As the percentage of people who say they have sensitive skin grows, it is easy for “sensitive skin” to become a catch-all category for skin that is easily irritated. Collectively though, could our skin be getting more sensitive?
It is quite possible, with the increased use of actives in all types of skincare formulations, and with no easy way to access data on the concentration of ingredients in the formulations we use. In theory, we could be using more actives than we think, and this can lead to exposure to certain ingredients in concentrations that irritate the skin. If you notice redness, burning, itching, or stinging after applying a product, your skin may be reacting to something in the product. Regardless of the reaction you experience with skincare products, maintaining a healthy skin barrier could make your skin less sensitive.
What is the Skin Barrier?
The skin barrier, also known as stratum corneum, is the lipid matrix in the outermost layer of the skin. It serves as the body’s first line of defense against environmental aggressors, protecting it from pollution, the sun’s ultraviolet rays, and dehydration. It regulates water loss from the inside out and its health affects the outward appearance of the skin. A good analogy for how the skin barrier works is the brickwork of a wall-- the bricks are the proteins from skin cells, and the lipids in between is the mortar that hold it together. If these lipids are depleted, the skin becomes more permeable to allergens and irritants which cause inflammation when they get in. Depleted lipids also make it easier for the skin to lose water, so we become more prone to experiencing dry skin.
So, it makes sense that we should all work on keeping the skin barrier healthy to increase the skin’s resilience and reduce sensitivity to products.
A compromised skin barrier is usually the first sign of trouble for the skin, and if left untreated can spiral out of control. For example, a compromised skin barrier can lead to trans epidermal water loss (dehydration). The skin then tries to counteract dehydration by producing more oil or sebum. Too much sebum clogs the pores, creating an environment for bacteria to thrive, which then leads to inflammation and acne development.
Here are some factors that contribute to the damage of the skin barrier:
Using too many products: a case of too much of a good thing! Many of us have experienced this at one time or the other, perhaps after testing many new products or even in our routines, when it contains too many steps and products. The culprit is usually exposure to too many ingredients as well as a possible overlap of ingredients that make the concentration levels irritating to the skin. More than ever as consumers of skincare, we need to understand the ingredients profile of the products we use so as to avoid usiing concentrations that are not healthy for the skin.
Over exfoliating: just as disastrous as the irritation from unknowingly using a higher concentration of an ingredient, is when we deliberately use very high concentrations of actives in our quest for smooth, wrinkle-free skin. Actives like retinol, alpha hydroxyl acids and beta hydroxyl acid can easily cause irritation if overused. The frequency and concentration of both physical and chemical exfoliating agents can compromise the skin barrier when they are too high.
Excessive cleansing can significantly affect the health of the skin barrier especially if cleansers are harsh or stripping. Additionally, cleansing with hot water can increase dryness and throw off your skin’s balance, so keep water lukewarm.
- All “natural” is not necessarily better. Natural is one of those words that has no legal definition and means different things to different people. It generally gives the halo of safe and implies that ingredients come from nature therefore it is “better for you”. In reality, our skin can be just as allergic to certain extracts found in nature as they are to synthetic formulations. For example, cutting open a lemon and applying the juice on your skin is a common DIY brightening hack, but it is NOT a good idea, because it is too acidic and will damage the skin’s barrier. The focus should be on using ingredients that are ethically sourced, carefully selected, and tested to be gentle on the skin.
How to Help Your Compromised Skin Barrier Repair Itself
First start with gentle cleansing, which means cleansing with a non-irritating, pH balanced cleanser. At the lower pH values, the lipids within the skin are preserved and will not lead to dryness. Next, focus on using hydrating products that feature ingredients that attract moisture to the skin as well as occlusives that seal in moisture. Products with ceramides help with repairs and humectants attract moisture to each skin cell. In addition to lipids, antioxidants like vitamins A, C help reduce inflammation as lipid build up is restored. Finally, pace your exfoliation. Even if your skin normally tolerates actives, a compromised skin barrier is more sensitive, so pausing actives may not be a terrible idea until your skin recovers to a healthy state and then gradually add them back.
Looking for an Easy-to-Follow Skincare Routine for Skin Barrier Protection?
Step 1: Our Clarifying Cleanser is pH balanced and formulated to not strip your skin of its natural oils.
Step 2: Our Brightening Toner is full of hydration boosters like glycerin and hyaluronic and Niacinamide to help restore skin barrier.
Step 3 (am): Our Brightening Moisturizer SPF 30 simplifies your routine with a built in sunscreen.
Step 4 (pm): Shea oil rich in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acid which help restore the lipid composition of the skin.
In the long run, we think less is more in terms of products, and streamlining your routine to keep it simple with ingredients that fortify your skin barrier is the way to go. Look for products that are loaded with lipids and other moisture-binding ingredients to help protect your barrier and keep it hydrated.