Perhaps, you’ve come across a variety of beauty products that promise to rejuvenate your skin and give you stretchy elastin and bouncy collagen. You may have started your own skin ritual with some of them to exfoliate, plump, soften and radiate your skin. Although these products and their functions are different, they’re all focused on a single aspect of your body — your skin barrier.
But then again, what even is your skin barrier? What are the signs your skin barrier is broken? How can you tell if you have a broken skin barrier? What can you do to protect it? Read on to find out…
What is your skin barrier?
Your skin is comprised of three main layers, each of which performs unique, specialized functions. Your skin’s barrier is the outmost layer, also known as the lipid barrier or the stratum corneum. It protects your skin against external aggressors such as irritants, UV light, pollution, and pathogens.
It comprises tough skin cells known as corneocytes, joined together by mortar-like lipids, forming a structure that appears like a brick wall. The skin cells have natural moisturizers and keratin. On the other hand, the lipid layer contains ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids, which help water retention and hydration.
Your skin’s other layers include the middle layer (dermis) and bottom layer (hypodermis). Your skin barrier ensures that the two are always nourished and hydrated. It also holds everything else, under it, together.
Signs you have a broken skin barrier
When your skin barrier is damaged, the tight neat arrangement between its cells is lost. This allows external irritants such as bacteria, allergens, and viruses to gain access into it easily. A damaged barrier also allows moisture to escape. Your skin will therefore display various visible signs.
Here are some of the main signs your skin barrier is broken:
If you are itching, cracking, or scaling, you might have a broken skin barrier. Although some people have naturally dry skin, this state can arise when the skin barrier is broken. It can affect different parts of your body, including your legs, hands, and arms. For example, when your skin barrier is broken, you might notice visible lines, sometimes checked marks, on your legs if you look closely.
There are different types of dry skin, including contact dermatitis. This condition arises when your skin reacts to certain irritants, such as irritating chemical agents or bleach. When your barrier is broken, such irritants make their way into your skin, leading to localised inflammation.
Related: How To Treat Dehydrated Skin
Also known as pruritus, skin itchiness is an uncontrollable and irritating sensation that can make you want to scratch your skin. Although it may arise from internal illness, it can also occur when the skin barrier is broken. Nevertheless, if the cause isn’t apparent, you should see your doctor find the primary cause and receive appropriate treatments.
Discoloured patches on your skin
These are irregular patches on your skin where the skin colour is different. They develop in specific areas of your body due to an irregularity in melanin production. Melanin is the element in your skin barrier that provides it with colour and protects it from UV rays.
When you’re exposed to sunlight, your skin produces more melanin, and it darkens. When new cells move to your skin’s surface, the tanned cells are sloughed off. When you have a broken skin barrier, these tanned cells may stay intact while causing the discoloured patches.
As with itchiness, the causes of discoloured patches are numerous, including radiation therapy, candida, rosacea, burns, tinea versicolor, and contact dermatitis. Before ruling out these causes, look for professional advice.
Acne is one of the most common signs your skin barrier is broken. It happens when your skin’s pores or crevices are blocked with bacteria, debris, oil, or dead skin. For example, your skin’s sebaceous gland can release excess oil onto your skin, causing oil blockages. Sometimes, the oil can accumulate on your skin when you go without showering or freshening up for a while. This can also cause blockages.
If you develop acne, you’ll start to notice black or white pimples on different parts of your body, including your back, chest, shoulders, neck, and face. You may also begin to see other inflammatory lesions, which can scar your skin, including nodules, cysts, papules, and pustules.
For example, blemishes, which appear as small bumps caused by infected or inflamed hair follicles, cause dark spots or marks when they are drained — the same applies to cysts.
Fungal, bacterial, or viral infections
If your skin barrier is broken, you will be vulnerable to different infections, including viral, fungal, and bacterial infections. Fungal infections caused by fungi develop in your body’s damp areas, including the armpit and feet. Although they’re not life-threatening or contagious, they’re very uncomfortable. They can cause you to itch.
On the other hand, bacterial infections are caused by bacteria and can either be treated with topical antibiotics or oral antibiotics, depending on the severity. Viral infections include conditions such as warts, measles, chickenpox, and shingles.
Some of these infections display similar symptoms; therefore, it is important to consult with a skin expert.
How to repair your skin barrier
If you have a broken skin barrier, it’s time to think about how you’ll fix it. You need to exercise some patience and follow these tips:
1. Dial back on your skincare routine
If you’re hooked on some complex beauty ritual involving various products, you should think twice. For example, if you’re constantly removing dead skin cell build-up (exfoliating), know that you’re damaging your skin barrier. Continuous exfoliation strips off your skin’s protective barrier, facilitating moisture escape and consequently sets off an inflammation cascade, which further damages your skin.
When trying to fix your skin barrier, try to stop with the exfoliation for at least two weeks to give your skin a break. When you resume, take some time and notice how your skin reacts to different products and exfoliating methods. Choose one that’s appropriate for you.
2. Avoid using hot water on your skin
When you wash your skin with hot water, its capillaries dilate, and its internal temperature rises. Try using lukewarm water, especially during the cold winters when your skin barrier is very delicate.
3. Avoid highly fragrant products
When fixing your skin barrier, avoid products that have synthetic fragrances since they cause skin irritation. Scented ingredients include menthol, camphor, perfume, and some essential oils. The key to selecting the most appropriate product is to smell it. If it has a very strong scent, it might irritate your skin. Therefore, it’s best not to use it.
Products designed for sensitive skin are your best bet for repairing your skin barrier.
4. Carefully select your moisturizer
Although moisturizers are largely recommended for repairing your skin barrier, not all of them are appropriate. Some of them may not give you the anticipated benefits. Just because they’re reviewed as rich and greasy doesn’t mean they’ll repair your skin.
It’s a good idea to look out for certain ingredients that might repair your skin barrier. Some of these beneficial ingredients include sunflower oil, ceramides, canola oil, sesame seed oil, phospholipids, carrot oil, and squalene. It is also recommended to use suitable products for your skin type—research about your skin type to know what’s appropriate.
5. Find the root cause
Read the causes of a broken skin barrier above, determine which one is causing yours and do your best to eliminate it.
You can also look at the frequency of occurrence of some conditions. For example, when and how your acne appears. You may find that you don’t necessarily need to do anything else apart from waiting.
6. Pay attention to your skin
This strategy is the easiest if you invest time in it. Even if you are stuck wondering how to repair your skin barrier, you should avoid anything that irritates, dries, or tightens your skin.
You might have heard people saying, “it’s tingling, so it should be working.” Sometimes it is important to ask yourself, “is the tingling normal, or do I need to stop?” Watch how your skin reacts. If it irritates, know that your moisture barrier is weakened.
7. Hydrate your skin (and your body!)
One sure way of hydrating your skin is drinking adequate amounts of fluids and applying moisturizing cream to facilitate moisture retention. However, the daily recommended amount of fluids is questionable — maneuver something that works for you. Listen to your body.
Also, take note of your activity level—hydrate after doing exercises or engaging in physical activities.
If you find yourself nodding along while reading these symptoms of a broken skin barrier, it’s time to start healing it. Now, with all the incredible progress in the skincare industry, there’s no solid justification why you should suffer from dry, infected, irritated, or tight skin. You can fix your damaged skin barrier with an appropriate blend of products and strategies.
However, as with anything skin-related, you should exercise some patience and avoid overdoing things. Your skin can revert to a healthy state if you give it time and pay attention to it.
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