As a skincare blogger I try a lot of new products. I have always been fond of putting things on my face. Seriously, I enjoy the hunt for the latest and greatest products and often lament that I don’t have enough faces! But there is a certain amount of caution that needs to be taken when you are in this line of work. Knowing what your skin likes and doesn’t like is a big part of it.
I often avoid products that include ingredients on my no-no list. I also actively avoid products with added chemical exfoliants because I already have my exfoliation game down strong.
Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know that I encountered a product that was a little secretive about its ingredients list. For a week I was unknowingly putting a ton of lactic, malic and citric acid on my face. Ouch.
So I had definitely over exfoliated my face. On top of that wicked serum of fury, I also was also using my normal 8% azelaic acid and vitamin C!
I definitely was experiencing sensitive skin but what I began to realize was that the damage done was much deeper than what I originally thought.
It took a few weeks for the initial sensitivity to go away, but then something else started to happen. My dehydrated skin decided to go postal, burning in the middle of the afternoon and producing buckets of oil (more than usual). I started to experience stinging from time tested products that have been in my routine for years. And I was getting bizarre, huge, blind pimples which is totally not my skin’s MO.
I started to realize that I had compromised my moisture barrier.
That is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the skincare community (even by me!) but I don’t think we have a deep understanding of what that means. Or how to fix it. At least I didn’t, until now.
In my research (Googling) I have become a moisture barrier expert (according to me) and I want to share my findings, because that moisture barrier thing is actually kind of important.
So what the H is a moisture barrier anyways?
The moisture barrier is found in the epidermis layer of the skin, which is the top most layer of skin sitting on top of the dermis. The very top of the epidermis is called the stratum corneum, and this is where we find the moisture barrier.
The moisture barrier is essentially dead skin cells that lay flat and are held together by a glue made up of naturally occurring ceramides, fatty acids and lipids. These cells are constantly shedding and renewing.
The moisture barrier works to keep moisture and oil inside of the skin while acting as a barrier (ah, see what I did there!) to keep outside pollutants, irritants and bacteria like Propionibacterium acnes (the wicked witch of the pimples) out.
So what happens to this fabled moisture barrier when it’s compromised?
Quite simply, the barrier function of your moisture barrier no longer works.
When the barrier is compromised you will experience something called trans epidermal water loss (TEWL). Since the barrier is weakened, it can no longer hold that water and oil inside. As the day goes on, your skin will become drier and drier and the water and oil evaporate off your skin.
This obviously results in dry skin. But it can also result in skin that is irritated, sensitive and often burning or stinging. (sound familiar?)
But it gets better. I mean worse.
Skin is an interesting beast. Your skin will see all this water loss as a great time to jump in and help. Skin can produce its own moisture in the form of oil, but interestingly enough it can’t produce its own water. I call this a flaw in evolution.
So you got some hot, burning, dry skin and your skin jumps in with a bucket of oil big enough to fry some chicken. Thanks, skin.
This is often referred to as dehydrated skin.
But it gets worse. (dang skin, really?)
That barrier function isn’t working to keep the nasties out. You can expect more breakouts as your skin is more susceptible to acne causing bacteria. Your skin will also become more congested due to irritants getting past that weak AF barrier, and you can expect way more clogged pores and blackheads thanks to the buckets of oil your skin will be producing.
Wait, I’ve heard people talk about an acid mantle, is that the same thing?
While the acid mantle is not the same thing as the moisture barrier, it is very much related to it. so let’s switch gears a little.
The acid mantle is the layers of tissue that are acidic and are found in the stratum corneum, the home of the moisture barrier.
The acid mantle thrives at a PH ranging between 4.7 and 5.5 (give or take, everyone is a unique snowflake). If that PH balance is thrown off, bad things will happen.
Especially to the moisture barrier. If the PH of the stratum corneum goes over the 5.5 PH range, the glue that holds the barrier together will start to thin. All those ceramides, fatty acids and lipids will no longer hold the protective skin cells in place, resulting in a weakened barrier function.
This just drives home the importance of low PH cleansers and PH balanced skincare. Want to know more about low PH in skincare? Check out this post.
So what are some of the ways I can F up my moisture barrier?
Oh, so you want to mess up your delicate moisture barrier? Alright, be my guest. Why not start with:
Use a cleanser with a PH higher than 5.5
Over exfoliate with cleansing devices
Wash your face more than twice a day
Use harsh scrubs
Wash your face with hot water
Use drying products containing alcohol
Slather your face in fragranced skincare
Expose your skin to dry air
Follow internet advice to put lemon, baking soda or toothpaste on your skin
So now my barrier is nice and compromised, how do I go about healing it?
The first thing you need to address is all the water your skin is losing. Remember, your skin can’t do shiz to replace that water, so it’s all up to you and your routine to add it back in.
Focus your toner, essence and serum steps on watery, hydrating products. You want to look out for ingredients like hyaluronic acid, aloe and snail.
Hyaluronic acid will be your best friend during this time. Hyaluronic acid is able to draw moisture into your skin all day long! It can actually attract and bind about 6 liters of water in one gram of hyaluronic acid! This is literally TEWL in reverse, and your skin can’t get enough of this hydration heavy-weight right now.
After you have added the water back in, it’s time to do some sweet barrier loving.
You need to focus serums, emulsions, oils and creams on ingredients that will replenish the glue that makes up your barrier.
You need those ceramides (lots of ceramides) fatty acids, peptides, urea, and lipids. Niacinamide is also an interesting ingredient that can help stimulate the natural production of ceramides on our skin.
And then you need to seal it all in, because TEWL is a bitch. A nice occlusive cream or sleeping pack as a final step is my favorite way to ensure everything I just put on my face stays there. A layer of Vaseline is a community favorite as well.
Anything else I can do?
Sleep with a humidifier on, especially if you live in a dry climate or have a lot of forced air (heat and air conditioning) in your house.
Use lukewarm water for your shower or try to shield your face from too hot of water from the shower. Same goes for washing your face.
Consider giving up chemical exfoliation for about a month as your skin heals.
Don’t introduce new products into your routine. Your skin is super sensitive and you won’t really be able to tell if a product is working as it should, because your skin isn’t working as it should.
Keep your routine bland and boring as your skin repairs that moisture barrier. Stick with old and tested products that add lots of hydration and barrier loving ingredients.
Be patient. Repairing the damage done to your barrier will take some time. Expect about a month or so for the initial burning and stinging to go away and even after that be cautious. Your barrier might be healed, but you will need to continue to strengthen it so this does not happen again. Expect about 3-6 months to really be “back to normal.” Practice good barrier habits and understand that YMMV!