What Is The Skin's Natural Moisture Barrier? What Is Its Function? How Does One Protect And Repair It?
I am sure you have heard mention of the skin's natural moisture barrier. Many times. And you have heard that it is important to protect this barrier, because it is essential to the function of the skin itself. Which is true. But just what is the natural moisture barrier? What is its function? How do you go about protecting it? And how do you repair the darn thing? These are the questions I will answer in this post.
First of all let's discuss the following basic anatomy lesson of the skin. The skin is the largest organ in the body. It actually functions. The skin has a blood supply and nerves. Pores, as most people call them, are in reality hair follicles. Below in the figure is a basic image of the layers of the skin. There are three main layers to the skin itself: the epidermis, dermis and hypodermis (subcutaneous fat). Within the layers of the epidermis lie the stratum corneum, stratum lucidum, stratum granulosum, stratum spinosum and the basal layer. You don't really need to understand everything except that that we are concerned with the epidermis here and its stratum corneum, the uppermost layer of the epidermis.
Now, the skin's natural moisture barrier makes up the stratum corneum of the epidermis. Because this layer is constantly shedding skin cells, as you can see in the figure above, it needs to be protected. Usually cells are shed about every 28-30 days and that period gets longer as one gets older. Which is why skin starts to look dull, rough and uneven textured. The natural moisture barrier consists of the stratum corneum and the lipids that surround the cells to protect them. When these are compromised then the natural moisture barrier becomes weakened too.
What is the function of the natural moisture barrier? Its main function is to keep the skin hydrated and protected. It keeps the good stuff in the skin (lipids, electrolytes, water) and the bad stuff out (bacteria, dirt and irritants like air pollution). Because of the natural moisture barrier skin looks smooth, fresh and dewy. Also, there is a natural microbiome that lies on the surface of the skin and this has to be protected by the natural moisture barrier too. You may have started hearing more about the microbiome. It consists of billions of good bacteria (flora) that live on our skin (also in the intestines and the vaginal walls too). When the microbiome becomes weakened, inflammatory diseases like eczema or atopic dermatitis start to occur.
How does the natural moisture barrier become compromised? Usually through rough treatment such as over exfoliation. This can be via chemical or physical exfoliation. Chemical exfoliation is a peel such as an enzyme, AHA peel or retinoid. Physical exfoliation is a scrub. If you are going to exfoliate I recommend doing it gently so as not to overdo it and weaken the integrity of the moisture barrier. Use a mild to moderate peel solution or a mild physical exfoliant (such as dermalogica's daily microfoliant, which is powerful but easy on the skin). It can also become weakened through sunburn, windburn, chafing or chapping. When this happens the stratum corneum starts to shed prolifically and one can experience TEWL (trans epidermal water loss) and a loss of severe amount of moisture. Skin then becomes dehydrated. It will take on a shiny appearance like saran wrap and become tight and dry. It might also peel profusely. This might also happen through not enough hydration in the body, such as not drinking enough water or imbibing too much alcohol/caffeine. And, one of the main causes is honestly not moisturizing enough. There is a difference between hydration and moisturization. Hydration equals water that is put into the skin. Moisturization is the occlusive product put onto the skin to counter dryness. You can have a moisturizer and hydrator in one.
How do you know if your natural moisture barrier is functioning at the optimal level? If you find that your skin is inflamed, itchy, rough, chafed, chapped, dry, dehydrated, dull, flaky or red, chances are that your skin's natural moisture barrier has been compromised. This can happen in any season. Not only the winter. it happens a lot in the winter because of the dry air and the wind (which is one reason I am writing about it now). But don't worry, you don't have to wait a whole month for it to be repaired. It can easily be repaired in a couple of days.
To repair the barrier it does not have to take time. There are many products available that treat the natural moisture barrier. First, drink plenty of water. That is key. Second, pick products that are specifically made to repair the moisture barrier. There are some great ones out there. My favorites contain some or all of the following ingredients: glycerin, hyaluronic acid, panthenol, allantoin, colloidal oatmeal, petrolatum and ceramides. If you pick products with these ingredients in them you are sure to help repair the barrier. Most good products have a hefty dose of glycerin in them, it is a humectant with a low molecular weight that permeates way down to the dermis. It is usually the second ingredient on the list of moisturizers, after water. Also, it is an inexpensive ingredient to add and makes effective hydrators easily accessible. And a good moisturizer usually has hyaluronic acid in it. Although it is also a humectant, it will not penetrate as deeply as glycerin, even the low molecular weight HA. Panthenol is an ingredient that is extremely soothing to the skin. It is also known as ProVitamin B5. Another ingredient is allantoin, it promotes hydration and smoothness to the skin. If you have eczema you have heard of colloidal oatmeal, as it is in most eczema treatments. Very soothing, it helps with itchiness and redness. Petrolatum is what Vaseline is made from and is an occlusive. It will lock in moisture and and soothe chafed and chapped skin. Ceramides are lipids that are actually found in our own skin and make up a portion of the natural moisture barrier. Replenishing them is essential, especially if you want to repair the natural moisture barrier.
When repairing the natural moisture barrier you will have to lay off of the retinoids, AHAs and other chemical exfoliants for a while and then learn to go easy on them so that this doesn't happen again. For a retinoid, try an alternating strategy of one day on, one day off approach. Not an every day method. If you damaged it with a chemical peel, try a peel that is of a lesser strength next time or leave it on for a little bit less of time. Enzymes should be okay, they aren't as harsh. As for physical exfoliants, I don't like them unless they are the kind that can be made into a fine paste and exfoliate like that. Scrubs are too much for most skin types. Ground up shells don't work well for the majority of skins and can actually cause scarring on the skin.
What are some good products that have these ingredients? Ah! This is the easy part. I have tested and reviewed hundreds of products over the years. Here are a few that help to repair the natural moisture barrier. This is a small list:
- CeraVe Moisturizing Cream $14.71
- CeraVe Healing Ointment $29.98
- First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream $14.00-$42.00
- Kiehl's Hydro-Plumping Serum Concentrate (formerly known as the Hydro-Plumping Re-Texturizing Serum Concentrate) $60.00-$78.00
- Aquaphor $9.58
- La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Baume B5 $14.99
- The Ordinary Hyaluronic Acid 2% + B5 $6.80
- The Ordinary Natural Moisturizing Factors + HA $5.80
- Kiehl's Ultimate Strength Hand Salve $24.00
- Sunday Riley ICE Ceramide Moisturizing Cream $65.00
My personal favorites are the: CeraVe Healing Ointment (it is expensive but worth every penny), First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream, LaRoche-Posay Cicaplast Baume B5, Kiehl's Ultimate Strength Hand Salve (💕) and the Kiehl's Hydro-Plumping Serum Concentrate.
I hope this post has been educational and that you have learned something. Please feel free to write me with any questions you have regarding products, ingredients or topics you would like covered. I would be happy to answer any questions or cover any topics regarding skincare or ingredients that you have questions about.
Until Next Time~
(images courtesy of Google)
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