Few other subjects have dominated the beauty airwaves quite like the skin barrier. Overlooked for decades in our collective quest for clear, radiant skin—which brought about the enthusiastic peeling, scrubbing, and cleansing habits that inadvertently cause damage—an intact barrier has now earned its due as the true source of skin health.
Part of this newfound recognition has to do with social media, which has ushered in barrier-friendly trends like probiotic skin care (for maintaining the surface-level microbiome) and skin-cycling routines (which alternate active treatments and restorative ones). “People have become more aware of the science behind skin conditions,” says dermatologist Kim Nichols, MD. “They are more likely to self-educate using the internet, which provides them with a background on why they may be experiencing certain symptoms.” Often enough, an underlying cause is a compromised skin barrier.
Research links an impaired stratum corneum (as that outermost layer is called) with a host of skin concerns; for example, studies suggest that a disrupted barrier may serve as a mechanism in acne development. Addressing the root cause is a novel means of approach. “When attempting to resolve unwanted skin conditions, such as signs of aging, sensitive skin, acne, and dermatitis, you need to repair your barrier, which has not always been the method of healing in the dermatology and skin care industries,” says San Francisco aesthetician and formulator Kristina Holey, who was among the first to create products dedicated to the skin barrier. “Aggressive preservatives, exfoliation, and peels all break down this natural protection system—and now, with the resulting rise in inflammatory skin conditions, we are all focused on repair.”
At the biological level, the stratum corneum’s chief role is protection, as the body’s first line of defense against environmental stressors, including bacteria and viruses, UV light, and pollution. It’s also responsible for keeping hydration trapped within skin, where water is needed to execute important cellular functions. To do that, “a healthy barrier layer has the essential components in place: balanced pH, robust microbiome, balanced natural moisturizing factors, balanced lipid layer,” Holey says.
The microbiome in particular has become an increasingly valued (and much discussed) aspect of the skin barrier; this diverse ecosystem of microorganisms at the surface is responsible for supporting the skin’s immune system and controlling inflammation. “Barrier function and the microbiome do not exist independently of one another,” says Holey. “Maintaining barrier-layer integrity helps skin flora stay healthy, which in turn ensures overall healthy skin.”
If something is missing from the skin barrier’s careful composition, things can get uncomfortable quickly. “Redness, tightness, scaling, and dryness are signs that your skin barrier is compromised,” says Nichols. “The most common misconception I see among my patients is that the tingling or slight stinging [sensation] when applying products is a sign of an effective product; in fact, this signals potential skin-barrier damage.” In addition to harsh formulations, certain preservatives (which interfere with the microbiome’s balance) and habits like cleansing too frequently can also disrupt the barrier.
Nichols recommends seeking out ingredients naturally found within the lipid-rich stratum corneum, such as ceramides and fatty acids. Humectants like hyaluronic acid and glycerin, which draw in water, are beneficial as well, since a compromised barrier begets a kind of evaporation known as transepidermal water loss. Together, “these ingredients help to hydrate, lock in moisture, and act as a protectant for compromised skin without further irritation,” she says.
While the extent of damage—and therefore the time it takes for repair—can vary, “typically, you can expect to begin seeing improvement between two weeks to an entire month,” Nichols says. But patience is well rewarded, with a little help from these 15 formulas, designed for immediate and lasting care.