It may not look like it on the surface, but your skin is constantly hard at work; the toughest job is of the uppermost layer, the skin barrier. Much like a security guard for your skin, the barrier is there to stop potential problems passing through and to protect what lies within - and it’s the weakness of this shield that is the underlying cause of sensitive skin . A thin, weak or damaged skin barrier allows irritants in, or irritates more easily - and so building up this surface layer could be the key to reducing skin sensitivity long term. In addition, when we're wearing a mask, our skin barrier needs to work extra hard to stop bacteria working it's way in and causing the dreaded maskne .
“The stratum corneum is a specialised layer that forms the outermost part of our epidermis,” explains cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting . "It’s a vital front-line, protecting us against the perils of the environment; UV, pollution, infection, toxic chemicals and so on. On a more superficial note, it’s the bit that we see, so it’s very important from a cosmetic point of view."
Why do some people have a weaker barrier? Aside from those environmental stressors, it could be down to your age or colouring. “Your skin barrier weakens with age,” Dr Howard Murad , board-certified dermatologist and founder of Murad skincare tells me. “Ultimately it’s about hydration - we’re born with a body composed of 75 per cent water, yet die with closer to 0 per cent; we dry up as we get older. Plus generally, the whiter or paler the skin, the thinner the barrier, which means you're more prone to rashes, redness and irritation."
Sensitive or not, building up the skin’s outer barrier will always benefit the appearance of the skin; but it’s the increased resilience that we fragile folk so desperately need. Dr Bunting explains why:
"If your skin barrier is working well, it will retain water effectively, maintaining good hydration balance, and be resilient yet flexible – it’s likely to look more radiant as a consequence. This means it contains the right amount of lipids, and the right amount of Natural Moisturising Factor. If it’s not, skin will look dry, dull and possibly scaly. This means chemicals can penetrate more readily and potentially cause inflammation, which manifests as skin sensitivity – these patients will often complain of stinging or redness, especially in context of using certain skincare ingredients."
Sound familiar? It’s a never-ending cycle, too - once you’ve had a reaction to a product, your skin’s uppermost layer is compromised, giving way to the potential for even more problems. Worse still, the steroid creams that are often prescribed for severe irritations, eczema and allergic reactions cause a thinning of the skin which, while reducing the inflammation, leave you vulnerable to further irritants. So how can you build up that all-important surface layer? Here’s 10 ways to do just that…
1. Go back to basics
Dr Bunting says overcomplicated routines are just asking for trouble - keep it simple for effective, nurturing skincare. "Take a long, hard look at [your] beauty practices – paring [your] routine right back is key. Get rid of products with astringents, like alcohol and witch hazel. And avoid foaming cleansers, which leach away our Natural Moisturising Factor.” Try Pai’s 100 per cent detergent-free Camellia & Rose Gentle Cream Cleanser , £27.20
2. No scrubs
"I’d recommend cutting right back on physical exfoliation – so many people are using brushes and cleansing cloths too harsh for their skin-type and developing problems as a consequence,” advises Dr Bunting. Ditch the hardcore brushes and go old school with a fresh flannel, or if you really like your gadgets try the Foreo Luna Ultra Sensitive - it’s smooth enough that it’s more like a massage for your skin.
3. Shop for the right ingredients
As always with sensitive skin issues, reading the labels of your products is a must to make sure you’re getting the building blocks you need. " Niacinamide is a great ingredient to try – it boosts ceramide production, thereby improving lipid barrier function. By pre-treating with this first, I can often get patients to tolerate more potent ‘actives’ like retinoids,” says Dr Bunting, who recommends Olay Regenerist 3 Point Super Age Defying Cream in Fragrance Free, available at Boots.
"I also recommend using a moisturiser with linoleic acid, an omega 6 fatty acid. It’s an essential fatty acid that we can’t manufacture ourselves, so we must obtain it through diet or topical application. It helps repair barrier function and is an effective moisturising agent. Oils, such as safflower and sunflower oil contain linoleic acid, so can be helpful."
Try Epionce Medical Barrier Cream , from £31 or see which products the experts recommend to improve your skin barrier here.
4. Mind your pH
"Detergents (eg. sodium lauryl sulfate) are my biggest no-no,” says Sarah Brown , founder of sensitive skin range Pai Skincare. "They strip the skin of its natural oils, leaving the barrier dry, exposed and susceptible to irritation. They also have an alkalising effect on the skin, throwing off pH balance and disrupting the skin's natural processes. “Active” acids, such as salicylic acid for example, should also be avoided as these remove the top layers of skin.”
5. Keep it cool
Cleanse with tepid water and don’t put your face under the shower - hot water will only strip the skin; showers and baths should not be overly hot in general. Avoid itching, too, as this will damage the skin’s surface even further.
6. Do some damage limitation
It’s not just about building the barrier up - you also need the ingredients that will minimise any incoming stressors to look after it in the long run. "Protecting against free radical damage can help maintain a strong skin barrier, so look for antioxidants in your products. If you have sensitive skin, natural extracts with powerful antioxidant properties are a good option (eg. natural vitamin E),” explains Sarah Brown.
Dr Murad agrees, “As well as the lipids you need good antioxidants and anti-inflammatories - vitamins A, C and E, green tea extract, or even food such as ginger , pomegranate, and colourful fruit and veg will help."
7. Don’t stress
Building up your barrier is not as simple as using the right skincare; think of it in the same way as you do your immune system - you need to feed its strength from all angles, mentally and physically. “Your skin [is] your biggest organ and needs to be looked after from the inside and out,” says Sarah Brown. "Make sure you’re using the right products that protect and repair your skin barrier, but also look at your diet and stress levels. Stress is proven to slow down the skin healing process, including skin barrier recovery. So, daily stress or poor stress management can leave the skin barrier in a permanently weakened state.” Read more about stress and sensitivity, with tips on easing stress in my previous column here .
8. Supplement your diet
Thanks to Japan’s forward-thinking nutraceutical companies, you don’t have to rely on topical applications to boost the skin. "Ceramides are present in many of the foods we eat including wheat and rice but the problem is that we cannot get sufficient quantities to optimally rejuvenate skin,” explains Shabir Daya of Victoria Health. "The good news is that wheat ceramides are identical to those on the skin. Unlike topical creams or wheat germ oil that enjoy limited efficacy, oral ceramides are absorbed into the skin from within. In trials, 95 per cent of participants experienced complete rehydration of stubbornly dry, flaky skin after 90 days with total elimination of itching and cracking.” Try these Skin Restoring Ceramides , £25.
Essential fatty acids or omegas can be taken as a supplement, too. "They’re anti-inflammatory, so help calm skin or soothe aggravating conditions from the inside out,” explains Pai’s Sarah Brown. "They also help prevent water loss that can lead to irritation and discomfort. I take an oil form straight from the spoon, and always store mine in the fridge to keep it at its best. EFAs are very fragile and prone to oxidising."
9. You are what you eat
“The healthier you are generally, the better your skin will be,” Dr Murad tells me. “Eat omega-rich foods such as cold water fish, flax seed and walnuts; when you eat well, those omegas eventually go to the surface of the skin. It’s about making every cell in the body as healthy as possible."
10. Wear sunscreen
One of the easiest ways to protect your skin’s barrier is by wearing a daily SPF - but just like the rest of your skincare, it should be full of those antioxidants too so that as well as defending your skin against the sun’s damaging rays, it also adds protection from other environmental stressors. Read my ultimate guide to sun cream for sensitive skin before you buy.
11. Mind your microbiome
Microbiome is essential to skin barrier function, according to Marie Drago of microbiome skincare brand Gallinée. "The microbiome is a physical layer of protection on the skin and part of the acid mantle, which is the chemical layer of protection of the skin. Microbiome also regulates the immune response of the skin, lowering inflammation.
To protect the microbiome and thus strengthen the skin barrier, Marie recommends using pre, pro and postbiotic-rich skincare , such as the Gallinée Prebiotic Face Vinegar toner , £19.55, which is full of prebiotics and fermented postbiotics for repairing the skin barrier and giving a healthy glow. Check out our edit of microbiome skin mists that will help support your skin barrier.
Read the experts' guide to the best products to buy to improve your skin barrier here