By Sophia Ruiz, Founder/CEO
I’m so happy the skin barrier has become more mainstream as of late. I think every one of us estheticians are happy to see that happening because its such a core aspect of our practice!
The skin barrier is something I’ve been super passionate about and something I’ve invested a lot of time into learning and understanding. Not only have I been fascinated by how responsive the skin barrier is to our environment and what we put on our skin, but the health of our skin barrier (according to my research) is hugely influential for acne.
To me, supporting the skin barrier is probably one of the most important aspects of healing and preventing breakouts. It’s something that I’ve personally seen make a huge impact in the people I work with.
So, I thought it only fitting that we have a blog post dedicated to the skin barrier and its relationship to acne + tips you can use to start repairing your skin barrier today.
Let’s get into it!
What is the skin barrier?
The skin barrier, also known as the acid mantle, is the outermost protective layer of the skin. It’s made up of fatty acids, cholesterol, and ceramides, all of which contribute to the barrier function.
What does the skin barrier do?
The skin barrier’s main role is to protect the skin from outside invaders. By “sealing” the skin surface, the skin barrier prevents large foreign allergenic proteins, microbes (i.e. bacteria, viruses, etc.), and pollutants from entering the skin, while still allowing nutrients to pass through.
This is super important for healthy skin.
When our skin barrier isn’t functioning optimally, these foreign invaders can enter through the top layer of the skin into the deeper layers of the skin. Here, they can influence the health of the deeper skin anatomy, like the:
- Sebaceous glands
- And maturing skin cells
This can have some pretty negative effects on skin health (we’ll get into more of the specifics in a bit).
A depleted skin barrier also means more of your active skincare ingredients (like alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids or retinoids) get deeper into the skin. And while we want a healthy amount of active ingredients to get deep into the skin, more is not always better - especially when it comes to exfoliating actives.
Reduced skin barrier function can make us too sensitive to these ingredients, meaning:
- These products can cause inflammatory sensitization reactions (aka your skin burns, turns red, and becomes dry, flaky, and dehydrated, maybe with little bumps)
- You’re not able to access the cell turnover support you need (exfoliating ingredients support healthy skin cell turnover), which can leave results on the table
And lastly, the skin barrier is essential for keeping your skin hydrated. By “sealing” the skin, the skin barrier helps prevent a phenomenon called transepidermal water loss. Put simply, it stops water in the skin from evaporating out of the skin (and also makes sure your expensive hydrating skincare products actually work!).
Optimal hydration of the skin is one of those things that is pretty important for skin health.
It doesn’t just give you that characteristic glow, it’s also necessary for your skin to maintain efficient desquamation – your skin’s own natural exfoliation process. Skin hydration is also associated with reinforced barrier function through proteins called aquaporins.
Altogether, skin barrier function is necessary for healthy skin overall. But, it’s especially important if you’re dealing with breakouts – a sign that your skin barrier may already be compromised.
Why is a healthy skin barrier so important for preventing breakouts?
There are three main reasons why I believe a healthy skin barrier is essential for preventing breakouts:
- Studies show skin barrier dysfunction is present in acne-prone skin.
- Research on acne has found that decreased hydration level is associated with increased acne severity, suggesting that the more dysfunctional the skin barrier, the more severe acne is likely to be. This also suggests a direct link between skin barrier function and acne.
- Knowing what we know about the skin barrier and how it protects the skin, it’s likely that skin barrier dysfunction contributes to the early stages of acne formation.
All together, this tells us that not only is skin barrier dysfunction a characteristic of acne-prone skin, it’s also likely to be a direct contributor to the development of acne.
Let’s go into the details a little further.
The connection between the skin barrier and acne
According to the most up-to-date research, there are two things present before an acne spot is visible: 1) inflammation and 2) free radical damage.
So, even before you see an acne spot begin to pop up, inflammation and free radicals are there.
To make a long story short, these findings have led researchers to believe that inflammation and free radicals are key players in triggering acne formation. In other words, free radical damage and inflammation are likely to be “step number one” in the acne process.
Knowing this, it’s not hard to conceive that lowering or preventing free radical damage and inflammation could (at the very least), decrease the chances of an acne spot forming.
And interestingly, research points to a healthy skin barrier doing exactly this.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the main functions of a healthy skin barrier is preventing pollutants, irritants, and microbes from getting deeper into the skin. And these pollutants, irritants, and microbes all have one thing in common: they trigger inflammation and free radical damage in the skin.
This is where the connection between a healthy skin barrier and acne is really evident.
If all of these foreign invaders trigger the “step one” process of acne formation, then a depleted skin barrier paves the way for the acne process to begin. The opposite should also hold true: healing the skin barrier should prevent pro-acne inflammation and free radical damage caused by these foreign invaders, preventing acne that could arise as a result.
Of course, foreign invaders passing through a depleted skin barrier aren’t the only reason why we might see free radicals and inflammation increase in the skin. At the same time, it’s a very likely contributor and something that should be addressed in our journey to clearer skin.
So, how do I recommend doing this? Let’s talk about it!
How to support a healthy skin barrier for clearer skin
Repairing the skin barrier requires a two-fold approach: eliminating factors that break down the skin barrier and maximizing practices that support skin barrier repair.
- Remove all alkaline products from your skincare regimen. This means bar soaps, baking soda, castile soap are no-nos (most of the time). Alkaline skincare products take your skin out of its optimal acidic pH range (between 4.5 and 5.5), where it needs to be for skin barrier repair to actually take place.
- Avoid cleansers that contain harsh sulfates like sodium lauryl sulfate. Not all cleansing formulas that contain sulfates are problematic, but its a good idea to avoid them just as a rule of thumb.
- Nix oils like olive oil, avocado oil, jojoba oil, castor oil – even argan oil and marula oil. These oils all contain high levels of oleic acid, a fatty acid that is known to disrupt the skin barrier and cause skin irritation.
- Use a pH-balanced or non-barrier-disrupting cleanser. In other words, make sure your cleansers are at a pH of at least 5.5 or below or use an oil / oil-to-milk cleanser that has a minimal effect on skin pH. Our Purity cleanser is an ultra-gentle, yet deeply cleansing oil-to-milk cleanser!
- Include linoleic acid rich oils in your skincare routine. Linoleic acid is essential for ceramide formation, a major building block of the skin barrier. Without sufficient linoleic acid, we start to see evidence of major skin barrier disruption. Not surprisingly, studies show acne prone skin is both deficient in linoleic acid and exhibits skin barrier dysfunction. As a result, linoleic acid rich oils that supply the linoleic acid necessary for skin barrier repair can be deeply healing for acne. Our Clarity and Vitale serums are formulated with this in mind, containing oils hand-selected for their compatibility with acne-prone skin and barrier-supportive properties.
- Always use a toner to reinforce a healthy skin pH balance needed for barrier repair. I like to use our Flora toner (a hydrosol base, so it’s super gentle) and exfoliating acids at night (sometimes every other night depending on how my skin feels!). I really like The Ordinary’s Glycolic Acid and Paula’s Choice BHA Liquid and alternate between the two. The Inkey List’s Mandelic Acid is one that I’ve been hearing great things about lately and Almond Clear’s Mandelic Acid is one that has rave reviews! In the past, a lot of our customers have done great with The Ordinary Azelaic Acid, which is a good option for acne-prone skin, especially when there’s lots of redness present.
- Layer your exfoliating acids over the top of your oils and/or moisturizer. I swear by this tip! By layering acids over the top of oils and moisturizers, we reduce their penetration into the deeper layers of the skin. As a result, we get the benefits of the acids but without the risk of irritation!
- Consider supplementing with flaxseed oil. In one study, 2.2g of flaxseed oil (about ½ tsp) daily was shown to improve barrier function and improve hydration of the skin.
- Supplement with collagen peptides. Not only are collagen peptides great for supporting an internal environment that favors clearer skin (through effects on blood sugar balance and growth factor production), they’ve also been shown to support ceramide production in the skin, leading to improved hydration. For this, I recommend Further Food’s Marine Collagen as its a safer option for acne-prone skin (read my thoughts behind this in this blog post!)
- Supplement with ceramides. In humans, taking ceramide supplements has been shown to improve barrier function, so this can be an adjunct to a barrier-supportive skincare routine that supports ceramide production. I haven’t tried it yet, but Pique Tea's B.T Fountain looks like a good option for a ceramide supplement. It also contains hyaluronic acid, which has clinically-proven anti-aging and hydrating effects. However, the dose (30mg of hyaluronic acid) is pretty low compared to what has been used in clinical trials (100-200mg).
- Practice safe sun exposure. Studies show that excessive UV radiation can compromise skin barrier function. As a result, it’s really important that we practice safe sun exposure by keeping sun exposure to the minimal erythemal dose (MED). The MED, put simply, is the amount of time in the sun that it takes for our skin to turn pink. Once we see our skin begin to turn pink, we need to either apply sunscreen or spend a few hours out of the sun to avoid sunburn and skin barrier damage. The tough thing is that sometimes the skin on our face can have a different MED to the body – either because of the state of our skin (i.e. barrier is already compromised) or because of active ingredients we might be using (i.e. sun-sensitizing skincare products like retinoids or benzoyl peroxide). So, just because you’re not at your MED on your body doesn’t mean that’s the case for your face. For this reason, I often recommend using sunscreen on the face and the neck for all time spent in the sun. For everywhere else, you can just keep an eye on your skin to make sure your sun exposure is within the MED, so you're still getting plenty of healthy vitamin D.
I like to take an inside-and-out approach when healing the skin barrier. I think both internal and topical therapies are helpful when healing the skin barrier (topical therapies produce results faster, though!). However, even the best diet can’t make up for disruptive topical products (alkaline topicals, stripping cleansers, etc.). So, it’s important to make sure your skincare routine is, at the very least, not undoing your progress!
Supporting your skin barrier is super helpful for healing underlying acne triggers
Altogether, research points to healing the skin barrier as being a crucial component of skin health and an important aspect of addressing acne! Supporting a healthy skin barrier is also just amazing for achieving glowy, dewy, plump skin.
I always like to take a combination internal and topical approach when healing the skin barrier. I find that the two together work hand-in-hand and topicals can be super helpful for speeding up the healing process.
If you need help putting together a skincare regimen for your repairing your skin barrier, please fill out our skin quiz for a personalized regimen! I’d be more than happy to help :)
Can’t wait to chat!
All my love,