Protecting Your Skin’s Barrier


Just by visiting and reading Skincare Addiction, you’ve made it pretty clear that you’re interested in better skin. But “better” might mean something different to you than it does to the Addicts. Today we’re going to talk about how to maintain (and repair) the integrity of your lipid barrier and acid mantle, and how those two help our skin develop and maintain a FREAKING MAJESTIC defense system against acne, premature aging, sensitive skin, and other undesirables.

Figure 1 shows a picture of your epidermis and dermis. The epidermis is made up of five layers with real sciencey names, each with an equally sciencey function. The one we’re going to focus on is the Stratum Corneum; the Lipid Barrier is the top-most layer of the Stratum Corneum. The lipid barrier is a protective layer of flattened, dead cells that serves as a waterproof barrier. It is held together by fatty acids, lipids, and ceramides and it helps to protects us from microorganisms (like the bacteria that causes acne), allergens, and irritants.

While we’re back here in high school science, remember the pH scale? The one that goes from acidic (0) to alkaline (14)? Pshyeah. Of course you do. The Acid Mantle is a fine film that covers the lipid barrier. The acid mantle has a pH of 4.7-5.5.That’s acidic, which is awesome. You know what hates acidity? Propionibacterium acnes, which is the bacteria that causes acne.

Why does all this matter?

You know, you ask good questions. I like you.

A healthy lipid barrier is waterproof; it keeps moisture inside your skin where it belongs and water and a bunch of other molecules (allergens, bacteria, all of that) from entering your skin willy-nilly. When the lipid barrier is damaged, transepidermal water loss (TWL or TEWL) occurs; that’s a fancy way of saying that moisture is escaping (probably in a willy-nilly fashion). TEWL generally results in dehydrated skin, which can present as either dry or super oily skin, or a mixture of the two. Why? Because your lipid barrier, white knight that it wants to be, attempts to fix the dryness by creating more sebum to protect itself.

You know what thrives in excess sebum? P. Acnes. Curses.  Because of the excess sebum and the weak lipid barrier, p. acnesis able to settle in and makes itself a comfy home.

What can damage my lipid barrier?

Just so you’re aware of what can hurt your lipid barrier and acid mantle, here’s a short list:

  • Physical over-exfoliation (Use that apricot scrub on your feet, not your face!)
  • Chemical over-exfoliation (IT BURNS)
  • Using products (including cleansers) with a pH above 6
  • Sunburn (All hail the sunscreen god)
  • Washing too often
  • Not moisturizing often enough or with a moisturizer strong enough for your skin’s needs

What are the signs of a damaged lipid barrier?

When moisture escapes, your skin gets pretty upset about it. It can be very dry and flakey in some areas, and look like BP left one of their oil spills in your T-zone.

Other common symptoms include:
  • Sensitivity; even mild cleansers and moisturizers burn or sting
  • Skin feels tight and dry when cleansed
  • “Dull” appearance
  • The appearance of lines and wrinkles where you know you shouldn’t have any. (Back off, aging. I’m not ready for you yet; ain’t nobody ready for you yet.)

Oh fudgenuggets, I have a damaged barrier. Now what?

The good news is any damage isn’t permanent. First, stop trying to scrub your problems away and start thinking of skincare as a process of nurturing your skin instead of fighting a battle. The lipid barrier’s pH can return to normal within 96 hours after the disruption has stopped occurring (I’m still looking at you, apricot scrub). However, the repair process for the stratum corneum may take longer than that, and it  is  dependent on a variety of factors such as your skin type; your age; how much damage needs repaired; and whether hormone imbalances exist (which can contribute to acne on its own).

If you’ve identified yourself as someone with a damaged lipid barrier or acid mantle,  it would behoove you to take a gander at both our recommended sensitive skin and dry skin routines and evaluate the current products in your routine:

  • Use a gentle cleanser (Need help choosing one? Click here.)
  • Use moisturizer, even if your skin type is oily
  • Wear sunscreen every day (If you have questions about Sunscreen, go here. )
  • Avoid both chemical and physical exfoliating for a while; it’s important to let your stratum corneum rest and heal.
  • Avoid tanning or long periods of time in the sun, as a sunburn can re-damage the lipid barrier.
  • Always patch test new products; not everything works for every person. It’s important that you find things that work for you. Obviously avoid products that have ingredients your skin doesn’t like.

A healthy lipid barrier and acid mantle doesn’t mean that you’re going to have perfect skin. Your skin might always be slightly dry, slightly oily, or sensitive. You may always have a little acne. However, all of these conditions should improve. Your skin should be balanced; it shouldn’t burn with a gentle cleanser or be an oil slick by noon.

What’s the Bottom Line?

When we take care of the lipid barrier, the lipid barrier takes care of us. Let’s start thinking about the care of our skin  as a pursuit of health rather than waging a war against problems.


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