Skin Care Ingredients and Facial Products

the science of the skin barrier - and how to give it what it needs
healthy skin barrier
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / Efetova

The outermost layer of the skin, the stratum corneum or epidermis, is essential for our health. It protects us from environmental toxins, UV, etc. But it’s more than just a protective lining: it’s part of a complex system that interacts with our cells to help keep our skin constantly balanced and in homeostasis. Our epidermis helps to prevent water loss, fights infections, and creates an ideal acidic environment for our skin’s microbiome.

Do facial products make your skin sting or feel tight and uncomfortable? Does your skin seem to be red and irritated or rough and flaky, no matter what you do? Are you dealing with chronic breakouts like acne, perioral dermatitis, eczema, or rosacea? These are all signs of a damaged skin barrier. The skin is the body’s gatekeeper to the outside world and one of the few organs that can regenerate itself. The skin craves homeostasis and, when supported correctly, a healthy skin barrier can heal and balance itself, making you less prone to irritation and breakouts in the first place. 

Why is barrier function so important? The answer comes down to hydration. When the barrier is intact, water is retained in the skin, which is necessary for enzymatic reactions and also for skin health. A strong barrier prevents bacteria, viruses, and other potential contaminants from entering the skin and triggering an inflammatory response. When the skin isn’t concerned about fighting invaders, it can focus on healing and regeneration. 

Is your skin barrier damaged?

While dry, rough, or flaky skin, or dealing with frequent breakouts of acne, perioral dermatitis, eczema, or rosacea may seem like obvious signs that something is amiss, other habits and conditions could also mean your skin barrier needs immediate attention! For example:

  • Skin feels tight and irritated after cleansing
  • Products make your skin sting or burn
  • Using harsh products to combat breakouts
  • Commonly taking long, hot showers, or washing your face with hot water 
  • Exfoliating with abrasive scrubs or towels
  • Regularly using the oil cleansing method

A word on oil cleansing: While many people swear by the oil-cleansing method, for some it can do more harm than good. The premise behind oil cleansing is simple: since "like dissolves like," cleansing oil will dissolve excess oil in your pores, and the follow-up hot compress will whisk it all away. But if your skin is already sensitized, this process may be too harsh: the hot compress may dry out and further damage your skin barrier, while the oils can clog and create a feeding ground for fungal acne, and allow bacteria and dead skin cells to build up on the skin.

The acid mantle and hydration

Skincare practices can literally make or break the skin barrier. If you are dealing with any form of skin condition, the skin barrier is already prone to further sensitization and irritation. Focusing on repairing the barrier first, and only then clearing up conditions like acne, eczema, or perioral dermatitis is the secret to healthy skin. One big mistake with chronic skin conditions is the overuse of harsh products to combat acne and other unwanted breakouts. These products are typically aimed at stripping the skin barrier and drying out the skin.

Instead, consider the pH levels of the products you use. Skin is protected by the acid mantle, a very fine, slightly acidic, protective film comprised of sebum and sweat that defends against contaminants, bacteria, and even viruses. The acid mantle is very sensitive and even the slightest shift in pH can compromise this delicate shield. To best support your acid mantle, look for a cleanser that closely mimics skin’s natural pH (which is slightly acidic, averaging somewhere around 4.7). Often labeled as “low pH,” these cleansers will ensure your skin’s acid mantle can do its job.

Along with choosing a low pH cleanser, a solid hydration ritual will support the skin barrier and decrease inflammatory response within the skin. You might have the best moisturizer that money can buy, but it won’t help if the skin isn’t hydrated. Water from the surface of your skin is continually being evaporated, which is known as transepidermal water loss (TEWL), and because of this, we need to make sure we drink plenty of water each day. Additionally, adding water to the skin before moisturizing, using a facial mist, or even just filtered water patted on the skin will help ensure your skin stays nice and hydrated.

Tip: Apply moisturizer to damp skin for maximum benefits! 

Key skin care ingredients

When considering which ingredients best support your skin barrier, look no further than these hydrating, gentle superheroes.

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is a water-loving ingredient that helps to attract and lock in moisture, making it a great skin hydrator. It forms a protective layer on the skin, boosts elasticity, helps the skin retain collagen, and keeps water on the surface of the skin. Use morning and night, layered under a moisturizer.

Squalane

Squalane is an acne-safe oil that is a hydrogenated version of squalene, a natural component of sebum, making it a uniquely beneficial ingredient. A common emollient in many moisturizers, it seals in moisture and helps to protect the skin barrier. Apply squalane at the end of your morning and evening routines.

Tip: When layering products, a good trick is to think “thinnest to thickest.” Start with your mists, light serums and oils, and finish with your gels, heavier oils, creams, and lotions.

Zinc oxide

Zinc oxide is found in most mineral-based sunscreens alongside titanium dioxide. An earth mineral that provides UVA and UVB protection, it works well for sensitized skin types or anyone who is struggling with a damaged skin barrier. When the skin is protected from sun exposure, it can focus its attention on healing and repair. Don’t skip the SPF!

Lifestyle tips for healthy skin

Looking at skin from a holistic perspective is foundational to its life-long health, and implementing a few simple lifestyle changes can mean all the difference for your skin!

Sleep

With the drying air of cooler weather, the skin barrier must work overtime to remain healthy. Getting quality sleep is key as during the sleep cycle, the skin goes into a state of repair and regeneration. Some studies have demonstrated that cell proliferation is thirty times higher at night than during the day!

Humidity 

Placing a humidifier beside your bed will help combat dry air, especially if you’re struggling with dry, rough, or flaky skin. Use in tandem with hyaluronic acid to get the most moisture possible!

Gut health

The gut and skin are the primary interfaces with the external environment. Maintaining a healthy gut contributes to skin allostasis—the restoration of healthy skin post-irritation and breakout or flare-up—and also decreases TEWL. Moving in a way your body loves, lowering and managing stress, and eating a whole foods diet can all help you get on track. When addressing gut health, it’s important to work with a healthcare provider to help address your specific concerns.

Everyone's skin reacts differently, and just because a product or ingredient works for one person does not necessarily mean it's going to work for you. Be your own skin expert, and pay attention to how your skin responds to the products you use, especially if you notice it’s not giving you the results you expected. Remember that beautiful, clear skin can happen when you’re taking care of yourself first!

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