What exactly is the skin barrier and why should you care?

By Fiona Embleton

Balancing your skin barrier may be tricky, but it is the secret to bolstering enviable dew and bounce

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Right now it’s enjoying a moment in the skincare spotlight but few beauty phrases are more popular – or shrouded in mystery – than the skin barrier. Some experts espouse the need for it to be strengthened. Others have persuaded us to swap our heavenly-scented lotions for unsexy skincare that excels at the most basic job of protecting and nourishing. So what do you really need to know about the skin barrier?

Technically speaking, the skin barrier refers to the stratum corneum, or the outermost layer of skin. Think of it as a brick wall: skin cells are the bricks and ceramides, cholesterol and amino acids are the mortar in between that holds everything in place. Metaphors aside, the skin barrier plays a vital role in sealing water and electrolytes into the skin to keep it looking dewy, while keeping irritants and pathogens out.

What can damage the skin barrier?

Guilty of nothing more than the pursuit of ‘poreless’ skin, it’s hard to resist the urge to overdo resurfacing products. But it doesn’t come without consequence. Over-cleansing and rigorous exfoliation strip away the skin’s natural oils – ergo those bricks can become loose and moisturise trickles out. According to Dana Nel, skin therapist at Björk and Berries, the barrier is your skin’s first line of defence – any disruption means it is no longer able to ward off inflammation. “An impaired skin barrier leads to dry, rough,  thin and 
sensitised skin,” she adds.

Likewise, overzealous application of the same actives in different steps of your routine—for example, glycolic acid in your face wash, toner and serum—can also contribute to dehydration. Stress is another culprit, says Nel, as “too much cortisol depletes the skin of
water, lipids and ceramides in the outermost layer.” While pioneering research by Clinique scientists has found that tiny specks of pollution can equally tear microscopic holes in the skin barrier, causing moisture loss.

How to be kind to your skin barrier

While your first instinct may be to take your skincare up a notch, a pared-back routine is a more effective strategy when rebuilding a damaged skin barrier. “Minimalism and simplicity are what’s called for when the skin barrier is impaired,” warns Nel. “Exposing sensitised skin to yet more products with actives or too many ingredients only makes the issue worse.”

Emma Wiklund, founder of Swedish beauty brand Emma S, concurs. “Take time to allow your skin to come back into balance again,” she says. “Focus on hydrating, nourishing and barrier-repairing ingredients such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and all-round skin hero, glycerin.” In other words, that raft of unsexy products that adds to, rather than takes away from, the skin. Wiklund also recommends taking a few weeks off from all active products – “especially acids, retinol and even vitamin C” – noting that alcohol and fragrance-laden products are off limits, too, until skin is less angry. “Essential oils can also cause a reaction so are best avoided in highly sensitised skin,” warns Nel.

Given you are probably exfoliating too much, reign this in to two or three times a week or make the switch to a gentler exfoliating acid such as lactic acid if glycolic acid is too potent. And lest we forget the fail-safe secret to bouncy skin: moisturiser brimming with ceramides and niacinamide, which can be layered on top of actives to offset dryness for a healthier, happier barrier.

Products to help bolster your skin barrier

Rescue Cream

Björk & Berries

Herkkä Soothing SOS Mask


Blue Beauty Drops Balancing Facial Oil


La Solution 10


Calming Serum

Emma S Skincare