The biggest skin-care lesson worth learning this year? Good skin health is all about a robust skin barrier. Blame it on the red, itchy skin many of us have suffered from thanks to overzealous use of actives, or perhaps it’s the switch to a more intuitive approach to our skin-care routines—whatever it is, skin barrier health is trending, with a casual 129.5 million views on the search term “skin barrier repair” on TikTok. And long may it continue.
“In dermatology, our skin barrier is known as the epidermis,” explains dermatologist Dr. Mary Sommerlad. “It can be disrupted by intrinsic or extrinsic factors, and often a combination of both. Intrinsic factors include skin barrier diseases that have a genetic component, such as eczema and ichthyosis, and high levels of stress and illness.”
Meanwhile, extrinsic factors include excessive exposure to harsh weather elements, such as too much sun or wind, or extremes of temperature (think going from a heated room to the biting cold outdoors—one reason why compromised barriers often show themselves at this time of year); exposure to potential chemical irritants, such as certain active skin-care ingredients, like AHAs and retinoids; and soaps containing SLS or any physical irritants that can scrub the skin. Not to mention pollution, smoking, poor sleep, and allergens.
Skin barrier aggressors are everywhere, but the most overwhelmingly common reason for impairment in consultant dermatologist Dr. Anjali Mahto’s clinic is “the overuse of actives and using too many products all at once,” she says. “The skin becomes overwhelmed, and, as a result, the barrier becomes compromised.”
How to Know When Your Skin Barrier Is Impaired
“If you struggle to keep moisture in and your skin feels dry and tight, you might be suffering from an impaired skin barrier,” says Dr. Emma Craythorne, consultant dermatologist and chief medical officer at Klira. “It can be ashy or flaky, and can feel irritated (or sting) after any chemical formula is applied. You might also experience acne breakouts, rosacea, and eczema.”
Skin might also appear redder or darker than its original color, plus itchiness is a common symptom. “The texture is likely to change, and feel bumpier and rough,” says Dr. Sommerlad. Those with sensitive skin are more predisposed to suffering from an impaired skin barrier, so need to be extra vigilant about keeping it strong and healthy.