While our skin barrier is nothing new—we all have one, after all—I reckon it might be the beauty buzz term of 2022 so far, and for good reason. While understanding your skin type and chatting to the best dermatologists in the business can help when it comes to achieving amazing skin, if you're not clued up on the health of your skin barrier, then even an ultra-luxurious arsenal of skincare products will only take you so far in your skin journey. That explains why this year, my inbox has been full to the brim with press releases touting the importance of skin-barrier care, new products with a focus on repair rather than exfoliation and entirely new brands dedicated to the sole purpose of looking after our skin barrier.
But while it might seem like every brand, skincare influencer and celeb is currently obsessed with all things skin barrier, what actually is it, and why is it so important for our overall skin health? Ahead, I caught up with four top skin experts to get their spin on what our skin barrier is and the best skin-barrier products to incorporate into our routines right now.
What is our skin barrier, and why is it so important?
Ready for the science? "The skin barrier is the outermost layer of skin that, when healthy, is made up of a combination of neatly arranged skin cells and an invisible cocktail of fats, water, amino acids, urea, salt and sugar," explains Dija Ayodele, No7 skincare expert and author of Black Skin. "Together, these elements form the first line of defence for the skin, protecting it against environmental damage from the sun and pollution; preventing excessive water loss, which can cause dry skin; and they also stop irritants and germs from penetrating into the deeper layers of skin. The skin barrier is one of the fundamentals for skin health, making it very important."
And while acting as that first line of defence is indisputably important, Marie Drago, Gallinée founder, explains that "when we talk about skin barrier, we actually mean skin-barrier function," of which there are three. Along with the physical barrier described by Ayodele, our skin has an immune barrier, which is "your skin and microbiome working together to prevent pathogens or viruses from getting in—acne and eczema are examples of when there has been a breath of this barrier and inflammatory bacteria has managed to penetrate the skin."
"The last one is the chemical barrier," says Drago. "It's the acid mantle of your skin, which preserves its integrity and the one we tend to damage most."
Ah, yes—skin-barrier damage. The topic that we're all here for. So how exactly do we prevent causing harm to our skin barrier in the first place?
How can we avoid damaging our skin barrier?
"Everything we do in skincare should be about maintaining the integrity of the skin barrier," enthuses Ayodele. "Ensuring you are using the correct skincare for your skin type is paramount, and choosing products that don't strip the skin, as that easily leads to inflammation and irritation. Heavy reliance on certain ingredients like salicylic acid and over-exfoliating can be damaging, and harsh procedures and aggressive gadgets such as sonic cleansers can also wreak havoc on your skin barrier, so it’s important to be mindful."
Derek Davenport, founder of Urban Routine Wellness and a Cosmedix advising aesthetician, concurs—believing that we should all be practicing "skin minimalism."
"More products are not always best. A simple yet effective home care routine will repair or maintain the skin barrier [but] over-exfoliation can lead to an impaired barrier," Davenport explains. "Overall, limit exfoliation to a few times a week, and make sure that you are working with products that provide all the essentials the skin needs—things like antioxidants, vitamin C, peptides, amino acids, and lipids, and always wear an SPF."
I'll be honest. Even before I was a beauty editor, I was product obsessed. I never stayed loyal to a skincare routine, and I adore testing new formulas—especially skin-brightening acids and chemical exfoliators. However, since writing about products became my job, I have undoubtedly noticed my skin becoming more sensitive, prone to redness and lacking glow due to the near-constant testing of formulations. And I'm not alone.
"During the initial COVID lockdown, people were playing chemist in their bathrooms, experimenting with new, super-strength actives—with less-than-desirable results," says Marc Elrick founder of Tan-Luxe and new skin-barrier brand Byoma. "I noticed a significant trend of squeaky-clean, shiny [note—not glowy], and stripped skin—symptomatic of a wider problem of people overusing, over-exfoliating and overbuying skincare. Through this overuse and over exfoliation, we’re seeing more skin issues than ever. People are breaking their barriers in search of short-term, quick fixes that many times cause more harm than good to their skin." Elrick's discoveries led to the creation of Byoma—a carefully curated collection of skincare products designed to lend mass market appeal to skin-barrier care.
But while we now know that cocktailing products and over-exfoliating can compromise the health of our skin barrier, what are the signs that it's already been damaged?
What are the signs of skin barrier damage?
"When the skin barrier is compromised, this can increase the rate at which water is lost from the skin—transepidermal water loss (TEWL)—and alters the levels of proteins and lipids in the skin. If your skin barrier can’t repair itself—or isn’t given the help it needs to repair—TEWL increases leading to skin that appears dry, flaky, inflamed and lacking elasticity," explains Elrick.
Inflammation came up time and time again when I was speaking to the experts, and Ayodele explains that this damage to the skin barrier often shows itself as "redness, flushing and stinging when certain products are applied." Plus, she adds, "The skin can also be dry and scaly because it is unable to hold on to moisture."
Basically, it's not great. But luckily, there is a whole roster of brilliant skincare products landing on the market right now that are designed to combat this damage and maintain healthy skin.
Ahead, I've rounded up 12 of the best skin-barrier products to try right now—including picks from the experts and formulas that have wowed me (and my skin barrier). Say hello to healthy, glowy skin.
Shop the best skin-barrier products:
While you might feel like you need rich, heavy textures to care for your skin barrier, this new gel-cream from Byoma proves that modern formulations with lightweight textures can do the job more than efficiently. I switched out all of my usual serums and moisturisers in favour of this for a fortnight after reacting to a heavy-duty exfoliating acid, and my skin was restored in under two weeks.
Ayodele recommends these squalane-infused capsules as "an additional protective top-up for barrier maintenance." You apply after cleansing but before your usual serums and moisturisers. "Squalane is proven to strengthen skin and helps to prevent water loss whilst improving the texture of the skin," explains Ayodele.
"A powerhouse ingredient that calms the skin quickly is Centella Asiatica (CICA) which is also known as 'tiger grass’ in some circles," says Ayodele. This serum from Dr.Jart+ contains micro-capsules of tiger grass to protect your skin's defences and promote skin-barrier healing. The whole range is something of a viral sensation on TikTok, and trust me—it really lives up to the hype.
"The Gallinée Prebiotic Face Oil was developed to act on the three different barrier functions: skin-like lipids like squalane and jojoba for the physical barrier, postbiotics for the immune barrier, and prebiotics to help your microbiome rebuild the chemical barrier," explains Drago. "It's both really minimalist and extremely efficient … and is developed to help your microbiome rebuild or maintain your skin barrier without any heavy, gloopy or sticky textures."
Proving that skin barrier health is so hot right now, Glossier just dropped this barrier recovery cream—its first new launch of 2022. Formulated to combat skin sensitivity and restore hydration, it's an ultra-rich, nourishing cream that cocoons skin with moisture for up to 24 hours. And bonus points for the cute packaging.
Oskia founder Georgie Cleeve came up with the entire Rest Day range as a solution to stressed-out skin. This cleanser has been formulated to act as a reset button when your skin needs, well, a rest. It's infused with oat, rose and lavender-flower waters, and there are no active ingredients in sight—instead, it gently cleanses while restoring the lipid barrier and promoting microbiome health. It's like a comfort blanket for irritable complexions.
All of the experts I spoke to mentioned the importance of a streamlined yet efficacious routine, focusing on ingredients that do good for our skin without causing irritation. This powerful 15-day treatment plan ticks all the boxes with a collection of potent vitamin C, ectoin and Q10, which have been specially formulated to be layered together to protect and shield the skin from free radicals and preserve skin healthy for radiant results.
Retinol isn't usually an ingredient that you'd think would lend itself to skin-barrier repair, but this cleverly formulated moisturiser from Paula's Choice is infused with just the right amount to promote smoother, firmer skin alongside antioxidants and a creamy texture to protect skin health and restore glow.
The DeliKate collection from Kate Somerville is one of my favourite skincare launches in recent years. Designed with sensitised skin in mind (perfect if you're a product lover like me), it's packed with omegas and ceramides to restore your skin barrier while cucumber-seed oil and Tasmannia lanceolate fruit extract calm and soothe any immediate sensitivity and inflammation.
Every beauty editor I know keeps a tube of this on hand for those times when your skin has reacted badly to a lab sample or new product, and you just know that your skin barrier has been compromised. Containing soothing panthenol, glycerin and shea butter, it's hypoallergenic and so gentle that it's approved for use on babies. The ultimate SOS product for damaged skin.