S K I N B A R R I E R
What is the Skin Barrier?
The skin barrier is important to human life because it serves as the body’s first line of defense against environmental aggressors such as harmful UV rays and pollutants. The skin barrier is a scientific term for the outermost layer of the skin, including the stratum corneum (SC). It has a brick and mortar type of structure wherein the skin’s cells represent the bricks, and lipids (oils) naturally produced by the body represent the mortar. Together, they form a cellular matrix which comprises the human body’s outer wall of protection.
A normal, healthy, properly functioning skin barrier leaves your skin looking even toned and smooth, with no signs of redness or inflammation.
Why is the Skin Barrier important?
Physically speaking, it literally prevents the penetration of harmful external aggressors such as pathogens, chemicals and allergens from entering into, and wreaking havoc on, the human body. It also helps skin retain moisture and stay hydrated by serving as a physical barrier against excessive transepidermal water loss (TEWL), a process by which water travels to the surface of the skin and evaporates. Finally, it also plays a role in absorbing UV rays from the sun which, if left unchecked, cause free radical formation that leads to fine lines, wrinkles and premature aging of the skin.
How do you damage your skin barrier?
Sun exposure, use of harsh cleansers, failure to properly moisturize, and frequent use of alcohol-based, anti-bacterial products such as hand sanitizers, can all lead to skin barrier damage. You know your skin barrier is damaged when you experience redness (inflammation), dehydration, itchiness, flakiness or acne flare-ups. A weak or damaged skin barrier can neither lock in moisture, nor prevent harmful irritants and bacteria from penetrating through the skin.
How does sanitization damage the skin barrier?
Excessive use of hand cleansers and sanitizers is the most common way of damaging the skin barrier. This is because these products use surfactants (in the case of cleansers) and alcohols (in the case of sanitizers) as the main active ingredient.
Hand cleansers use surfactants to remove (emulsify) unwanted oils and grime from the skin surface, similar to dishwashing liquids that remove grease from the surface of dishes. Unfortunately, these surfactants also affect the wanted oils (lipids) of the skin barrier. Remember that lipids (oils) serve as the mortar which holds the bricks (skin cells) of the skin barrier together. Hence, when surfactants come in contact with these lipids and emulsify them, this results in damage to the skin barrier.
The same end result is experienced when it comes to the use of hand sanitizers that rely on alcohols to kill pathogens like the Covid-19 virus. While alcohols are very effective at killing harmful pathogens, they also possess oil/lipid dissolving properties. Hence, the main concern with the use of such products is the damage they do to the lipids of the skin barrier.
This phenomenon is especially concerning for those who live in dry climates and/or have naturally dry skin since moisture loss under those circumstances will be further accelerated. Because lipids serve as a kind of waterproofing agent that keeps moisture from passing through, rapid skin dehydration with be even more problematic for those individuals. Irritant contact dermatitis is the name used to describe skin barrier damage associated with hand hygiene. The most common symptoms, which can vary from quite mild to debilitating include dryness, irritation, itching, and in worst case scenarios cracking and bleeding.
Does wearing a mask damage the skin barrier?
The wearing of masks is also problematic because when they rub against your skin, they generate friction which can disrupt your skin’s protective moisture barrier. The skin’s moisture barrier is made up of lipids that keep moisture in while keeping irritants out. If something is rubbing against your skin all day, it can create tiny cracks in your barrier causing moisture to escape and allowing irritants to get in.
Wearing a mask also causes your breath to be trapped in the mask, creating a moist environment that microorganisms love to grow in. Hence, not only is mask wearing irritating in general, but it can also facilitate the accelerated growth of skin organisms that under normal circumstances are asymptomatic, can quickly become problematic because of the encapsulated environment created by the mask. For example, Pityrosporum yeast which is normally not problematic can help to trigger seborrheic dermatitis, ‘fungal’ acne, and rosacea.
In addition, because wearers of masks are also typically sweating underneath their masks, this can result in tiny microtears on the nose and cheeks due to the continuous rubbing of the mask against the skin in those locations. These microtears, in turn, cause damage to the skin barrier which can lead to potential infection.
How can we protect the skin barrier?
Hydration: Moisturizing your skin daily and drinking plenty of fluids is essential to supporting and protecting the skin barrier. Once you have finished thoroughly washing and/or sanitizing your hands, you should always follow that up with the use of a hand cream to both restore the skin barrier and repair any damage washing/sanitization may have caused.
Scale back your daily skincare regimen: Less is oftentimes more, so by reducing the number of products and active ingredients you apply on your skin, you decrease the likelihood of stripping moisture sealing natural oils from your skin.
Avoid excessive use of strong acids or abrasive scrubs on your face: excessive washing and/or exfoliating can damage the skin’s acid mantle and consequently, the skin barrier, thereby increasing the likelihood for inflammation, allergies, and breakouts.
Wear sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher): protecting your skin from exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun, and HEV radiation emitted by computers and other electronic devices, will help to prevent photo-aging, collagen break down and in a worst case scenario, skin cancer.
Balance your pH: skin maintains its barrier best around 5.5, which is slightly acidic; any significant deviation in either direction affects the microbiome and can cause inflammation and irritation.