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Dealing with a damaged skin barrier? These derm tips will help

Avoiding over-exfoliating and using gentle skin care products are good places to start.
TODAY Illustration / Guido Mieth / Getty Images / Amazon / Ulta / Karve Beauty

Between wearing makeup, being outside in extreme temperatures, donning face masks and everything in between, we put our skin through a lot. It's no surprise that there are effects we can't see, particularly when it comes to skin barrier damage.

Shop TODAY spoke to a few dermatologists about what exactly the skin barrier is, how we can avoid damage and, if the damage has already occurred, how to repair it.

What is the skin barrier?

The skin barrier (also called the lipid barrier) isn't so much a thing as it is a function, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch explained.

"The barrier is a function that is being described. I say that because a lot of times people think, 'I’ve damaged my barrier' is kind of like chipping the corner of a table. It’s not a physical bit of damage so much as you’re interfering with a function that it serves."

The barrier has both internal and physical functions, according to the Indian Journal of Medical Research. Internally, the barrier serves to maintain homeostasis and protects from excess water loss from the body. Physical, the barrier serves to protect against external threats like allergens, infectious agents and chemicals.

What damages the skin barrier?

Over-exfoliation

Hirsch, along with board-certified dermatologists Dr. Mary Lupo and Dr. Debra Jaliman, agree that over-exfoliation is one way to damage the skin's barrier.

"People tend to come to this place after they discover exfoliation," said Hirsch. "A lot of reasons for that, not perhaps the least of which, is that a lot of the products that are sold for exfoliation are not particularly well labeled. A lot of them say things like, 'Oh, use me twice a day!' and that’s like, don’t do that!"

Environmental conditions

Environmental conditions like low air humidity or too much sun exposure can also damage the skin's barrier, according to Jaliman.

Aside from regular seasonal environmental changes, harsh stretches winter can be especially rough on the skin. "There’s less moisture in the air, the wind and everything that’s coming with that, and then not being sensitive to that with how you treat your skin [and] what you treat it with," Hirsch said.

Washing with hot water

Lupo emphasized the importance of avoiding hot water while washing your face or body.

"Anytime you use hot water, you are going to literally melt these lipids that are in the skin, the natural lipids [like] fatty acids, cholesterol, triglycerides [and] ceramides. All of those things that are naturally in your skin that form what’s called the lipid barrier," she explained.

"The old analogy was [the lipid barrier is] sort of like the mortar between the bricks because the intercellular lipids go between the keratinocytes and that helps seal water in your skin," Lupo shared. With these lipids melted away, your barrier becomes compromised and skin will become more easily dehydrated.

Using harsh cleansers

Jaliman said cleansers containing ingredients like sodium lauryl sulfate or any kind of detergent or soap can damage the skin's barrier by stripping the skin of its natural oils.

Skin conditions

Genetic skin conditions that increase inflammation — like eczema, rosacea and psoriasis — can also damage the skin's barrier, according to Jaliman and Lupo.

"Any condition that increases inflammation compromises the lipid barrier. When the skin is inflamed, the hydration and the lipids...all get compromised from the inflammation. It’s a vicious cycle because the inflammation dehydrates the skin and the dehydration further increases the inflammation of the skin," explained Lupo.

How to avoid damage to the skin barrier

"The key is [to try to] do no harm," Lupo said. She recommends washing your skin with tepid to cooler water. Her other tip is to avoid scrubs of any kind.

If you really want to exfoliate, she offers two ways to safely do so. There's enzymatic exfoliation with things like pumpkin extract, but be sure the product doesn't have alpha hydroxy acids in it, she warns. Follow it up with a moisturizer that contains lactic acid, which she called "exfoliative without being dehydrating."

The other way you can exfoliate is by lightly shaving your face. "It’s the same as dermaplaning and it removes the vellus hairs and it removes the top layer of dead keratinocytes. And there’s no chemical with it of any kind, so you’re not going to dehydrate your skin by doing that," Lupo explained.

Jaliman recommended being very gentle with your skin by using a mild cleanser and a moisturizer and to not exfoliate too much. For your moisturizer, she advises picking one with hyaluronic acid, glycerin or ceramides.

Hirsch also suggested only use one active ingredient at a time. "You [should] never introduce more than one active [ingredient]," she said. Once you introduce that active ingredient into your skin care routine, it's important to make sure you're fully adjusted to it, which she says can take weeks to months.

"Realize that it’s not a contest to use the most potent version of everything or to use it for the longest period of time or whatever. The goal is to just get the effect of exfoliating that you want, but gently," she said.

How to repair the skin barrier

Similar to avoiding damage to the skin's barrier, the first step in repairing the barrier post-damage is using a gentle cleanser. "A lot of people use exfoliating cleansers that have glycolic acid or salicylic acid. You’d want to use a cleanser that has glycerin or that has hyaluronic acids or ceramides," Jaliman saied. Lupo shared the same recommendation, adding cholesterols to the mix which are "bad for your arteries but very good for your skin."

When picking products for your new gentle routine, Jaliman also advised keeping in mind your skin's pH and choosing a product with a pH similar to your own so that you don't disrupt the balance. (The average skin pH ranges between 4 and 6.)

While you're adjusting your skin care routine and paying closer attention to ingredients, Hirsch recommended removing products with active ingredients like retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids that can irritate the skin.

"You want to take away anything that might be irritating. Then you can swap over to a gentle moisturizer because you don’t want to introduce something particularly irritating or problematic. Then, sunscreen — super, super, super gentle sunscreen is [what you want to use]."

Hirsch's most important tip? "Stop doing whatever it is you're doing that got you into this mess in the first place!" She believes that people tend to have a "no pain, no gain" philosophy for skin care, but that's not the best approach. Similar to exercising, it's okay to have a slight adjustment period in the beginning where your skin may react differently, but if it's ongoing and painful, then you shouldn't continue doing it.

Dermatologist-recommended products to repair the skin barrier

Vanicream Gentle Facial Cleanser

This gentle cleanser contains glycerin and comes recommended by Jaliman. Not only is it oil- and sulfate-free, it also boasts a near-five-star average on Amazon.

CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser

Jaliman also called out this hydrating cleanser from CeraVe for its use of hyaluronic acid, ceramides and glycerin.

"Those [ingredients are] very gentle...so that you wouldn’t be stripping the surface oils," she said.

Eau Thermale Avène Cicalfate+ Restorative Protective Cream

Once you've washed with a gentle cleanser, Jaliman recommended following up with products specifically for repairing the skin. She likes this cream from Avène because it has mineral oil, triglycerides, vegetable oil and glycerin.

CeraVe Moisturizing Cream

Jaliman likes this cream because it has glycerin and ceramides. It's a top bestseller in body creams on Amazon and has over 74,000 verified five-star ratings.

La Roche-Posay Thermal Spring Water

"Optimally, you want to combine hydration with water with...lipids like a ceramide," Lupo said before recommending this spray mist that can be used as a toner replacement.

Vanicream Moisturizing Cream

Jaliman called out this moisturizing cream because it contains petrolatum and simethicone, two ingredients that help seal your skin's barrier.

Krave Beauty Great Barrier Relief

Hirsch called this restorative and reparative serum "wonderful." It's designed specifically to heal a damaged skin barrier with a blend of conditioning oils, sodium hyaluronate (a derivative of hyaluronic acid), niacinamide and squalane.

First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream

Shea butter, squalane, ceramides, glycerin and colloidal oatmeal are key ingredients that make this First Aid Beauty cream a must-have, according to Jaliman and Hirsch.

Aveeno Skin Relief Moisture Repair Cream

Made with ceramide and a triple oat complex, this Aveeno cream is designed to provide intense moisture and help heal very dry skin. While Jaliman called this cream out specifically, Lupo also mentioned the Aveeno line of creams because the oat extracts are beta-glucans, which are natural anti-inflammatories of the skin.

Eucerin Advanced Repair Cream

Lupo also likes Eucerin products because they contain ceramides. This advanced repair cream contains natural moisturizing factors like amino acids that are naturally found on the skin.

Neutrogena Hydro Boost Body Gel Cream

Jaliman recommended this top-rated body gel cream from Neutrogena. It contains hyaluronic acid to help your skin retain moisture, leaving it feeling hydrated and smooth.

Vichy Mineralizing Thermal Water

Lupo also offered this option for a hydrating facial mist. It contains 15 rare minerals to help strengthen the skin's barrier and fight aging.

Green Goo Skin Repair Healing Salve

Jaliman called out this salve because it contains coconut oil and aloe vera. This plant-based product also contains blue chamomile, vitamin E and rosehip seed oil.

SkinCeuticals Triple Lipid Restore 2:4:2

While Hirsch acknowledged that this product is on the pricier side, she also called it a "lovely, lovely product" and says it's worth the higher price point. Key ingredients of this treatment include natural cholesterol, fatty acids and pure ceramides among other vitamins and essential oils.

Eau Thermale Avène Thermal Spring Water

They say good things come in threes, so it's only right that Lupo offered a third option for a hydrating mist. This highly-rated option has over 7,000 verified five-star ratings on Amazon and one reviewer even called it "magical fairy juice."

Aveeno Calm + Restore Oat Gel Facial Moisturizer

Hirsch called out this line from Aveeno as an affordable option. "You don’t need to spend a lot — the Aveeno will do you just fine," she says.

Restorsea Pro Intensive Treament 10x

Lupo recommended this treatment for a gentle enzymatic exfoliation that is suitable for sensitive skin. "It’s an extract from salmon roe and it dissolves the eggshell so the larvae can get out of the eggshell." She noted the product is worth the high price point, calling it "very high end but it is extraordinarily gentle."

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