Did you know that your skin has a built-in shield? It’s not necessarily something firm you can feel or touch. Rather, it’s a slightly acidic layer on top of your skin, known as the moisture barrier (or sometimes the acid mantle). A healthy moisture barrier directly impacts the state of your skin: healthy or unhealthy.
The thing is, not a lot of people are aware of it and what it actually does for skin, which is a lot.
What Does the Moisture Barrier Do?
1) The Moisture Barrier Keeps Water in the Skin
The simplest purpose of your moisture barrier is in its name—it helps to keep moisture in your skin. An intact, working barrier helps to stop water loss (scientists call it “transepidermal water loss”). Your skin loses water and dries out, something which happens much faster in dry climates. It also happens due to constant air conditioning exposure. On a small level, this just leaves skin a little bit dehydrated—something that's pretty easily fixed with skincare remedies like a moisturizer or an oil. The real issue is when it happens too often, causing damage to the moisture barrier.
2) The Moisture Barrier Protects Skin from the Environment
When the skin barrier is intact, it's a super-effective defense against not-so-friendly microbes and other potential skin irritants. It's essential for the healthy function and appearance of the outermost layer of skin. When skin isn’t fully protected from the environment due to a damaged barrier, outside pathogens have a chance to attack the skin, causing skin issues like psoriasis and eczema.
Studies have also found a possible link between a damaged barrier and acne. A damaged barrier and subsequent higher pH, contribute to the spread of existing acne.
How Do I Know If My Moisture Barrier Is Damaged?
There are a lot of different ways to tell if your moisture barrier is damaged. Your skin might not have all of these symptoms, but if you have more than a couple of these issues, that’s probably an indicator that you’re dealing with a damaged skin barrier.
● products sting to put on, even simple, non-irritating ones like a moisturizer
● skin feels rough to the touch, but not from acne bumps
● skin is extremely reactive to products
● skin feels tight and itchy all over
● you have stubborn acne and it seems like everything breaks you out
● your skin seems dry, no matter how much moisturizer you apply
● your skin turns red and flushes very easily
So, if you’ve ticked off more than a few of these, it’s probably a good time to take a look at your routine
What Causes the Damage?
In most cases, repairing a damaged moisture barrier is as simple as taking a look at what you’re using on your skin. Here are some common causes:
1) Using High pH Products
Remember how the other name for the moisture barrier is the acid mantle? There's a good reason for that. Our skin is healthiest when it's at its naturally slightly acidic pH level—somewhere between 4 and 6.
Most brands won't tell you what the pH of a product is. But you should demand this information nonetheless. If you lookup any of my products, you will see all this info available in the description. Using a high pH product on skin can still leave the skin’s pH high from two to six hours after use—that’s a lot of time for skin to potentially be exposed to irritants!
Examples of high pH products:
- Bar Soap
- Hand Soap
- Some Foaming Face Washes
- Milk of Magnesia
2) Over-exfoliating Your Skin
On the other end of the spectrum of using too many alkaline products is using too many acidic products. But this whole time I've said that the skin is acidic, but now I'm saying that too many acids are bad for the moisture barrier?
Well, that's not quite what I'm saying. While, yes, exfoliation does a world of good for the skin—decongesting pores, fading hyperpigmentation , and even boosting ceramide levels (ceramide restores moisture and repairs environmental damage)—it’s entirely possible to have too much of a good thing. And while there are a lot of amazing exfoliants out there, most people don’t need a salicylic acid plus a glycolic acid plus lactic acid—that’s a lot, even for very resilient skin.
When introducing an exfoliant to your skincare routine, it's always a good idea to do so slowly to avoid any irritation and possible barrier damage. Any tingling, stinging, or flushing immediately after applying your exfoliating toner is a signal that you need to slow down. This goes for physical scrubs too. It's easier to disrupt the skin barrier with a physical exfoliant—so if you’re a fan of using scrubs but have tell-tale signs of a damaged barrier, this could be the source of your problems.
It's also incredibly important to use properly formulated chemical exfoliants that are at the correct pH for the skin. For example, lemon juice is a commonly touted "natural exfoliant," but has an extremely low pH of 2. That's low enough to cause damage to the skin, such as stinging, peeling, or itching. That's not something that you want to expose your skin to. I generally formulate exfoliants at a pH of 3.0-3.5, but there is more that goes into a good exfoliant than just the pH.
Avoid over-exfoliation by:
- Using properly formulated products (no lemon juice!)
- Gradually introducing exfoliants to skin
- Not using too many acids at once
3) Stripping Your Skin of Moisture (and Not Putting Enough Back)
Looping back to our first point about water loss in the skin, not many people realize they're actually being super harsh on their skin. Those of us with oily skin are especially at risk. We're conditioned to think that our skin needs extra foamy, drying cleansers and alcohol-based toners to get rid of the oil, when in fact we're adding to the same problem that we're trying to fix. Most of us believe that the squeaky feel to the touch is what it means for the skin to be "clean."
The fact is, the skin needs a healthy balance of water and oil to maintain a strong moisture barrier. This means putting away drying, astringent toners and swapping foaming cleansers for gentle, gel-based formulas like an oil cleanser. It's also important to add extra moisture to the skin, especially in dry environments (whether natural or artificial from air conditioning). This can come in the form of serums, hydrating toners, gels, and creams that all work to keep hydration in the skin—where it needs to be for a healthy moisture barrier. Occlusives, or film-forming products, such as Vaseline (which by the way has a pore-clogging index of 0 so as low as it can be), also work to seal water into the skin—you can use it all over to lock in hydration, or on dry patches to heal them quickly. Either way, it's a great idea to keep some on hand.
Avoid stripping your skin by:
- Ditching foaming cleansers for non-foaming
- Not using harsh toners or masks
- Using multiple moisturizing steps (serum, toner, cream)