Maybe you’ve heard it before, but it’s so impressive that it’s worth repeating: The skin is the body’s largest organ. And just like your heart, lungs, or brain, your skin has key functions — and chief among them is its role as a shield, keeping the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. So, knowing how to support the skin barrier is crucial, because it’s about more than just aesthetics. A smooth, luminescent complexion is great, but protecting the barrier is the way to keep skin healthy and on its best behavior. Read on for everything you should know about skin barrier repair and how to keep it supported.
What Is The Skin Barrier?
As the name entails the skin barrier — also known as the moisture barrier — is the first line of defense for your skin. It’s the outermost layer comprised of fats, proteins, and skin cells, explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara, M.D., and it helps keep crucial moisture locked in and pollutants out. “Think of it as a security guard to the skin,” she tells Bustle. “Skin barrier health is directly correlated to overall skin health. A compromised barrier equals compromised skin.”
If your skin barrier has been disrupted or damaged, water can more easily evaporate out of it — something that’s known as transepidermal water loss — and potential irritants can worm their way in. And this is evidenced by dry, flaky, inflamed, or irritated skin, Gohara notes. Dermatologist Dr. Chris Tomassian, M.D. adds that you may also notice redness or that products that were previously well-tolerated now burn or sting your skin.
Your all-important skin microbiome resides on your barrier, explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Whitney Bowe, M.D. — aka trillions of microscopic organisms that maintain your skin function. It even has its own immune system. And so: “If our skin barrier is healthy and our microbiome is balanced, our skin can trap and hold moisture, neutralize free radicals, and keep inflammation in check,” Bowe says. However, if it’s compromised, it loses water, and outside irritants — via external factors like the sun’s rays, pollution, and smoke — can more easily penetrate and interact with your immune cells. The end result? Skin that’s more prone to breakouts, flakiness, irritation, redness, dehydration, and hyperpigmentation.
How To Protect & Repair The Skin Barrier
Keeping your skin properly hydrated is key to protecting and repairing the skin barrier. Bowe says to look for ingredients that trap and seal moisture like hyaluronic acid — a humectant that pulls moisture from the air. Also consider adding occlusives like petrolatum, jojoba oil, and beeswax to your skin care routine. Occlusives are ingredients that create a barrier on top of the skin to lock in moisture and prevent transepidermal water loss.
It’ll also help to look for products rich in antioxidants like squalane — a natural hydrator that mimics the body’s natural oils — which protect against free radicals that can damage the skin barrier. As Bowe explains, “When your skin is hydrated and the barrier is intact, the skin can redirect its energy toward repairing your healthy collagen and elastic fibers rather than fighting inflammation. It goes from defense mode into repair mode, and that’s setting you up for healthy skin.”
To help protect the skin barrier from damage, Tomassian and Gohara say it’s important to avoid overusing harsh actives like retinols, alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy-acids, and benzoyl peroxide as these can compromise barrier health with too much use. Tomassian also advises exfoliating no more than twice a week. And be wary of certain DIY beauty remedies: Gohara notes that hacks like using lemon to fade brown spots or toothpaste to dry out pimples can also disrupt the skin barrier. And, of course, sunscreen is a non-negotiable when discussing how to repair the skin barrier and protect overall skin health.
Shop Products That Support The Skin Barrier
The Intense Cream
Gohara favors this antioxidant-rich ultra hydrating cream that addresses dry skin and other mild irritations to help support your barrier, all thanks to moisturizing staples like squalane and shea butter. To further soothe, it also features soothing colloidal oatmeal, an MVP in the gentle beauty ingredient realm.
The Gentle Cleanser
Gohara says any regular soap has the potential to disrupt the skin barrier. Instead, consider gentle cleansers like this moisturizing formula that’s free of fragrance, sulfates, and parabens and perfect for sensitive skin.
The Restorative Moisturizer
This new launch from supermodel Hailey Bieber’s much-anticipated line is perfect for giving your skin some TLC. It features a nourishing blend of antioxidants, peptides, and niacinamide to calm, soothe, and restore the skin barrier.
The Ultra Hydrator
Tomassian is a fan of this reparative face cream since it’s packed with moisturizing omega fatty acids, hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and squalane — a combo that can help support the building blocks of your barrier.
The Dermatologist’s Formula
Bowe helped develop this nourishing face cream that hydrates and strengthens the skin barrier, and, over time, helps reduce fine lines while brightening the complexion. Within the bottle is a potent mixture of ceramides, squalane, and pre- and postbiotics.
The Soothing Mask
For a luxe recovery cream that’ll deliver serious hydration, try Topicals’ popular Like Butter Mask. It features colloidal oatmeal, Centella Asiatica (a super soother), and ceramides, all wrapped up in a concoction that truly feels like butter on the skin.
The Overnight Mask
To enhance your beauty sleep, Tomassian recommends this super hydrating overnight face mask for its blend of squalane and glycoprotein that both work to lock in moisture and strengthen the skin’s barrier.
The Body Gel
Designed to immediately quench thirsty skin while reinforcing the skin barrier, this fragrance-free formula boasts glycerin — a humectant that attracts moisture — and squalane as well as the uber-hydrating aquaxyl. The gel texture feels like a splash of water on the skin that keeps your skin soft and plump.
The Reviving Serum
This face serum is a fave of Tomassian’s for its antioxidants (niacinamide and vitamin E) and essential minerals that strengthen the skin’s barrier and protects it from harmful environmental pollutants.
Dr. Mona Gohara, M.D., board-certified dermatologist based in Hamden, Connecticut
Dr. Whitney Bowe, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City
Dr. Chris Tomassian, M.D., Kansas City, Kansas-based dermatologist