How to Fix a Damaged Skin Barrier, According to Experts

FYI: It's responsible for keeping the good things in and the bad things out.

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I've always considered my face the perfect guinea pig for trying new beauty products. I've been fortunate enough to never suffer from severe sensitivities or acne, so trying out different treatments was never a problem for my skin — until recently, that is.

I came in contact with an ingredient in a mask that left my skin bright red, tight, and stinging, kind of like I had sat outside in the sun for five hours without SPF. I splashed my face with water, applied a cooling mask (which immediately stung), and put an ice pack on my face. After a few hours, my skin returned to a pink state, but I shrugged it off thinking it was just a bad reaction, and that was that.

But over the next few weeks, my side effects continued. My normal go-to products stung or burned, I was breaking out more, and I was blotchy. I started treating my skin with more anti-acne products, thinking I was dealing with a bout of blemishes. Finally, after a few weeks of trial and error, an itchy, pimply rash on my forehead that would not go away sent me to the dermatologist's office where I was given some surprising news: I had completely compromised my skin barrier.

If this sounds similar to a journey you're currently going through, keep reading to learn what exactly it means when you damage your skin barrier, and how you can fix it.

What is the skin barrier?

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According to Miami-based board-certified dermatologist Stacy Chimento M.D., the skin barrier is the outermost layer of the skin that functions to keep all of the good things in and the bad things out. "Your skin barrier is what keeps you alive by keeping all sorts of harmful environmental toxins and pathogens from penetrating your body," she says. "Your skin barrier also keeps the water inside your body that would otherwise escape and evaporate, leaving you completely dehydrated."

Dermatologist Stacy Chimento, M.D.

Your skin barrier is what keeps you alive by keeping all sorts of harmful environmental toxins and pathogens from penetrating your body.

— Dermatologist Stacy Chimento, M.D.

The skin barrier also holds high levels of ceramides that protect the immunologic and homeostasis health of the skin, adds dermatological surgeon Patricia Wexler, M.D. When this barrier is compromised — as is the case when you experience an allergic reaction or when you're dealing with a skin condition (e.g. atopic dermatitis a.k.a. eczema) — loss of moisture can occur, she explains. Another cause of barrier impairment? External aggressors. For example, excess sun exposure, dry weather, allergens, environmental pollution, over-exfoliation, and using harsh soaps or detergents can all damage the skin barrier, says Claire Y. Chang, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and CeraVe brand partner.

Signs of a Damaged Skin Barrier

The side effects tend to be inflamed, dry skin, which is exactly what I was dealing with. My impairment also triggered an eczema response, which I figured was acne and started treating it as so. The result of that bad idea? Even more irritated skin because I was sucking whatever moisture I had left out of my face with the active ingredients.

In addition to dry, inflamed skin, Dr. Chimento says, you can also experience symptoms like scaly skin, acne, itchiness, discoloration, or even bacterial or fungal infections.

How to Prevent a Damaged Skin Barrier

According to Dr. Wexler, patients with barrier issues could have a genetic predisposition and should be extremely careful. However, if it's due to an allergen, which seems likely in my case, recurrences aren't expected.

If you're wondering how you can avoid all of this in the first place, though, having a daily skincare routine filled with good-for-you ingredients is step one. Dr. Chang also recommends avoiding excess sun exposure, which disrupts your skin barrier and causes premature skin aging.

How to Treat a Damaged Skin Barrier

The key to repairing your skin barrier is all about keeping it simple and hyper-focusing on moisturizing. Fortunately, this is a relatively quick and easy fix that can be done from the comfort of your own home. Here's how:

Eliminate potentially irritating ingredients.

In my case, cutting most of my serums, oils, and favorite cleansers out and swapping them for mild (read: less likely to irritate and with little actives) formulas did the trick to fix my skin. I also cut out the acne products because they were further irritating the rash of eczema on my forehead.

Swap in hydrating ingredients.

Dr. Chimento says to look for skincare ingredients such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, petrolatum, or glycerin in your product formulas to improve dryness and strengthen your skin barrier. "It is crucial to moisturize your skin daily to repair the skin barrier," emphasizes Dr. Chang. "Also, avoid harsh soaps, scrubs, and excess exfoliation, and long, hot baths." Using humidifiers during the winter to keep the air and your skin moisturized is also helpful, she adds.

Follow a dermatologist-recommended skincare routine.

A personal routine that Dr. Wexler recommends is gentle micellar water, Eucerin Eczema Relief Creme (the prescription for the rash on my forehead), Elta MD Clear SPF Broad Spectrum 46, and SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator. She also advises gently patting products on your face, instead of rubbing which could trigger an allergic response.

Final Thoughts

If you're dealing with a bad reaction to a product or suspect you're having issues with your skin barrier, don't diagnose yourself and go see a dermatologist as soon as you can (something I learned the hard way).

Over six weeks, my redness faded, the rash on my forehead completely cleared up, and my skin felt and looked like my moisture levels were rising. The stinging subsided, and I started to feel more confident not wearing foundation or concealer on the weekends because my tone was getting back to normal. When your skin returns back to normal, Dr. Wexler says you can slowly add back in your favorite products. And while I'm so excited to give my anti-aging serum the limelight once again, I will definitely be taking it one tub of cream at a time.

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