Why is my skin so dry and irritated? I never had sensitive skin before in my life, why does it suddenly react to everything?
Does this sound like you? If so, you might have a damaged skin barrier.
What is a damaged skin barrier?
The skin barrier is part of the outermost layer of our skin, called the stratum corneum. It is composed of corneocytes (skin cells) and the lipid interface (ceramides, cholesterols and fatty acids). It acts like a security guard for the skin, protecting it against the perils of the environment - UV, pollution, toxic chemicals and so on. It is also responsible for maintaining the optimal moisture level of the skin. Any damage of this shield leaves the skin vulnerable and susceptible to irritations. It is one of the underlying causes of sensitive skin. If you suffer from sensitive or irritated skin, building up the surface layer is key to improve and treat sensitivity in the long term.
But how do I know if my skin barrier is damaged?
If your skin suddenly looks dull, feels dehydrated and dry yet oily, if your skin sensitivity has increased or you’ve developed a rash out of nowhere, you might have a compromised skin barrier.
Now before you panic, let’s look at what are the most common reasons so you can start avoiding them (no more unprotected tanning, PLEASE).
What causes a damaged skin barrier?
There are various ways to cause damage to your skin barrier. Factors such as genetics and ageing unfortunately contribute, but there are others which are under our control. And when it comes to skin, prevention is always better than cure.
Here are some of the most common reasons:
- Sun exposure
This is a big deal. We all love a good tan and associate relaxing in the sun with a drink in hand as the pinnacle of relaxation and good time but it is the biggest nightmare of the skin. It causes premature aging, deepens fine lines, and - you guessed it - is one of the main culprits of damaged skin barrier.
We won’t say to never lay down in the sun anymore, but always, always use a sunscreen that is rich in antioxidants and has an SPF 30 or higher.
- Other Environmental factors
Pollution and dry air can contribute to weakening your skin barrier. Have you noticed how much tighter and more dehydrated your skin felt during the quarantine lockdown? It’s best to moisturise your skin more often if you live in temporarily very dry conditions and avoid outdoor activities during pollution.
Plant oils can help too as they act as a protective barrier to the skin and are rich in antioxidants.
- Over-washing or regularly using too hot water
Many conventional face and body washes are harsh and strip away the natural lipid barrier of the skin. Furthermore, water that is too hot can irritate the skin. Always shower in lukewarm water and use mild, toxic-free cleansers.
Yes, the skin feels amazing after exfoliation, however there are only so many dead skin cells you can remove before you start stripping your skin barrier. Many of them also contain harsh chemicals which irritates the skin further. Exfoliating when necessary is great, but always be mindful of how your skin feels and don’t overdo it.
- Overusing active ingredients
Active ingredients such as acids and retinol as well as many anti-acne products can irritate your skin. To avoid this, use them in different times of the day.
Is there anything distressing stress doesn’t contribute to? Drop us a line if you think of any. Your skin barrier function is no exception. Both physical and emotional stress lead to increased cortisol which has an adverse effect on its integrity. It might not be a silver bullet to fix stress, but self-care certainly helps prevention.
- Lack of sleep
Have you noticed any difference in your skin when you haven’t had enough sleep that night? “Bad skin” days are real. Research has shown that, similarly to stress, lack of sleep leads to an increased transepidermal water loss. It is no coincidence that the term “beauty sleep” exists.
OK, I have a damaged skin barrier. Now what?
Your skin is compromised now what can you do? Yes prevention is key but what if you just read the above and didn’t know the harm you’ve caused? We’ve compiled some tips to help you restore and replenish it ASAP.
- Go back to basics - Limit the products you’re using on your skin. Give the 10-step routine a pause and temporarily switch to basic care: cleanse, moisturise, protect. Try to use mild, toxic-free products.
- Select your ingredients - The skin barrier is composed by ceramides and fatty acids so look for them when choosing your products. Water-retaining ingredients such as hyaluronic acid will help with that increased transepidermal water loss. Choose a moisturiser with linoleic acid, an omega 6 fatty acid. It’s an essential fatty acid that we can’t manufacture ourselves, so we must obtain it through diet or topical application. It helps repair barrier function and is an effective moisturising agent.
Protect your skin - Protecting against free radical damage can help maintain a strong skin barrier. Look for vitamins E and C in your products - they are rich on antioxidants which fight the damage caused by free radicals, pollution and our environment in general.
Avoid hot showers - They dehydrate and irritate the skin. Plus cold showers are so trendy right now so you have even more reasons to try it.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate - Ultimately, a damaged skin barrier is about loss or moisture. So, if you see this, drink some water!
- Nourish yourself - food such as nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocado and fatty fish are rich on omega-6 oils. Strawberries, oranges, kiwi and peppers are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, which are vital for the health of your skin barrier.
- Wear sunscreen! And stay in the shade. We can't emphasise this enough.