How To Repair and Protect Your Skin’s Lipid Barrier

How to Repair and Protect Your Skin's Lipid Barrier

A strong, well-functioning lipid barrier is the foundation of healthy, glowing skin.

If you’ve ever experienced burning skin, swelling, itching or flakiness and redness these could all be signs that your lipid barrier has been compromised or damaged, and is in need of extra support and care.

In this blog we discuss how you can keep your skin’s most important line of defence fighting fit – the signs of a compromised lipid barrier, 7 key steps to take care of your lipid barrier and ingredients to look out for your in your products. 

Overall there are 3 key components to the skin’s most outermost defence mechanisms:  the Skin Microbiota; The Lipid Barrier and Acid Mantle.

Also known as the Skin Barrier or Moisture Barrier, the Lipid Barrier is found in the Stratum Corneum of our skin.

The Stratum Corneum is the outermost layer of the epidermis and consists of corneocytes (layers of dead skin cells) and lipids (the skin’s natural fats).

Dr. Peter M. Elias, an Epidermal Biology Expert likened the Stratum Corneum to a brick wall where the skin cells acts as bricks and the lipids act as the cement (mortar) keeping these bricks together. For me this is a great metaphor and a good way to visualise your own skin barrier.

This structure essentially keeps the water within our bodies inside and prevents Trans Epidermal Waterloss (TEWL), while shielding us against external / environmental stressors, bacteria and allergens.

 What are Lipids?

Lipids are the skin’s natural fats. There are 2 kinds of lipids: epidermal and sebaceous.

– Epidermal lipids are a mix composed of ceramides, free fatty acids and cholesterol.

– Sebaceous lipids include triglycerides, wax esters, and squalene.

External stressors that may cause lipid barrier sensitivity:

  • Pollutants, bacteria, pathogens and allergens.
  • Excessive sun exposure.
  • An environment that is too humid or too dry.
  • Use of soaps and detergents that may strip the skin lipid or moisture barrier.
  • Over-cleansing and over-exfoliating. 
  • Product overload and incorrect layering of products / active ingredients that can disrupt the pH of the skin. 
  • Any ingredient that may cause sensitivity or allergic reaction that may be unique to you.  What could work absolutely fine for someone else may trigger a reaction in you.

Internal factors that may cause lipid barrier sensitivity:

  • Genetics may contribute towards developing skin diseases like psoriasis and dermatitis.
  • Hormonal changes, ie. estrogen deficiency during peri-menopause and menopause may cause increased sensitivity as it affects the skin barrier’s ability to regenerate itself. 
  • As the lipid barrier is getting thinner you may notice that your skin takes longer to heal from cuts, bruises or breakouts. The skin may also become less able to defend itself against internal and external stressors (free radicals and oxidative stress) and biochemical triggers like Glycation.

Signs of a Weakened or Compromised Lipid Barrier

  • Increased sensitivity and/or soreness
  • Irritation
  • Swelling
  • Infection
  • Redness
  • Dryness
  • Noticeable flaking
  • Itching
  • Breakouts you can’t seem to get rid of

How to repair, nurture and care for your skin lipid barrier

Our skins can withstand a lot, but it still needs TLC and to be nurtured gently.

A damaged or compromised skin barrier needs to be taken care of even more carefully.

Once damaged it’s impossible to say how long it will take to repair and restore as it’s completely dependent on your unique situation.

A compromised skin barrier doesn’t always show immediately that there is an issue. It can take a while for it to develop or for an allergy or sensitivity to build up over time.

Sensitivity or an allergic reaction can also sometimes be difficult to pinpoint due to a delayed reaction to a particular ingredient / product – especially when we use so many different products in the same routine.

One way is to start eliminating products and / or ingredients that you may suspect is causing the issue while you completely cut back on your skincare routine and keep a note of what you’re doing so you can keep track of changes.

Once your skin is recovered you can then slowly start to reintroduce and observe how your skin reacts.

Depending on the severity of the reaction you may need to consider over the counter medication and / or seek help from a dermatologist or medical professional like a pharmacist.

I experienced this once with a very popular, much loved Vitamin C product – my eyelids and under eye area became completely swollen even though I didn’t apply the product in the under eye area, and I had large, itchy red bumps all over my face.

After a few days of my skin not calming down I ended up taking an over the counter anti-histamine that was given to me by the pharmacist and it cleared relatively quickly.  On this occasion it was easy to work out what the issue was as it was the only change I made in my whole routine, including sunscreen, body, hair and makeup products.

7 Steps to Repair and Protect Your Skin’s Lipid Barrier:

1Avoid Harsh Cleansers

– Anything that strips the skin of its natural oils can weaken and damage your lipid barrier. Avoid foaming cleansers containing SLS/SLES (Sodium Lauryl Sulphate/Sodium Laureth Sulfate), and consider using more gentle options like micellar water, oil, milk or cream based cleansers.

– Cleansing should leave your skin feeling soft and nourished, not with that ‘squeaky clean’ feeling where it feels dry, tight and stripped.

– Make sure to not over cleanse, even if you feel you have overly oily skin or struggle with acne. Over cleansing and stripping the skin, especially with harsh products, can exacerbate the issue.

– Use lukewarm water when you cleanse.

2. Never Over Exfoliate

– Although exfoliation can be incredibly beneficial for stimulating the growth of new skin cells, it is a treatment that should be used sparingly, especially if your lipid barrier is compromised in some way.

– Try to avoid exfoliation with abrasive ingredients, ie. harsh scrubs and try a liquid exfoliating (acid exfoliant) product instead.  An ‘acid exfoliant’ might sound harsh if you’re new to using them in your routine, but there are different types of liquid exfoliant options to help you choose the right one for you – even if you do have sensitive skin.

– If you’re using liquid exfoliators (my preferred option) it’s important to not overdo it either and to pay attention to how your skin responds. Overdoing exfoliation can in itself cause damage to the skin lipid barrier.

  • Daily exfoliation can be incredibly damaging to lipids and leave skin red, flaky and dry.
  • Keep exfoliation to once or twice a week to protect your skin’s delicate balance.    
  • If you’re new to using chemical (liquid) exfoliants like Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) or Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA; Salicylic Acid) make sure to test first and start slowly to give your skin time to get used to it.  
  • If your skin barrier is damaged or compromised it’s best to take a break from exfoliation to give it time to recover and then introduce again slowly. 

3. Try to Avoid, or Protect Against Extreme Environmental Conditions

– Extreme temperatures, very dry, hot or cold air, and even strong winds can damage the skin’s lipid barrier.

– While it may not be possible to avoid extreme weather all of the time, you can try to protect your skin with barrier creams and protective clothing.

4. Choose Lipid Loving Skin Care

– As we age, especially after the age of 40, and also due to hormonal changes, ie. estrogen deficiency, our natural production of lipids start to decline, but we can support our lipid barrier with choosing lipid supporting topical skincare products.

– Choosing skin barrier repair products with ‘skin identical’ ingredients will help to replace lipids and repair and protect the lipid barrier.

Skin identical ingredients include Essential Fatty Acids (found in abundance in our Glow in a Bottle Facial Oil), Ceramides, Cholesterol, Glycerine, Squalane and Hyaluronic Acid.

Niacinamide and botanical extract Centella Asiatica (also called Cica) are also good options to include in your skin barrier supporting skin routine.

– It can be tempting to keep adding the next best and newest promising product launch to an ever growing bathroom cabinet and expand your routine potentially more than it needs to.  But using too many products or layering active ingredients incorrectly can be a recipe for compromising your skin barrier.  I truly believe that when it comes to skin less is more.

– If you feel your skin barrier is compromised it’s important to strip back your routine to just a gentle cleanse, barrier supporting moisturiser and sunscreen to give it time to heal and recover.  This may take several weeks, or even months in some instances, but listen to your skin and you will know when you can change things again – and when you do, start out slowly.

– An additional quick tip here is to make sure that you keep your makeup brushes and beauty blenders really clean as dirty tools may also contribute to a compromised skin barrier.  The same with your pillow cases and anything else you regularly use on your face.

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