Receive a FREE online physician consultation + FREE priority shipping when you order now

Blog

Welcome to FaceForward

Get the scoop on all things beauty, wellness, and skincare.

Skincare 101

Skin Barrier Basics: Everything You Need to Know

If you’ve been following the latest beauty and skincare trends lately, you may have seen a greater emphasis on protecting the skin barrier. 

If you're wondering what all the fuss is about and if the skin barrier really is that important, this article is for you.

Below we outline what the skin barrier is and explain some of the factors that can lead to it becoming damaged. 

We’ve also included a list of effective ingredients and skincare practices to help you repair and keep your skin barrier healthy.

Summary

  • Maintaining and replenishing your skin barrier, the outermost layer of your skin, can improve the health and look of your complexion. 
  • Ingredients that moisturize and support key cells in this layer of skin can help strengthen and maintain your skin barrier, including ceramides, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, and more.

What Is the Skin Barrier?

Before we go into more detail about how the skin barrier works, it’s important to first understand where it is (besides the obvious).

The skin barrier is located in the stratum corneum—the outermost layer of the epidermis. This is the very top layer of the skin that we can see and touch. 

Due to the fact that the skin barrier is exposed to the outside world, it protects the skin’s inner cells and layers from external damage. It also helps the skin retain moisture. 

There are three kinds of cells in the skin barrier that help protect your skin:

Keratinocytes

These are cells that we can see or touch, and they form the outer layer of the skin barrier. Keratinocytes work together with our skin’s natural oils, fatty acids and ceramides to form the acid mantle. This is a protective layer that helps the skin barrier fight harmful bacteria and fungi.

The fatty acids found in the skin barrier are also essential for helping keratinocytes keep the acid mantle hydrated.  The protective layer that’s formed by keratinocytes and fatty acids is the skin’s first line of defense in protecting itself from pollutants and irritants.

Filaggrin

Filaggrin is a protein that helps our skin produce and strengthen keratinocytes. As mentioned above, these cells are important for building and maintaining a strong and healthy skin barrier.

Filaggrin is also essential for keeping the skin moisturized and helping it maintain a normal pH level. Although the skin’s natural pH level sits at around 5.7, some skincare products and harsh ingredients can cause it to fluctuate. 

When the skin’s pH levels are abnormal, it can trigger inflammation and bacterial infections, which can cause painful and invasive acne outbreaks.

Langerhans Cells

Langerhans cells are essential for keeping the skin healthy and helping it fight bacterial infections. These are immune cells and part of your body’s normal defense system.

Not only do they help our skin fight inflammation, but they also protect it from harmful bacteria that can cause acne breakouts. Langerhans cells can be found in each layer of the epidermis. This ensures that every layer of the skin is protected from external damage. 

Why Is Proper Skin Barrier Function so Important?

The skin barrier is located in the epidermis and is the very first organ exposed to the outside world.

This means that it’s also the very first line of defense for keeping pathogens from entering and damaging the inner layers of the skin, and further. Deeper layers of the skin are important for keeping the cells healthy from the inside. 

They are also responsible for producing new skin cells and protecting the skin from UV radiation and bacteria. 

While the inner layers of the skin are important for the overall health of your complexion, they can’t function properly if the skin barrier is damaged. 

When the skin barrier is damaged, it can make all of the skin’s layers more susceptible to bacterial infections, dryness, and irritation.

By protecting deeper layers of the skin, the skin barrier ensures that every part of the skin can function properly to give you a healthy and radiant complexion.

A woman examining her skin in the mirror

What Can Damage The Skin Barrier?

As the outermost layer of the epidermis, the skin barrier is prone to damage from environmental and lifestyle factors, as well as harsh skincare products.

The alcohols and fragrances that are found in many skincare products are known to cause irritation and cracks in the skin barrier. This causes the skin to lose moisture—leaving it feeling dry, itchy and more vulnerable to damage.

When the skin barrier becomes dehydrated, it also struggles to repair itself effectively. This is because moisturization is essential for a strong acid mantle—the skin barrier’s protective layer of cells and fatty acids.   

Genetic skin conditions like rosacea and eczema can also contribute to the skin barrier becoming damaged.

Factors That Can Damage the Skin Barrier

Let's take a closer look at what can damage the skin barrier and how these effects can manifest on the skin.

Poor Lifestyle and Dietary Choices

Poor lifestyle choices like smoking, not getting enough sleep, and excessive stress can cause skin barrier damage.

Nicotine products contribute to free radicals that break down the skin’s protective cells. This leaves the skin vulnerable to damage and less able to repair itself. 

A lifestyle that’s filled with stress and a lack of sleep can increase cortisol levels in your body.

High cortisol levels can lower your immune system’s response and trigger inflammation, which has been shown to break down important proteins in the skin barrier. This increases the risk of damage from external factors like pathogens, and skin irritants. It also makes the skin more susceptible to bacterial infections that may contribute to severe acne or even wounds.

Exposure to Environmental Conditions

Exposure to extreme weather and environmental conditions can also cause the skin barrier to become damaged over time.  

In fact, cold temperatures are harshest on the skin because there is less moisture in the air for the skin barrier to naturally replenish itself. This means that our skin becomes dehydrated much faster than it would in warmer temperatures.

Ultraviolet damage from sun exposure is another key factor in skin barrier health. Quality sun protection is perhaps the single most important thing you can do for your skin. Those who tan or burn frequently are at a much higher risk of skin cancer, for example.

Using Harsh Skincare Products and Practices

Many skincare products contain exfoliating ingredients that can damage the skin and strip it of its natural protective oils if used too frequently or the wrong ingredients.

Some of the most common ingredients known to irritate the skin are alcohols and fragrances.

Washing your face with water that's too hot can also dry out the skin. This is because hot water opens pores and strips oils. It damages and causes irritation to keratinocytes within the skin barrier. 

If you don’t use a product that can replenish these cells in the skin barrier, or work to keep it protected in the first place, it leaves the inner layers of the skin dehydrated and more susceptible to damage.

A woman washing her face with a smile

Genetic Skin Conditions 

Skin conditions like rosacea and eczema trigger inflammatory reactions which can damage the skin barrier too. Rosacea causes blood vessels to dilate and leak into the second layer of the skin—known as the dermis. 

This is what gives you the flushed appearance that’s associated with this condition. The skin also swells and thickens the tissue of the epidermis.

This can decrease natural oil and fatty acid production—two essential substances for the skin barrier and acid mantle to function properly. 

Similarly, eczema decreases the production of filaggrin cells. 

As mentioned before, filaggrin cells help build and strengthen keratinocytes, which are important for maintaining a healthy skin barrier. When our skin’s ability to produce essential proteins decreases, it’s unable to fully protect itself and becomes more vulnerable to damage.

How Can You Tell If You Have A Damaged Skin Barrier?

The signs of a compromised skin barrier will change the appearance of the skin. Common symptoms to look for include:

  • Dry and itchy skin
  • Flaking or peeling
  • Discolored patches and generally uneven skin tone 
  • Appearance of sagging skin 
  • Redness 
  • Sensitive skin

If the skin barrier is damaged and unable to prevent harmful irritants and pathogens from entering the skin, you may experience more frequent breakouts or bacterial infections. 

This may present as whiteheads, blackheads, or more painful bumps called nodules.

If you're concerned about adverse reactions on your skin, it’s important that you seek medical attention. 

What Can You Do to Repair or Improve Skin Barrier Function? 

Although the skin barrier is exposed to a range of potentially damaging factors each day, there are a few things that you can do to protect it.

Investing in skincare products with non-irritating and moisture-boosting ingredients is one of the most effective steps you can take to repair a damaged skin barrier and keep it healthy.

At Nava MD, we formulate our solutions with the skin’s health in mind.

That’s why our range of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) products contain ingredients like squalane, niacinamide, and glycerin to promote optimal skin barrier function and preserve its natural healing capabilities.

Below, we go into more detail about common ingredients and what to look for when you shop for new skincare products. We’ve also included a step-by-step skin care routine that will help you replenish and repair a damaged skin barrier.

Three Effective Ingredients for a Healthy Skin Barrier

Squalane

Squalane mimics the skin’s natural oil production process to keep the skin hydrated—an important part of a healthy skin barrier. Squalane also has soothing properties, which makes it a good option for people who have dry or sensitive skin.

This ingredient also has antioxidant properties which protect the skin cells from being damaged by free radicals, UV radiation, and certain pollutants.

Niacinamide

Niacinamide is a form of vitamin B3, an important nutrient for maintaining healthy skin. Not only does niacinamide hydrate the skin, but it also helps reduce redness and combat free radicals.

Niacinamide can help build proteins like ceramides and keratinocytes that are essential for a strong and well-functioning skin barrier. Both of these cells help the skin retain moisture and keep it firm and healthy. 

Niacinamide is a good option for people with rosacea and eczema because it has moisturizing properties, soothes the skin, and fights inflammation. It’s also a gentle ingredient that doesn’t over-strip or damage the skin barrier, making it safe for all skin types to use daily.

Glycerin 

Glycerin acts as a humectant when applied to the skin. Humectants are substances that help the skin retain moisture. Not only can they help keep the skin hydrated, but they also have softening properties. This makes glycerin a great ingredient for people who have dry or rough skin.

In addition to its ability to moisturize the skin, glycerin also has antimicrobial properties. This means that it can protect the skin from harmful bacteria and infections. 

Antimicrobial ingredients are good for maintaining skin barrier health because they can increase the skin’s ability to fight harmful bacteria and prevent infections.

Hyaluronic Acid 

Hyaluronic acid is a naturally occurring substance that is produced on the skin and is important for helping it retain water—which is essential for keeping skin moisturized.

When your skin is sufficiently moisturized, it’s able to form a strong acid mantle and prevent irritants from entering the skin. Hyaluronic acid also works with filaggrin cells to improve the skin barrier’s ability to retain moisture.

It’s also a very gentle ingredient, which means that you won’t over-exfoliate or damage the skin barrier. 

Ceramides

Ceramides are fatty acids —the building blocks of cells that occur naturally on the skin barrier. 

These cells work together with other fatty acids to help the skin retain moisture. 

Ceramides’ ability to prevent moisture loss is also important for keeping the skin firm and maintaining a youthful appearance. Similar to hyaluronic acid, ceramides can strengthen the skin barrier by keeping the acid mantle moisturized. It’s also a good option for people with dry skin or eczema. This is because people with eczema typically produce fewer ceramides. Together with dryness and inflammation, this can lead to a weakened skin barrier. 

Choosing skincare products that contain ceramides can also help you to treat irritated skin or redness.

A Step-by-Step Skincare Routine 

Dermatologists often recommend simplifying your skincare routine to avoid overwhelming your skin with too many ingredients.

This can help you to maintain a balanced pH level, reduce the risk of irritation, and keep your skin moisturized.

Below is an easy step-by-step skincare routine that will help you look after your skin barrier.

Step One

Wash your face with a gentle cleanser to avoid stripping the skin of its natural oil entirely.

A cleanser containing glycerin is effective at removing dirt and impurities, but gentle enough to avoid irritation.

When washing your face, make sure that the water isn’t too hot. This can harm the skin barrier by damaging and removing essential lipids.

Dry your face by patting it with a clean towel. Try to avoid rubbing your face with a cloth because this can often irritate the skin further. 

Step Two 

After washing your face, apply a serum that’s formulated to boost hydration and soothe the skin. Serums containing niacinamide or hyaluronic acid are particularly good options. 

These ingredients work well with other naturally occurring oils and cells to strengthen and repair the skin barrier. Because of their rich and moisturizing formulation, some serums can also help reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles depending on their ingredient.

Allow five to ten minutes for a quality moisturizing serum to absorb into your skin to ensure that you maximize the product’s effectiveness. 

Step Three

Although serums can hydrate the skin, it’s important to follow it up with a product that can help you retain moisture. 

We recommend face creams or lotions that contain niacinamide, squalane, retinoids, and ceramides, among others. These ingredients heal and prevent moisture loss while helping your skin stay firm by protecting the complexion. 

Step Four 

It’s also important to protect your skin further by applying a broad-spectrum SPF daily if you’ll be outside, even just during your commute. 

An SPF of at least 30 ensures minimal UV ray damage from sun exposure and reduces the risk of skin cancer and damage in the long-run.

Many SPF products also contain antioxidants like vitamin E that can further strengthen and protect the skin barrier. 

Start Your Journey to Healthier Skin Today 

At Nava MD, we know how important it is to protect, repair, and maintain a healthy skin barrier. 

Our range of formulas contain skin-healing ingredients like niacinamide, prescription retinoids, glycerin, AHA, and more to help you do just that.

We’ve put dermatologist-grade skincare within reach for everyone. We help you get personalized prescription formulas for your skin condition from the comfort of home and with the help of a licensed dermatologist –– for a fraction of the cost and less hassle.  

Based on your needs, our clinicians create a personalized treatment plan for you, with formulas delivered to your doorstep if approved.

All of this can be done from the comfort of your own home—no in-office visits required. 

Start your journey to radiant and healthy skin with Nava MD’s prescription solutions today, or check out our over-the-counter options here.

A collage of Nava MD formulas