A dermatologist-approved game plan for protecting your skin barrier

Spoiler alert: there’s a simple step you might be skipping

Editor / June 05 2024

If you had a dollar for every time you’ve heard the word ‘skin barrier’, you’d probably have a decent little fortune, right? And yet, few people actually take the time to go beyond the buzzword and explain what the skin barrier actually is, let alone how we can protect it.

Don’t worry - we’re here for you! Considering the skin barrier is key to keeping your complexion looking healthy and hydrated, we’ve taken the task upon ourselves, and turned to Australian Dermatologist Dr. Ryan De Cruz to get all the facts on the subject…

What is the skin barrier?

“The skin 'barrier’ refers to the fact that our skin serves as a ‘brick wall’ between us and the outside world,” Dr. De Cruz explains. “This barrier has two important roles: holding moisture in and keeping nasties out. The quality of this barrier is determined mainly by the ‘cement' that holds the bricks together, preventing trans-epidermal water loss and irritation.”

There’s a certain ingredient group that plays a pivotal role in making up the ‘cement’ too. “Ceramides form over 50 per cent of this cement and naturally decline with age, environmental stress and inflammation,” Dr. De Cruz shares, highlighting just how important it is to refill your skin’s ceramide tank with skin care containing ceramides.

What are the signs of a damaged skin barrier?

“The skin, like any other organ, gets stressed or damaged by environmental triggers or as a result of certain skin conditions,” says Dr. De Cruz. “The skin barrier can be easily damaged by excessive washing, exposure to harsh drying chemicals such as shampoos, soaps, chlorine, certain makeup and skin care products and anything that leads to inflammation of the skin such as eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis and infection.”

“The signs to look out for include redness, itchiness, flakiness and discomfort,” he confirms, sharing that when our skin communicates that it’s feeling damage or discomfort, it’s time to kick into gear. “We must listen to our skin barrier, and when visibly inflamed, dry, itchy or sore, we are obliged to respond to its distress signals through scientifically-proven skin care that helps restore its natural state.” Speaking of which…

How to protect and support the skin barrier

Now that we know exactly what it is, how can we protect this precious barrier? It’s important to have skin barrier-repairing strategies up your sleeve so you’re ready to act when your skin needs help.

#1: Keep the aggressors limited

Ceramides, for one, are a friend to your skin barrier, but the skin has some enemies too, and it’s your job to keep them at bay. “Ensuring we avoid repeated exposure to hot water and drying chemicals such as soap, chlorine and alcohol are all vitally important,” Dr. De Cruz confirms re: limiting skin’s exposure to aggressors. “This means keeping showers short and tepid/warm, rinsing off immediately after swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool, and using soap-free cleansers.” 

#2: Keep the soothing hydration coming

As for what your skin is craving, it’s all about soothing hydration. “The most important aspect of repairing the skin barrier is to identify the cause/s of damage to begin with, and immediately [work on] soothing and rehydrating the skin,” Dr. De Cruz tells BEAUTYcrew.

As far as skin care steps go, he has some suggestions. “I recommend cleansing with a ceramide-based cleanser that is fragrance-free, and immediately applying a rich moisturising cream or balm that is similarly hypoallergenic, pH-balanced and minimalist in formulation.”

You’ll want to take a close inspection of the ingredients in your formulas, too. “I favour products that contain ceramides (the main naturally-occurring lipid found within the skin), hyaluronic acid to draw moisture back to the skin, and are hypoallergenic i.e. do not contain unnecessary preservatives, botanicals or fragrances,” Dr. De Cruz explains. Sounds like solid advice to us!

#3: Keep the moisture trapped

Your skin barrier is constantly fighting to keep the good stuff within the skin, but evaporation is often trying to steal the moisture you’ve applied before it sinks in. Blessedly, there’s a strategy for keeping it protected. “‘Slugging’ involves application of a thick vaseline-based product all over the face as the last step of a skin care routine, to help trap in moisture,” Dr. De Cruz confirms.

However, slugging with something that nourishes your skin through its own ingredients and keeps all of your hydration locked in is ideal. “Whilst [slugging] is certainly one way to prevent trans-epidermal water loss, I recommend products such as CeraVe’s Advanced Repair Balm ($17.99 at Chemist Warehouse) that not only contain petrolatum, but the three essential ceramides of our skin barrier, as well as hyaluronic acid,” he shares.

“It is a cosmetically elegant product that takes slugging to the next level. CeraVe’s Advanced Repair balm works to repair the skin moisture barrier by not only providing an occlusive barrier (petrolatum) which is completely inert/hypoallergenic, but it incorporates key ingredients such as three essential ceramides and hyaluronic acid to rehydrate the skin.”

Remember how Dr. De Cruz told us that ceramides actually make up over 50 per cent of the skin barrier’s ‘cement’? By applying a product that gets them onto the skin and keeps them there, these all-important ceramides will be able to sink in properly and help to strengthen the skin barrier.

Dr. De Cruz confirms the value of a double-duty formula like this one, noting that “by re-hydrating AND preventing further water loss, the balm immediately soothes, repairs and protects dry skin and strengthens the skin barrier.” And considering the goal of anyone reading this is undoubtedly to transform a dry, damaged skin barrier into a stronger, more hydrated one, that’s damn good news.

Main image credit: @shaninamshaik

Want more expert advice? Here's why you should try strategic slugging...

Delaney began her career in the Australian beauty media industry in 2015, landing amidst the glossy world of women’s lifestyle magazines (or more literally, in their beauty cupboards). Since then, she has gone on to write across a multitude of beloved Australian media brands, including OK!, NW, InStyle, and Harper’s BAZAAR. She’s covered every side of beauty content, from directing beauty editorial shoots to rounding up the best glossy serums for golden hour skin. Having spent nearly a decade immersed in the beauty realm, Delaney’s knowledge of beauty is as extensive as her collection of tinted lip oils (read: extremely extensive). Delaney is currently the Digital Managing Editor of BEAUTYcrew, and her beauty wisdom also appears across beautyheaven, ELLE and Marie Claire. She enjoys channelling her personal hobby (testing beauty products) into her professional work (talking about testing beauty products), and considers perfecting the art of a cat eye in a moving car her life’s greatest accomplishment.