How Does the Skin Barrier Get Damaged and How to Repair It?

The skin forms the primary defense mechanism for the body, and there are numerous ways the skin barrier can be destroyed. In this article, we’ll learn to identify signs of a damaged skin barrier and ways to prevent and hopefully heal it.

What is the skin barrier?

To understand the skin barrier, it is essential to understand what it is composed of. The epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous fat layer are the three main layers that make up the skin, arranged from top to bottom. There are five layers in the epidermis, with the stratum corneum being the topmost layer.

Together, these layers are in charge of preserving an effective barrier against the hostile external environment and safeguarding the inner body's health. Nonetheless, the effectiveness and functionality of the skin's barrier are determined by the integrity of the stratum corneum, the skin's outermost layer.

The three primary functions of the skin’s barrier include:

  • Maintaining the skin and internal body’s water balance
  • Protecting from the attack and invasion of microbial organisms
  • Protection from the harmful effects of ultraviolet light exposure

In addition to the roles mentioned above, a healthy skin barrier supports the appearance of skin elasticity and texture, the regular shedding of dead skin cells, and the skin's capacity to respond to environmental stressors.

How does the skin barrier get damaged?

A damaged skin barrier means the uppermost layers of the skin, which were responsible for taking care of and protecting the inner layers, have been compromised. There are several reasons why this could happen, including:

  • Improper skin cleansing
  • Excessive exfoliation or the use of harsh physical scrubbers
  • Trauma-causing abrasions, cuts, and wounds
  • Skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, and others

The causes of a damaged skin barrier can be attributed to an intrinsic defect, such as defects in the genes and pathways responsible for forming keratin and other important molecules that make up the skin’s layers.

Alternatively, it can occur due to the constant stressors that the skin gets exposed to while dealing with various situations daily. This is known as the ‘inside out’ and the ‘outside in’ theory, which forms the basis for chronic skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis.

Signs of a damaged skin barrier

It is not always the case that someone with a compromised skin barrier will look physically different. Knowing how to recognize even the most subtle signs allows one to take action to repair the skin barrier and detect abnormalities.

These are some key indicators that can help you identify if skin barrier dysfunction is still occurring:

  • Increased skin markings on the surface (i.e., the skin lines become more prominent)
  • Accumulation of excessive dead skin cells on the surface
  • Oil control imbalances (i.e., excessive oil production)
  • Skin feels too tight or becomes very saggy
  • Increased or decreased skin pigmentation
  • Signs of inflammation or reddened area
  • Dehydrated and dry skin
  • Itching

How to repair your skin barrier

If you notice any of the above signs and feel your skin needs more attention and help than it is used to, here are simple ways to protect the skin from further damage:

  1. Use a gentle cleanser. Cleaning the skin is extremely important to remove the surface microorganisms and antigens that might get deposited when exposed to the external environment. However, you do not want to use a harsh cleansing agent that affects the skin negatively.
  2. Moisturize efficiently. If you aren’t using a moisturizer, it is your turn to start doing so, but learning to use one that is best suited for your skin will be beneficial. In cases of a significantly damaged skin barrier, using a combination of different moisturizers and repeated application will be helpful. Consider skin flooding if that is something that your skin requires.
  3. Nourish from within. While what you apply to the skin is important, it is equally essential to replenish your skin cells from within. A balanced diet containing whole foods and increasing the variety of foods consumed will go a long way in promoting healthy cell development. Increase the amount of omega-3-rich foods if you want to heal a damaged skin barrier more effectively.
  4. Use sun protection. Use adequate sun protection in the form of sunscreen and sun-protective clothing to protect the skin from the harmful effects of ultraviolet light.

Even if you have healthy skin, it is essential to follow these simple practices. As the famous saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Therefore, making healthy habits now will pay off later on in terms of a strong skin barrier.

Nonetheless, suppose you are experiencing a specific skin condition that requires additional care and attention. In that case, it is important to consult your healthcare provider and start a regimen that is best suited for you.

What to look for when choosing products for repairing the skin barrier?

The market today is flooded with various types of products containing different ingredients, and it is worthwhile having a simple checklist in mind while selecting products suited for addressing the skin barrier:

  • Avoid fragrances. Many hidden chemicals and known allergens can be used under the umbrella term of fragrances. If you have sensitive skin and want to repair your skin barrier, avoid fragrance products.
  • Include ceramides. Ceramides are a particular fat molecule that forms the basis of healthy skin. Products specifically containing ceramides can be very beneficial in helping maintain a healthy skin barrier.
  • Colloidal oatmeal. Studies have found that oatmeal helps soothe inflammation, and using products containing this can be helpful.
  • Use products meant for sensitive skin. These products are devoid of strong surfactants and other agents that can be very harsh for damaged skin.

Taking an oatmeal bath is an easy DIY treatment for reducing inflammation and assisting a compromised skin barrier in its healing process:

  • Add 1 cup of powdered oatmeal to a tub of warm water
  • Soak for 10–15 minutes

Remember, the choices that you make today can have an impact on your body in the future. To prevent skin barrier damage as much as possible, it is important to learn how to recognize the warning signs of it. Choose the right products that will benefit your skin, and consult your healthcare provider to make the best-informed choices for yourself.

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