Why Is Everyone Talking About the Skin Barrier Now?

Find out what the skin barrier actually is and why barrier repair is so important.

Person with long wavy brown hair and flawless skin smiling with her eyes closed
Photo: Lumi Nola/Getty Images

Chances are, if you scroll through any of your social media feeds, you'll come across a skin influencer (or two) talking about barrier repair. You'll also come across the term "skin barrier" when shopping for new skincare products, whether it appears on a moisturizer's label or in its description.

The skin barrier is having a moment, but it should always be a priority in every skincare routine. You see, it's not a beauty industry buzzword like "clean" or a trendy ingredient like niacinamide. It's a crucial part of the skin's structure, the outermost layer that protects it from external factors like pollution and prevents moisture from getting out.

To completely demystify one of the hottest topics in skincare right now, we turned to a top dermatologist to break down everything you need to know about the skin barrier.

What Is the Skin Barrier?

Skin is made up of different layers, each with a different, important function. "The skin barrier is the protective layer of the skin that serves as a barrier against multiple stressors on the skin by regulating the balance of water, protection from the outside world by preventing and responding to microbial organisms like bacteria, viruses, and fungi, reducing the effects of damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, as well as minimizing the effects of oxidative stressors," says Dr. Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology. It also protects against physical aggressors by supporting cell turnover and elasticity, she adds.

How a Compromised Skin Barrier Affects Skin 

Since part of the skin barrier's responsibility is keeping water from getting out, if you have a damaged barrier, your skin may be dry, inflamed, and irritated. Often, the overuse of harsh products, like chemical exfoliants, for example, can lead to a compromised skin barrier. "In general, improper skincare, which includes exposure to any irritants or allergens, can compromise a skin barrier," says Dr. Kanchanapoomi Levin. "Over-exfoliation, excessive sun damage, and inflammatory skin conditions such as contact dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, rosacea, and acne, can also result in a disrupted skin barrier."

How to Diagnose and Treat a Damaged Skin Barrier 

If you think you exhibit signs of a damaged skin barrier, schedule an appointment with your derm to be sure. "As with any medical or skin condition, it's never one size fits all," says Dr. Kanchanapoomi Levin. "It's important to [be seen] by a board-certified dermatologist so that the right diagnosis can be made and therefore treatment."

Treating a damaged skin barrier involves switching to gentle, non-irritating products, including a cleanser, moisturizer, and products labeled with "barrier repair," Dr. Kanchanapoomi Levin tells us. "Look for moisturizers that contain ingredients such as occlusives (e.g. lanolin, petrolatum) in order to lock in moisture and humectants (e.g. glycerin, hyaluronic acid) in order to reduce water loss and increase hydration of the stratum corneum," she advises.

As for barrier repair products, these formulas usually contain ingredients found in the actual skin barrier such as ceramides, essential fatty acids, and ceramide precursors. They should also have ingredients that assist in repair, like multitasking niacinamide, notes Dr. Kanchanapoomi Levin.

VIDEO: When You Apply Sunscreen in Your Skincare Routine Actually Matters a Lot

How to Prevent Skin Barrier Damage

This one is pretty easy: Be gentle to your skin. "Gentle skincare goes a long way, avoid over-exfoliation or using too many products; and when in doubt, co-manage with a board-certified dermatologist," recommends Dr. Kanchanapoomi Levin.

Also, you might want to pay attention to how much sleep you're getting. Sleep deprivation has not only been found to affect skin barrier function but increase signs of aging, as well.

Our Favorite Skincare Barrier Products

01 of 05

Ole Henriksen Strength Trainer Peptide Boost Moisturizer

Ole Henriksen Strength Trainer Peptide Boost Moisturizer
Sephora
02 of 05

Cocokind Ceramide Barrier Serum

Cocokind Ceramide Barrier Serum
Ulta
03 of 05

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Double Repair Face Moisturizer
Amazon
04 of 05

Sunday Riley Ice Ceramide Moisturizing Cream

Sunday Riley Ice Ceramide Moisturizing Cream
Dermstore
05 of 05

Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin™ Facial Barrier Mask

Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin™ Facial Barrier Mask
Sephora
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  1. Oyetakin-White P, Suggs A, Koo B, et al. Does poor sleep quality affect skin ageing? Clin Exp Dermatol. 2015;40(1):17-22.

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