How to Repair a Damaged Skin Barrier

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How to Repair a Damaged Skin Barrier featured image
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Also known as the stratum corneum or the epidermis—the outermost layer of skin—the skin barrier is the body’s first line of defense. Comprising mostly lipids, including ceramides, the skin barrier protects against pollution, UV damage, and infection, among other things. “Think of the skin barrier like a rubber impervious suit covering the body externally,” says Delray Beach, FL dermatologist Dr. Janet Allenby. “The skin’s natural barrier helps to both seal in moisture and protect skin against acne eruptions due to bacteria buildup,” adds holistic skin-care expert Tammy Fender, founder of her eponymous skin-care brand

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to experience a weakened or damaged skin barrier. It’s especially prevalent these days, as most of us are using heavy-duty skin care, like acid-based exfoliators and retinol. I’ve stripped my skin barrier on a few different occasions, and it wasn’t pretty: My skin became hot, red and tight, and stayed that way for nearly a couple hours. I knew something wasn’t right—this wasn’t the warm tingle that signals a product “is working.” I immediately washed my face with a gentle cleanser, slapped on a thick layer of repair balm and followed advice from the pros.

If the same or similar has happened to you, you’re not alone. There are dozens of similar stories on Reddit, more than 337,000 #skinbarrier posts on Instagram, and more than 300 million views of the hashtag on TikTok. Here’s how to repair a damaged skin barrier and get that beautiful glow back, stat.

What Are the Signs of a Damaged Skin Barrier?

Dr. Allenby says, “Previously healthy skin barriers can be compromised due to poor health, exposure to excessive noxious elements like sun, chemicals or cigarette smoke, or the natural aging process.” Skin-care products can be the culprit in certain situations, too. Some physical face scrubs, if used too aggressively, can create micro-tears in the epidermis. And some potent acids, if used on sensitive skin or combined with other heavy-hitting actives, can result in temporary issues. “When you think of damaged skin, it usually means something has disrupted the barrier function,” Dr. Allenby explains. “The skin cells adherence to each other change prematurely due to insulting exposures.”

Physical signs that the skin barrier has become damaged are a rougher skin texture and irritated complexion, says Dr. Allenby. This usually means redness and/or flakiness, and even some itchiness and inflammation, adds celebrity aesthetician Nerida Joy. “The skin becomes easily irritated,” she explains, noting that it might feel really uncomfortable. “Sometimes it’s oily, but on other days it will feel dry. It may also become slippery to the touch and doesn’t feel like it’s absorbing anything.”

What Does a Destroyed Skin Barrier Look Like?

If the skin barrier is weakened long-term, Dr. Allenby says the skin can be permanently damaged. “There becomes a loss of the spring of the tissue as the collagen and elastin of the skin are depleted. This causes the skin to look thinner and become more fragile and unable to sustain trauma. Other long-term effects include discoloration and dryness.”

How to Repair a Damaged Skin Barrier

“You have to get back to basics,” says Joy. “Stop using products with active ingredients and switch to a very simple regimen. Start with a gentle, non-foaming cleanser and follow it with a simple, hydrating moisturizer that contains gentle ingredients such as shea butter, allantoin, glycerin, arnica, squalane, etc. When you cleanse your face, make sure the water is on the cooler side and don’t use any scrubs or drying clay masks.” I personally love repairing balms rather than traditional moisturizers when my skin is compromised. Two products that work wonders for me are Furtuna Skin Replenishing Balm and Scarlett Johansson’s The Outset Botanical Barrier Rescue Balm.

“Skin-care products containing growth factors and exosomes may also be used to help skin recover,” says Dr. Allenby. Ceramides play a big role in the repair process as well. They make up half of the skin’s lipid barrier, so when the barrier is disrupted, they need to be replenished. The cult-classic CeraVe Moisturizing Cream ($20) can help, and it’s fragrance-free.

Which Skin-Care Ingredients Should you Avoid When You Have a Damaged Skin Barrier?

As you tend to your damaged skin barrier, it’s best to avoid strong actives like retinol, glycolic acid and high concentrations of vitamin C. Dermatologists also recommend steering clear of products containing fragrance, whether it’s synthetic or from essential oils. It’s also advised to avoid physical exfoliants like scrubs. However, Fender says that a gentle exfoliant like her cult-favorite Epi-Peel can be used once a week to encourage skin cell renewal. “And to err on the side of caution, you can actually blend a small dab of Epi-Peel into a gentle, pH-balanced cleanser to create an extra-gentle scrub. Then remove it with a warm—not hot—wash cloth.”

Sunscreen use is imperative as well, notes Dr. Allenby. You may be hesitant to apply it on fragile skin, but choosing to skip it and risking sun damage on a weak skin barrier is much worse. “Choose a physical sunblock that is high in titanium oxide and zinc,” says Joy. “I suggest avoiding chemical sunscreens because they penetrate the skin barrier and may cause irritation. Physical, or mineral, sunscreens sit on the surface of the skin and reflect UV light rather than absorb it.”

How Long Does it Take to Repair the Skin Barrier?

Typically, experts tell us it takes about two weeks to repair minimal damage to the skin barrier. For moderate damage, “it can take three months to repair the skin,” says Dr. Allenby. “If the damage is extensive, it can take several years. If the damage causes scarring, it may be irreversible.”

How to Tell If Your Skin Barrier Is Healthy Again

“Your skin will no longer feel tight and sensitive,” says Fender. “It will feel thicker and be soft and supple to the touch. You’ll also notice that your skin will absorb products without feeling slippery, or as if products are just sitting on the surface of your skin. It will not have a midday-oily feeling, but will remain consistent with its look and feel.” Redness and breakouts should also be reduced, notes Joy. A healthy skin barrier is essential for glowing skin.

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