These Are the Signs of a Damaged Skin Barrier—and How to Fix It

Skincare pros share tips for getting your skin back in good health.

<p>CentralITAlliance/Getty Images</p>

CentralITAlliance/Getty Images

The skin barrier is the outermost layer of skin that serves as a protective shield against the world. Its goal is to keep the good stuff in (like moisture!) while keeping the bad stuff out (like bacteria and irritants). When it’s healthy, your skin looks vibrant, has an even tone, and is plump and hydrated. With a damaged skin barrier, however, that shield weakens, moisture retention goes down, and your skin becomes vulnerable to daily stressors. This can lead to irritation, itchiness, sensitivity, and dry skin.

Ahead, we’re outlining some common culprits for a damaged skin barrier and signs your skin is struggling. We’re also shouting out the best way to fix a compromised barrier.

What Causes a Damaged Skin Barrier?

A handful of factors can result in a compromised skin barrier. Some common culprits include harsh products, excessive exfoliation, extremely hot water, lack of moisture, and pollution, notes Mona Gohara, MD, board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine.

She adds that even lifestyle habits like drinking, stress, an unhealthy diet, or certain medications can result in a damaged skin barrier. Some people also have skin conditions—such as acne, eczema, and psoriasis—that weaken their skin barrier.

Damaged Skin Barrier Signs

  • Dry or flaky skin

  • Oily and flaky skin

  • Redness

  • Irritation

  • Sensitivity

  • Itching

  • Feeling of skin tightness

  • Stinging sensation when using skincare products

How to Repair a Damaged Skin Barrier

To fix a damaged skin barrier, it’s important to address the cause and then do what you can to replenish moisture and nourish your skin. These expert tips can help.

Switch to a Gentle Cleanser

Using strong or abrasive cleansers can strip your skin’s surface of its natural oils, which are responsible for keeping skin soft, hydrated, and moisturized. When they’re stripped away, your barrier is compromised.

“Transition to a mild, hydrating cleanser with a texture that suits your preference, but ensure it’s free from harsh surfactants,” says licensed esthetician Erica Choi, founder of Superegg. She adds, “Avoid hot water and opt for lukewarm water instead. Gently pat your skin dry with a soft, clean towel after cleansing rather than rubbing it.”

Double Up on Moisturizer

Moisture is key to skin health and should be applied routinely even if you have oily skin. In fact, Dr. Gohara says that if you’re dealing with a compromised skin barrier—or if the weather is cold and dry—then doubling up on your moisturizer is wise. “To achieve this, use a hyaluronic base with a thicker repair cream on top,” she says.

Choi agrees, adding that you should look for a moisturizer that contains ingredients like ceramides, glycerin, and fatty acids, which help boost moisture levels in the skin and lock it in.

Use Antioxidants Every Morning

Antioxidants help shield your skin from free radicals, which are known to irritate and break down skin. They are also responsible for premature signs of aging, including wrinkles, droopy skin, and sun spots. Using a moisturizer or serum formulated with antioxidants can help minimize this damage.

Be Mindful of Sun Exposure

Similarly, protect your skin from the sun’s potent UV rays by wearing an SPF of 30 or higher every single day. “Sun exposure  makes almost everything worse, including irritation,” says board-certified dermatologist Angelo Landriscin. “Use all of the tools available for sun protection including protective clothes, hats, seeking shade and, of course, sunscreen.”

Use a Humidifier

Dry air can exacerbate an already compromised barrier, so do what you can to increase moisture levels. That means drinking more water, using more moisturizer, and incorporating a humidifier into spaces you frequent most.

“Humidifiers add moisture to the air, thus creating a more favorable environment for your skin, particularly in dry or low-humidity conditions,” Choi explains. “Keeping a humidifier nearby as you work or sleep is a good idea.” (Just make sure you’re routinely cleaning it.)

Audit Your Beauty Routine

Take note if you find that your skin is constantly irritated after using a certain product. It’s a sign that your skin’s not fond of the formula, or that you’re using too much of it. Dr. Gohara says, “Identify which products may be the culprit and cut down the amount or frequency you use it.”

On that note, also press pause on products formulated with aggressive active ingredients—including AHAs, BHAs, enzymes, retinoids, and benzoyl peroxide—until your skin is healthy again. Slowly ease back into usage when your skin’s ready.

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