What is Your Skin Barrier and Why Does it Matter?

Photo Source: Andy Millwood

Imagine a brick wall. Bricks stacked on bricks to form a strong, impassable barrier held together by mortar, the cement surrounding each brick. Now imagine that wall is the only thing standing between a deep blue ocean, crystal clear and plastic-free (we wish), and a toxic landfill of BPA-drenched pesticide-ridden sludge. Both sides are filled to the brink and unaware of the other’s existence thanks to the solid wall keeping them apart. Until that wall, brittle from sun exposure and chipped away by pollution, pops a brick. And a leak springs. This is the story of your skin’s outermost layer, the stratum corneum, and its very important barrier function: keeping water IN and irritants OUT. A strong skin barrier is the foundational building block for healthy skin in its best, most balanced and blissful mood ever. But how do you keep it strong (and your skin happy) when it’s under constant siege from harsh products and oxidation? And once it’s popped a proverbial brick, is there any hope of recovery or is your crystal clear skin basically f***** for life… Keep reading to find out how this story of your stratum corneum — replete with heroes, villains and taking back the power — is in your hands.

Skin Barrier: What is It?

First imagined as a brick wall by epidermal biologist Dr. Peter M. Elias, the barrier function describes the strength or integrity of the skin barrier (see also moisture barrier or lipid barrier). The bricks in this scenario are dry, dead skin cells called corneocytes made of the same keratin proteins as your hair. The mortar is a matrix of lipids (or fats) surrounding the cells. Together they form the first line of defense between you and the outside world — which is kinda the primary point of skin. The stratum corneum is responsible for preventing water loss and keeping irritants at bay, but when the brick-and-mortar structure of the epidermis is damaged, the skin barrier function is weakened. Water escapes and it’s open sesame for that landfill of smog, bacteria and other mood-altering infiltrators.

Lipids on the Front Lines (And What Happens When They Lose Ground)

Lipids are responsible for maintaining the hydration, firmness and softness of your skin — so what we experience as its look and feel. They trap Natural Moisturizing Factors (NMFs, a catch-all term for the more complicated collection of amino acids, lactic acid and sugars, etc., that keep skin moist by attracting water from the atmosphere) and they prevent bacteria from penetrating the barrier and causing inflammation, the root cause of most skin issues swinging on the irritated or sensitive side of the mood spectrum. When lipids are depleted, the skin barrier function is weakened and you’re more likely to experience redness, breakouts, dryness and tightness. So it goes without saying that calm, uplifted skin with that tell-tell bounce and glow looks to lipids for strength, but what happens when they’re outnumbered or overwhelmed?

What Causes Damage to Your Skin Barrier?

The villains in this tale draw their strength from numbers and taking their sweet time. Lipids can be damaged or depleted by harsh products, harsh climates or harsh handling (stop touching your face!) year after year. They range from the more obvious-but-still-hidden assailants, like pollutants that increase oxidation, to the seemingly innocuous like excessive washing — too clean is a thing that can strip your skin’s natural oils. Stress (mental, physical and environmental) play a role, as do personal lifestyle choices like smoking, wearing perfume or consuming dehydrating drinks (booze, coffee, the usual suspects that I’ll personally never give up...but will cut back). And, yes, age is a factor — after 40, our skin’s lipids naturally decrease leaving our skin’s barrier function more vulnerable to all of the above. Depleted lipids mean weaker or thinner ‘mortar’ around the bricks (cells), increasing 1) Transepidermal Water Loss (TEWL), or more water molecules passing out, and 2) irritants (bacteria, chemicals, allergens) moving in.

Plot Twist: You Have the Power to Repair It.

You’re not a helpless bystander in this story. Channel your inner Kendrick Lamar and sing it with me: You need a hero, look in the mirror, there go your hero. Aging and genetics aside, our bodies (and skin) do heal and a weakened skin barrier can be restored with mindful lifestyles practices (like eating healthy and getting enough sleep) as well as mindful skincare practices (like choosing products with an optimal pH balance). To start, check your labels for common irritants such as fragrance, dyes, benzoyl peroxide, strong sulfates (sodium lauryl sulfate being the poster child of no-nos often found in cleansers) or even essential oils (natural doesn’t always mean good for your skin). Then ditch those harsh products. Remember, it’s not about packing in more products and more steps — it’s about making sure the products you are using and the steps you’re taking actually provide your skin with the ingredients it’s missing. If you think a damaged skin barrier might be at the root of irritation or sensitivity that you’re skin is going through, opt for products packed with two key things: antioxidants to fight back against environmental stressors like pollution and moisture-binding humectants to replenish lipids. Research shows that plant oils can be effective to restore lost lipids and strengthen the integrity of a weakened skin barrier. Antioxidant-packed oils like sunflower, safflower and avocado can help get your lipid count back up (and that wall glued back together), while jojoba oil is a proven anti-inflammatory with a high concentration of wax esters that help repair altered skin barriers. Even if your skin skews oily, it needs hydration for a balanced barrier. And, finally, if your skin barrier is losing ground because it’s been working it’s brick-and-mortar butt off against the sun, the smog and weekly dry martinis for 40-plus years, it follows that you ought to replace what it’s losing. Reach for creams, lotions or serums with humectants like glycerin or hyaluronic acid that keep moisture locked in and fatty acids and collagen that naturally deplete with time.


A thin, weak or damaged skin barrier allows irritants in, or irritates more easily. So building up this surface layer could be the key to reducing skin sensitivity long term. When it comes to protecting your skin barrier so it can keep on protecting you, you are its best champion. If all if this sounds like too much effort, promise me one thing: listen to your mama and always wear your sunscreen.  All the products in the world don’t stand a chance against the awesome power of that big, burning ball of fire in the sky keeping us alive. Your skin faces it every day. Give it a lil’ boost, will ya?



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