When we talk about the skin barrier, we refer to the outermost layer of the skin commonly known as the ‘stratum corneum’. This layer is a protective barrier to our external environment and it plays a critical role to outside aggressors such as irritants, toxins, bacteria and allergens. This layer of the skin also plays an equally important role in preventing water loss from the body, otherwise referred to as Transepidermal Water Loss (TEWL).
Without getting too scientific, this outer layer of the skin is made up of corneocytes which are multiple layers of inert or ‘dead’ cells. These are flattened and coated with intercellular fats or lipids and this makes up a very effective and waterproof barrier against the environmental aggressors found in our everyday lives.
A well-functioning skin barrier is vital for optimum skin health.
When we are young our skin is generally biological healthy and functions well without too many challenges. As we age, our skin becomes more vulnerable and our skin’s natural protective barrier is compromised as lipid production declines. This not only impacts on our skin barrier but on our skin’s natural ability to repair itself, resulting in a more dehydrated and sensitive skin.
Lipids are natural compounds found in the skin and while there are many kinds of lipids: ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids are the dominant forms and they play a vital role in our overall skin health, increasing cellular turnover and maintaining a healthy permeable barrier function. Lipid depletion causes increased skin roughness, uncomfortable tightness, dull skin tone and a loss of facial fullness. A healthy lipid layer helps the skin to self-repair which includes improving skin texture and tone, increasing hydration and reducing the development of fine lines and wrinkles. Without this vital lipid layer our skins are at risk of accelerated ageing.
When our lipid layer is compromised, the skin becomes sensitive, reactive, dry, red, inflamed and irritated and in some cases, painful. Our skin becomes far less tolerant of active ingredients, irritants and allergens and this is when we find ourselves saying that we have sensitive skins that cannot tolerate many products.
If your skin barrier is functioning optimally, your skin will be far more tolerant of products that contain active ingredients.
If your skin barrier function is compromised, you need to take stock of what your skin is telling you: stop using harsh cleansers, scrubs, toners, spraying on fragrances and using ingredients that aggravate your sensitivity. This could even mean assessing your washing powder, softeners, shampoo and avoiding any other irritating household detergents and chemicals.
The first step to restoring an impaired skin barrier function is vitally important: only use a gentle cleanser as harsh soaps or cleansers can strip the skin of its natural lipids and increase the risk of TEWL and dehydration. We also advise to stop using harsh toners and exfoliating products as they too can strip the natural lipids and further dehydrate the skin.
To build up the lipid layer, it is vitally important to choose specially formulated products that work synergistically on restoring the skin’s external barrier by providing superior hydration, supporting the skin’s natural ability to self-repair, nourishing the skin and reducing the risk of accelerated ageing.
To rebuild your skin barrier function and restore your lipid layer if it is compromised, pare down your skincare regimen to its most basic form – this will give your skin time to recover:
Moisturiser – No Active Ingredients
Physical Sunscreen – No chemical filters
Hydrating Restoring Night Cream
We always advise introducing one active ingredient product at a time back into your skincare regimen but only once you feel your skin barrier is stable and functioning normally i.e. not reactive or irritated. It can take many months to restore your lipid layer but with time and patience you can gain optimum skin health and a perfectly functioning skin barrier.
Why do we need Lipids in our skincare?
If we over cleanse with products of the wrong pH, the natural lipids in the stratum corneum will be destroyed. Therefore our skincare products need to contain lipids that are very similar to our naturally occurring lipids. The lipids found in skincare should be at a similar concentration and be in the right ratio to each other.
Which Lipids (ingredients) should we be looking out for?
The Lipids that mimic the skin’s natural lipids include ceramides, natural cholesterol and fatty acids. The so-called golden ratio for these lipids would 2% pure ceramides, 4% natural cholesterol and 2% fatty acids. In other words, the golden ratio of 2:4:2.
5 Tips for Keeping your Skin Barrier Function in check
• Go back to basic skincare if the skin barrier is impaired
• Stop use of active ingredients temporarily
• Use a gentle cleanser
• Avoid harsh toners & exfoliators
• Use products specially formulated to replace lipids