Like most other people I have been guilty at times of running after the next “hope in a jar” when it comes to anti-aging and skin repair. These days I like to think I am a bit wiser and more prudent with what I buy, especially when I see a brand that promises to solve all my problems. To put it bluntly, too many creams, serums, treatments and actives are to blame for skin barrier failure. Rather than fix a problem, they are the cause!
But let's back up and look at this more closely.
What is skin barrier?
The stratum corneum (SC) (the top layer of your skin) consists of corneocytes and intercellular lipids such as ceramides (40%), cholesterol (25%) and free fatty acids (10%). This lipid mixture is essential to maintaining barrier integrity.
The SC is also known as the permeability barrier and moisture barrier and is responsible for making sure that essential water and electrolytes do not evaporate from the skin. Skin barrier failure means that substances like irritants, allergens and bacteria can find their way into the layer, leading to itching, infection, inflammation and the further breakdown of the protective barrier.
How does this happen?
The usual culprits are emotional, environmental and physical stress, smoking, pollution, over-exfoliation (watch out for scrubs that strip or cause abrasion; this is why we love BOA exfoliant!), sensitising ingredients (solvents, harsh surfactants, some foaming cleansers, bubble baths), cosmetic procedures, sun damage, dehydrating beverages and poor nutrition. All these things add to the assault on the skin.
A couple of other causes that might surprise you is our own obsession with being squeaky clean and using product after product after product on your skin.
Combine product overload with the environmental assaults and you have a recipe for skin barrier disaster.
Let me give you a simple example. The acid mantle of a healthy complexion has a pH of 4 to 5.5 and the ability to tolerate more acid depends on both your skin, and how well a product is formulated. This is the reason some people react to Alpha Hydroxy Acids ( Lactic/Mandelic/citric/Tartaric/Malic acids), Beta Hydroxy acids (Salicylic acid) or Poly-Hydroxy-Acids (this one is more gentle because of its large molecules). If you keep using multiple acids in your routine plus retinoids in your moisturisers, most of you are setting yourself up for irritation and breakouts.
Here is another one but from a different angle, the skin grows more alkaline with age, activating enzymes that chew away at collagen. Mildly acidic products can restore pH, protect against droopy skin and the development of wrinkles. So this is a positive argument for using products that carefully consider this issue in their formulations. There are good formulations out that that use these actives in a thoughtful and sophisticated manner. Unfortunately there are also many more products that just throw a bunch of ingredients in with a few well known actives and market it as a miracle product. It is not just the use of actives that makes a good product but also how carefully the product is formulated.
To keep complexions hydrated and supple, I recommend that you gently exfoliate (BOA is perfect for exfoliation) and, yes, use BHA in a measured way. BHAs are great for getting inside the pores and cleaning them out. Use a non-stripping cleanser. Choose moiturizer formulas that contain fatty acids and phytosterols. Most of all, keep your routine simple. Using product after product in your routine only introduces complexities that you shouldn't have to deal with. Don't get over zealous and try to solve that new problem overnight. Most likely your new 'problem' has been developing for a long time before it popped up on your skin!
Skin hydration and barrier function are essential to skin health and appearance. Beautiful, glowing skin is only possible when the barrier is strong and nurtured.