Historically, the most commonly accepted approach to treating skin and combating various conditions has been to prescribe products and treatments based on skin types: oily, dry, normal or combination. We are now noticing a generalised shift in this approach, with more emphasis being placed on optimising the body’s physiological functions instead. The thinking behind this is that, by normalising our skin’s natural functions, any problems in the skin should in turn be corrected. In line with this concept, a larger focus is being placed on the health and function of our skin’s barrier.
What is the skin barrier?
Think of our skin barrier like the bricks and mortar of a house. It is designed to provide a tightly-bound, waterproof shield that protects the contents inside, and keep out harmful intruders. It is comprised of layers of skin cells, all bound together by tight junctions and a gluey protein; desmosomes. On the surface, a blend of various bacteria reside, both good and bad, and these are also essential in maintaining correct acidity and function. Therefore, many skin experts include this microbiome when referring to the skin barrier.
Why is it important?
Maintaining healthy barrier function is crucial for maintaining beautiful, healthy skin, and delaying signs of ageing. A disrupted barrier can result in poor skin function, cellular damage, irritation, inflammatory skin condition, premature ageing, and infection. Some of the most common skin conditions may be a direct or indirect result of a disrupted barrier, without you even realising. For example, irritated skin conditions such as dermatitis may be experienced as a result of barrier impairment. Those suffering rosacea are more susceptible to worsened symptoms if their barrier health is disrupted, and even acne, breakouts or papules may be attributed to an unbalanced microbiome as a result of poor barrier function. Another consideration is inflammation, a primary culprit in premature ageing. A disrupted barrier can lead to heightened sensitivity and inflammation, which in turn results in higher production of free radicals. These free radicals not only trigger even more inflammation, but cause damage to things like collagen, elastin, essential skin oils, and tissue itself - all of which are essential to maintain when keeping signs of ageing at bay.
How does barrier function become disrupted?
Any number of factors can be responsible for impairing barrier function, both internal and external. The most common include ongoing high levels of stress, overuse of active ingredients or exfoliating agents, exposure to UV radiation, and untreated dryness and dehydration. Others include hormonal fluctuations, some medications, or incorrectly following aftercare protocols following clinical skin treatments. Research is also continuing to emerge on the link between gut health disruptions and impaired skin barrier function.
What can be done to improve barrier function?
The best course of action for those experiencing barrier impairment is to treat skin gently. Active ingredients and exfoliators should be avoided, and so too should clinical treatments that involve chemical peels, heat, or other mechanisms that trigger inflammation. Hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, and soothing agents like aloe vera, chamomile etc. should be used to combat irritation and prevent dehydration that inevitably occurs while the skin is inflamed.
Imulsive agents, such as squalane or shea butter, are often recommended to seal these ingredients in, create a protecting barrier, and prevent further dehydration from occurring.
Improving skin barrier function can not only increase comfort and potentially reduce unwanted conditions such as breakouts or irritation, but can optimise the skin’s health long-term. Ensuring the skin is happy and healthy both inside and out may be one of the best chances we have to delay signs of ageing, prevent damage to our youthful skin structures, and keep our cellular functions performing at their best.