What your skin barrier is and why it’s so important

Gisele Bundchen

The latest buzzword that plays a key role in your skin’s health

Beauty Crew Beauty Writer / June 08 2018

Skin care is by far the most complex facet of the beauty world and one that’s constantly changing as new information and technologies emerge. One of the latest beauty buzzwords to be thrown around is ‘skin barrier’ and it’s actually a vital part of your skin’s health. 

Dryness, acne and inflammation are just some of the issues a compromised skin barrier can cause, so it pays to take care of yours. And before you can look after yours, you first need to understand what it actually is. 

Botanical Chemist at A’kin, Annabelle Personeni explains: “The skin’s protective barrier is made of the skin’s top layer (called the epidermis). It’s made of thicker, harder skin cells, held together by beneficial skin lipids, which provide a physical barrier between the body and the environment. More recently, scientists have started to include the skin’s beneficial microflora as part of the protective barrier because of its role in keeping adverse germs away.”  

The purpose of the skin’s barrier

According to Cosmetic Chemist for Alex Cosmetics Herbal Aktiv Peel, Paul Fister, the purpose of the skin’s protective barrier is to maintain vital fluid levels within our body, while “protecting us against environmental aggressors such as wind, sun, weather, water, bacteria and chemicals.” Ultimately, the skin barrier acts like a bouncer at a nightclub – keeping essential skin-loving fluids in, while ensuring harmful bacteria and germs stay out.

Why the skin’s pH is so important?

In order for the protective barrier to function effectively, the skin’s pH levels need to be balanced.

“pH is the measurement of the acidity of the skin and is related to how much hydrogen ions are available in the skin. A high pH is alkaline, a low pH is acidic. The scale goes from 1 (very acidic) to 14 (very basic).”
Annabelle Personeni
Botanical Chemist

The pH of the skin is important because it influences how well enzymes work. “Enzymes function like small engines that synthesise lipids and proteins in living organisms, and in particular the molecules that make the skin. If the pH is wrong, enzymes can’t function properly and the skin won’t renew itself effectively,” says Personeni. By not being able to renew itself as it should, the skin’s barrier becomes compromised, which enables bacteria and germs to penetrate.

How to know if your skin’s pH levels are off

In order for our skin to function efficiently, its pH needs to be around 5.5. If the pH goes too high, the good bacteria on our skin becomes sick and can’t function to defend our bodies against bad bacteria that could invade, explains Personeni. She also adds, “people with skin conditions like eczema usually don’t have the right pH on their skin. Less dramatically, skin can become dull, patches of dead cells may form and skin can appear very dry”.  

Alternatively, if our pH levels are too low, skin can become oily, red, inflamed and painful, and breakouts can occur.

How to make sure your pH levels are balanced

Personeni notes the best approach to maintain balanced pH levels is “to use products that are as close to the skin’s pH level as possible (between pH 5-6). Most skin care products are in that area, except for ones that are really low like alpha hydroxyl acids [which accelerate cell turnover and should be used in moderation] and soaps (which have a very high pH).”

If you’re not sure where the products you’re using fall, you can purchase pH litmus strips from a pharmacy to measure their acidity/alkalinity. If any have a pH lower than 4 or higher than 6 (excluding those formulated to exfoliate skin, such as AHAs), you should discontinue use.

It is important to note here that your skin is resilient. So even if you were to wash your face with an alkaline product like soap, your skin’s pH levels would eventually settle after a few hours. The problem however, is that during those few hours, “the bacteria from the environment has a better chance of colonising our skin and causing infections,” says Personeni.  

How to protect your skin’s protective barrier

“The first thing is to make sure our skin’s good lipids are not stripped away. To do that you need to make sure that your skin is moisturised, well nourished and hydrated. It is best to use products that are enriched with biocompatible oils – so oils that will nourish the skin, not just sit on top,” says Personeni. Think formulas that contain vitamin E and/or rosehip oil, as well as ingredients like jojoba and niacinamide – all of these have been proven to reach deeper into skin layers, replenishing and rejuvenating in their wake.    

Three of our favourite products that work to protect the skin’s barrier include A’kin Shine Free Facial Moisturiser, Dr. Spiller Aloe Vera Avocado Vitamin-E Oil and Alex Cosmetics Vitamin Cream.

A’kin Shine Free Facial Moisturiser

Dr. Spiller Aloe Vera Avocado Vitamin-E Oil

Alex Cosmetics Vitamin Cream

Additionally, according to celebrity facialist and skin care expert for OmniDerm, Sue Dann, the best way to balance pH levels and maintain a healthy barrier is to “never allow skin to feel tight or dry. By all means, use active ingredients, but make sure they’re used in low levels that don’t cause inflammation or irritation”. She adds that it’s important to remember, “the more harsh products and treatments that you throw at your skin, the harder it has to work to re-establish itself. No ingredients are intrinsically bad, it’s the amount or percentage that is important”.

Fister agrees, noting that while a skin peel is a great once-off treatment, daily application of products designed to speed up skin cell renewal have been found to lead to imbalances in the skin. Furthermore he adds, “cleansing products should be gentle to avoid stripping the skin. While our skin is quite resilient, best results are achieved by working with its natural processes rather than against it”.

Struggling with sensitive and irritated skin? Try these six different ways to calm inflamed skin.

Have you heard of the skin’s protective barrier before? Did you know how important it was? Let us know in the comments below.

Main image credit: @gisele


Kate started working for BEAUTYcrew in early 2016, first as a contributor, and was then named Beauty Writer in 2017. She loves picking the brains of the industry's top experts to get to the bottom of beauty's toughest questions. Bronze eyeshadow palettes are her weakness and she's forever on the hunt for the perfect nude nail polish to suit her fair skin. Her words can also be found in Men's Health magazine, and she now works in PR.