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How a Healthy Skin Barrier Wards Off Acne

How a Healthy Skin Barrier Wards Off Acne

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The real secret to a clearer complexion? It's all about nourishment.

When you think about strength training, you probably envision going to the gym and picking up some free weights. But did you know that you can strengthen your skin, too—without any of the heavy lifting? Well, you can—and it can mean a healthier, smoother, clearer, and a more supple complexion.

It all comes down to the skin barrier, the outermost layer. Think of your barrier as a buff bouncer whose job is to protect what’s going on behind the scenes, or, in this case, beneath the skin’s surface. The barrier’s function is to lock in moisture and keep the bad stuff—everything from irritants to bacteria—out of the skin. But with age and other factors, the skin barrier weakens and doesn’t do its job as well.

Fortunately, you can repair your skin barrier, and keep skin happy and healthy with the right skincare routine. James Q. Del Rosso, D.O., adjunct clinical professor of dermatology at the Touro University Nevada in Henderson, NV and an Acne Store advisory board member spills all the secrets on how to heal a damaged skin barrier.

What is the skin barrier?

The skin barrier is composed of skin cells that separated by a matrix of lipids, or fats, including fatty acids, ceramides, and cholesterol. As we mentioned, the barrier’s job is two-fold. “It serves as a physical barrier that prevents pollutants in the atmosphere and external allergens and microbes from penetrating skin and causing havoc in the form of dermatitis and infection,” says Del Rosso. “But it also acts as a wall, preventing water from leaving the skin to avoid dryness, flaking, and fissuring of the skin."

You’re always going to lose some water through the skin, but a strong barrier prevents your skin from losing too much of it. It regulates your moisture levels, so your skin can function properly. When skin loses too much water, it’s more rigid, dry, and gets splits and cracks, which then allows more irritants, allergens, and microbial organisms to get into the skin and cause trouble.

What causes a damaged skin barrier?

The biggest culprit that causes a damaged skin barrier is overdoing it with your skincare routine. Aggressive cleansing, especially with high pH soaps can strip skin of its natural, protective lipids, says Del Rosso. Over-exfoliating can also wear down your barrier, as can using harsh ingredients that inflame and dry out skin. Unprotected sun exposure can also damage skin’s outermost layer, leaving it compromised to all those external aggressors and increasing water loss. It’s one of the reasons your skin feels dry and tight after a sunburn.

Does a damaged skin barrier cause acne breakouts?

Researchers know that the skin barrier plays a big role in some inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and rosacea—both have been linked to impairment of skin barrier function. “We don’t have as much information about acne and the skin barrier,” says Del Rosso. But it’s believed that acne itself may impair the barrier, he says. [1] The inflammation from the breakouts, plus resulting irritation and dryness from certain acne medications can damage skin barrier function. To prevent that, dermatologists may look to use treatments that take down inflammation, as well as water-based gel medications that are less drying, sparing skin’s outer layer.

Here’s how to get a healthy skin barrier

The good news is that skin barrier damage is reversible, and you can fake it ‘til you make it. What you put on top of your skin can serve as a makeshift barrier as your real surface layer gets stronger. The first step in strength training your skin is to go easy with cleansing. Look for mild cleansers that remove dirt, makeup, and excess oils without stripping skin’s essential moisture. These formulas tend to be milky and creamy.

Use a skin barrier-repairing moisturizer

The ideal moisturizer contains three major components. The first is an occlusive ingredient. These are things such as petrolatum and mineral oil. “An occlusive ingredient sits on the surface of skin and blocks water loss,” says Del Rosso. A second must-have is an emollient. “These help the product spread easily, but they also fill all those little crevices and fissures in skin’s barrier so moisture can’t escape,” he says. Silicates are a good example, and one you’ll find in a lot of moisturizers. “They improve moisturization without feeling thick.” The third element that should be in your moisturizer is a humectant such as glycerin or hyaluronic acid, which help the skin retain moisture in that top layer. “Moisturizing your skin is fairly useless if your skin can’t hang onto it,” Del Rosso explains. The proper moisturizer can protect your skin barrier from additional damage.

Repair the skin barrier with this combo

Beyond those three components, there are other ingredients that help shore up a faulty barrier. Your skin’s natural barrier has a 3:1:1 ratio of ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterols, and research has shown that supplementing the skin with this balance of ingredients can help improve barrier function. [2] So, looking for moisturizers that contain a mix of these three ingredients may accelerate your repair.

If you have acne, or if you’re guilty of scrubbing skin a little too hard or often or plying it with irritating ingredients, your barrier may need a little TLC to get stronger again. These simple tips will help to get the skin barrier in tip top shape.




Information in the Acnepedia is for general educational purposes only. It should not be relied on as medical advice. You should not use this information for self-diagnosis or for treating any health problem or disease. Some of the information in the Acnepedia may reflect individual dermatologists' views and may be different from the label information on skincare products. You should always carefully follow the label information on skincare products. If you have questions about your health or the use of any drug or cosmetic skincare product, please speak to your healthcare provider. The provider of this website is not licensed to practice medicine in any state. Members of the Acne Store Board of Dermatologists have reviewed the Acnepedia articles but have not evaluated the safety or efficacy of specific products and do not endorse or recommend specific products.

James Del Rosso, D.O.

Dr. Jim Del Rosso is an internationally renowned dermatologist who has been practicing dermatology since 1986 and a member of the Acne Store Board of Dermatologists. He is Clinical Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, has published multiple peer-reviewed articles and textbook chapters, and was President of the American Acne & Rosacea Society, American Society of Mohs Surgery, and the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. He is Adjunct Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the Touro University Nevada in Henderson, Nevada. Currently, Dr. Del Rosso is Research Director of JDR Dermatology Research and practices at Thomas Dermatology in Las Vegas, Nevada and also serves as Senior Vice President of Clinical Research and Strategic Development at Advanced Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in Maitland, Florida. He served as Head of the Section of Dermatology at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine after receiving his D.O. degree from the same medical school in Athens, Ohio, interning at Doctors Hospital in Columbus, completing a dermatology residency at Atlantic Skin Disease and Skin Surgery in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and completing a fellowship in Mohs micrographic surgery and cutaneous oncology at OSU.

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