help heal the skin.
– Specific skin peels – I know this might sound counter-intuitive, however some brands such clinical grade skincare brands using specific acids in well balanced PH levels and percentages can be really supportive.
– Bespoke facial treatments with a trained facialist – This is where a variety of specialised brands and technology will be used to support, nourish and treat the skin.
Remember, prevention is better than cure, so even if you’re not seeing symptoms of impaired barrier function be sure to protect your skin in the following ways.
– Eat a healthy diet: Glowing skin starts within. I cannot stress enough the importance of a good diet, which is rich in good healthy oils. Incorporate fresh, whole foods in the form of leafy greens, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish and avocado for a healthy daily dose of EFAs, vitamins and minerals.
– Wear SPF: UV rays compromise the skin’s barrier function, so be sure to protect your skin from the sun every single day with a good quality, non-irritating SPF 30 and above
– Don’t over-do at home acids. Everything in balance
– Just because a cream is rich and creamy doesn’t mean its going to fix your barrier, it’s often more complex than that.
Many cosmetic brands are now taking a more supportive approach to skincare and jumping on protecting skin barrier function, which is great to see. Be sure to check their credentials, ingredients and claims before deciding which products are best for you – and speak to a professional if you need support.
To be totally honest I often try new brands, products and treatments and from time to time I need to put my skin on a restoring program as my own barrier function is messed with, so please be reassured the skin does heal with the right care.
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(please email for orders this is a clinic only product)
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