Oops! I Damaged My Skin Barrier. Now What?
Even good people do bad things to their skin.
Listen, not to point any fingers, but let’s be real: we’re all guilty of at least ONE crime against our complexion.
For some of us, it’s forgetting to wear sunscreen or (the more egregious offense) never wearing any at all; for others, it’s over-scrubbing the living daylight out of our face with exfoliants, towels and sponges.
I mean, it’s practically a right of passage in the skincare community to share war stories about all of the awful things you did to your ‘dermis before you knew any better - it’s ok, Mavens, you’re in a judge-free zone.
Recently noticed some damaged skin? Unsure what to do next? Let’s discuss how to tell when you’ve overdone it, and what to do to fix (or, at least calm) angry skin moods.
Damaged Skin Barrier Symptoms
So, you’ve been packing on the apricot scrub - is your skin ruined?? Not necessarily. However, if you’re exhibiting any of these warning signs, you may be overdoing something in your ritual:
Recognizing these symptoms is just the beginning, though. Understanding how they happen provides the key to stopping further damage.
How to repair a damaged skin barrier
Curious where to start and try to repair your skin? For one, you need to work backwards. That's right: that means it's time to start asking yourself some tough questions.
Where did you first notice symptoms? Is there something new in your skincare routine? What’s the last treatment you did to your face? Who are you, really?? Whoops, my bad, went a bit too deep there…
What I'm trying to say is, to answer the ultimate question of "how do I fix this", you’ll need to consider what you’ve been doing to your skin lately, and whether or not it could be the culprit to your skin issues. Let's jog that memory by examining some usual suspects, plus how to tackle them.
You accidentally f*cked up your pH levels
Lipids like ceramides are arguably the most talked about component of healthy skin, but there’s another unsung hero that keeps your barrier running smoothly: your acid mantle.
I know, the term “acid” doesn’t exactly scream skin health at first, but hear me out: acid mantle refers to the acidity levels in your skin barrier which, if you didn’t know, is slightly acidic by nature. It’s not like a regular acid - it’s a cool acid.
Made up of fatty free acids (a.k.a. lactic acids, amino acids and sebum), your mantle is important because it neutralizes bacteria and toxins before they enter your skin barrier and potentially contribute to infections/skin condition flare-ups.
And how does the almighty acid mantle stay so fresh and so clean, you ask? Easy - with a healthy balance of pH, of course!
Your skin’s normal pH tends to stay around 5.7 - however, actions like using the wrong product or a product with harsh ingredients can alter your pH levels, thus weakening your acid mantle. This imbalance then creates some major problems for your skin.
If you’ve recently used a skincare product that contains a higher pH than your natural level, or one chock full of irritating ingredients, you may have created a pH imbalance in your acid mantle - dryness, flakiness, inflammation and sudden breakouts are all clear signs of an off-kilter pH.
How to fix: Use products that are close to, or at, 5.7 pH level. Avoid using products with high levels of fragrances, essential oils, drying alcohols, and harsh chemicals, like sodium lauryl sulfate. Certain detergents and soaps also contain high levels of pH-altering alkaline, too. If you suspect your pH is off, a gentle toner will help reduce alkalinity in your skin and restore the balance.
You exfoliated yourself into oblivion
If you caught our apricot scrub dig up there, you already knew this one was coming: products themselves aren’t fully to blame, but the way that they’re used gives them a bad rap. Let me explain:
Exfoliating isn’t the real issue here. In fact, exfoliation is a highly recommended skincare tool that’s used to gently wiping away dead skin from the skin’s surface. This allows healthy skin underneath to develop and flourish. Glow, baby, glow!
HOWEVER - and this is an important however - exfoliating should only be done once or twice a week. Yep, per WEEK.
Been scrubbin’ it up everyday? I hate to be the one to tell you this, but... you’re actually doing more harm than good.
In a nutshell, over-scrubbing strips away healthy oils and skin cells that you naturally produce and exposes premature, weak skin underneath. You can even penetrate your skin barrier from scrubbing too hard with sharp, harsh exfoliants (enter our apricot scrub reference), which allows trapped moisture to escape from your outermost layer and clears a path for bacteria to seep in.
Here’s where it gets confusing: even if you ~think~ that healthy glow you see in the mirror after a good scrub means success, BEWARE! That sheen you love may actually be a red flag (literally, I do mean red).
FYI: healthy skin will have a moisturized, plump appearance, while damaged skin from exfoliation will appear waxy, tight and dry. You may also notice flakiness, discoloration, and bumpy, rash-like pimples in severe cases.
How to fix: The first (and most obvious) step is to stop all exfoliation immediately. Yep, not just the apricot scrubs of the world - your chemical exfoliants need to go bye-bye too. A full skin cycle lasts about a month, meaning you need to give your skin a chance to heal for about that long before revisiting any type of exfoliant.
Also, you need to cool it on the foaming cleansers; those will dry you out even more. Retinol-containing products can be especially harsh during this time as well, so it’s best to shelve those for the foreseeable future. Remember: even if these products aren’t bothersome otherwise, they can be too harsh for your freshly peeled skin, so it’s best to avoid until things improve.
While waiting for your skin to heal, throw on some Netflix and apply a hydrocortisone cream to soothe symptoms and help speed up the repair process. A cool compress can also be handy and help to alleviate any discomfort while improving color.
Once you’ve hit the one month post-damage phase, you can slowly begin to incorporate exfoliants back into your routine, but only once a week. Monitor results and repeat as necessary.
Looking for a long-term option? Choosing fragrance free cleansers and moisturizers will allow you to continue with your skincare routine through the healing phase, and they’re an all-around better choice for preventing your skin from drying out and worsening no-so pleasant skin moods.
You had a little too much fun in the sun
Look, I know I sound like your mother at this point, but I don’t care! I’m going to tell you this once again: WEAR. YOUR. SUNSCREEN. On your face, on your neck, on the tips of your toes - just WEAR IT, ok?
Despite my preaching, I know that not everyone is on board here, and while I won’t go so far as to follow you around all day reminding you to reapply I will tell you what to do with a newly crisped complexion.
With symptoms like redness, inflammation, sensitivity, cracking and excessive dryness, it’s pretty obvious when your skin is fried. It’s more than just the pain that’s dangerous, though: when your skin gets burned, harsh UV rays absorb into your skin and can eventually aid in cancerous skin cell growth. This basically means that with every burn, your skin cancer risk increases. Yeah, no thank you.
Besides being risky, sunburns are downright annoying, so let’s get you patched up ASAP.
How to fix: When you’re feeling the burn after a long day in the sun, what your skin is really doing is crying out for moisture. Petroleum products work by keeping bacteria out and blocking moisture in at the surface, allowing your skin time to replenish and heal over the weakened barrier. It also just feels good to put something soothing on top of the burnt skin, so apply as needed.
Hyaluronic acid and glycerin are both humectants that act as mini vacuums, sucking moisture from inside and outside of your body. After gathering enough water, these ingredients help to bind it all together and rebuild moisture.
The more moisture available, the less inflammation: meaning, stay hydrated and lather on those gentle creams! Try using a moisturizer that’s fragrance free and chemical free, like CeraVe.
Need more relief from your itchy, tender skin? Aloe has long been a staple in fighting off aggressive sunburns. You should use 100% aloe gel for best results, not ointments or creams (they may include irritating properties that exacerbate your already painful symptoms). You can usually find 100% aloe gel at the pharmacy, so check online then go.
Skin damage: far from one size fits all
Our skin is inherently delicate, and when we start messing with it bad things can happen.
However, you can also experience skin damage from things that are completely out of your control, like underlying skin conditions and stress-induced flare-ups. In those cases, manage your symptoms accordingly & work with your doctor to find the best solution for long-term comfort.
If your skin is usually healthy but you experience sudden symptoms, though, there are a few steps you can take to cope with the side effects and repair damage quickly. All you need is a little knowledge, a dash of hope, and a whoooole lotta moisturizer.
Written by Adrianne Neal
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