You may have noticed the terms ‘skin barrier’ or ‘barrier function’ being used more frequently of late. But what does this really mean, and how does it relate to you and your skin routine? Bringing out the best in our skin has less to do with layering on as many serums as humanly possible, and more about focusing on the actual health of your skin. And if you haven’t yet found a routine that works well for you, barrier function could just be the key. So let’s go through the barrier function basics.
What is skin barrier function?
To put simply, when discussing skin barrier we refer to the outer layers of your skin (or epidermis) and the lipid (oil) matrix that holds this together. Consider it the ‘bricks and mortar’ of your tissue. Many also consider the skin’s natural bacterial inhabitants when utilising the term ‘skin barrier’, thanks to mounting scientific evidence that suggests skin bacteria play a vital role in skin barrier function.
Essentially, our epidermis acts as a protective shield, preventing substances from both entering and leaving the body. Skin cells are held together with tight junctions and a gluey lipid substance, and each individual cell is encased by a lipid membrane. When these lipid membranes are impaired, or the tight junctions holding cells together are compromised, is when problems can occur, including invasion of bad bacteria and increased inflammation and sensitivity. Keeping your barrier function in check means keeping skin cells, their bonds, the balance of good vs bad bacteria, in good health.
For the most part, poor barrier function can be recognised as skin ‘flare-ups’. There can be signs of sensitivity, redness, heat, itchiness, pustules or papules, rough texture, or general discomfort. Usually those affected will recognise that these signs are occurring outside of their usual skin behaviour. Sometimes this can occur as a response to a topical product, stress, significant hormonal fluctuations, medications, or over-treating or aggressive exfoliation of the skin. Even travelling or changes in climate can affect barrier function.
The most effective way to treat an impaired barrier is by soothing and calming the skin, pairing back your routine, and avoiding your active, stimulating products for a time. Several ingredients have been shown to offer effective improvement to barrier function and the repair of cellular membranes. They include:
A group of fatty acid molecules known to repair and restore cell lipid membranes. These are produced naturally by the body.
Barrier disruption and inflammation can be caused or exacerbated by dehydration (a lack of water in the skin) which can be addressed by incorporating ingredients that attract water molecules. HA does this very effectively.
Essential Fatty Acids, which are long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids derived from linolenic, linoleic and oleic acids. They are not produced by the body and must be consumed through the diet. They assist with the body’s production of ceramides, and help us produce and maintain moisture levels in tissue.
Ultraviolet radiation is a powerful barrier disrupter, breaking down tissue, protein, and lipid structures. To maintain and restore barrier function, sun protection is essential. A mineral sunscreen containing zinc is highly beneficial due to its anti-inflammatory and healing effects.
No matter your skin type or specific concerns, improving the function of your skin barrier should always be your primary focus during your skin routine. This will ensure your skin’s longevity, keep tissue and collagen damage at bay, protect from external damage (as well as internal causes like dehydration) and keep your skin cells functioning healthily for that natural glow!