Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of SLO Life Magazine.
How our skin barrier keeps us alive and how to care for it.
Our skin. We may not always think much of it. At most, we remember to lather on the thick white paste of sunscreen before stepping out to enjoy a sunny beach day. What we don’t always consider is things like, “without your skin barrier, the water inside your body would escape and evaporate, leaving you completely dehydrated,” Sara Perkins, MD reminds us. Therefore, we could say our skin barrier, simply, keeps us alive.
Kathi C. Madison, Researcher at the Department of Dermatology at the University of Iowa, puts it this way, “the primary function of the [skin] is to produce the protective semi-permeable stratum corneum (skin layer) that permits terrestrial life.” It’s an incredibly important job for a layer of skin we may not consider on a daily basis.
Amidst the sea of information available on the internet, and self-proclaimed skincare gurus on social media, it can be challenging to filter out what’s in fact beneficial to your skin and what is just clever marketing. Thankfully, dermatologists will always be here to steer is in the (scientifically) right direction. Today we’ll take a deeper look at how your skin barrier functions, how its damaged and what we can do to protect and repair it.
Most basically, how does the skin barrier function? Dr. Perkins explains, “the outermost layer, called the stratum corneum is often described as a brick wall. It consists of touch skin cells called corneocytes that are bound together by mortar-like lipids. This is your skin barrier.” This layer contains important elements like cholesterol, fatty acids and ceramides. “Inside the skin cells, or ‘bricks’ you’ll find keratin and natural moisturizers.”
As we learned earlier, our skin barrier is a vital component of our bodies hydration system. “Research over the years proves that the stratum corneum is a dynamic layer that is instrumental in maintaining skin health,” notes Tracey C. Vlahovic, DPM, FFPM RCPS, “[It’s] a dynamic layer that not only protects the body but maintains hydration at a constant pace.” Equal to hydration protection is the armored guard the skin barrier provides the body. “The skin barrier is the body’s first line of defense to external influences,” notes Vlahovic, “When it is disrupted, the skin barrier can become susceptible to allergens, irritants and infection.” This reinforced layer exists partly in thanks to the natural acidity of the skin barrier. Dr. Perkins notes, “This acidity helps to create a kind of buffer against the growth of harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi that could damage your skin and lead to infections and other skin conditions.”
Clearly, our skin is vital in more than just external appearance. It plays an important role in our overall health, keeping us hydrated and safe from outside irritants.
Unfortunately, there are a myriad of offenders that may cause damage to the skin barrier, from uncontrollable occurrences like a dry or humid environment, hot or cold weather, allergens, irritants and pollutants; to common culprits like smoking, overexposure in the sun, hot baths or showers, harsh soaps or detergents; to bad habits of which we are all inevitably guilty at times, like poor skin care, eating unhealthily, mental or physical stress and lack of sleep. Tracy C. Vlahovic, DPM, FFPM, RCPS explains these damaging conditions, “affect the delicate balance of the chemical reactions necessary to maintain the best moisture, lipid and pH levels,” in your skin.
The chemical reactions to which she refers include how the skin moves through in layers, and how moisture is trapped and released cyclically. This reaction is how we are constantly provided with new, fresh skin, how wounds heal, and how the biggest organ, the epidermis, keeps our insides safe and blocks outside toxins from infecting our delicate internal workings.
So how can we tell our skin is damaged? Any one or more of these symptoms can give us a hint: lack of skin elasticity; itchy, dry skin; wrinkles; discoloration; water loss; thinning of the epidermal layer; visible bacterial or viral infections.
While it may seem impossible to provide our skin with optimum conditions to prevent it from all harm, and in many ways, skin damage seems to just be ‘a part of life,’ there are equally as many ways to heal and protect the skin from harm. We cannot control the weather or the level of irritants or pollutants in the air, but we can do our best to wear sunscreen, hydrate, eat right and take as best care of our skin as we can.
Heal and Protect
In basic terms, the best way to protect your skin doesn’t require any fancy products or elaborate routines. Simply avoid too much sun, utilize SPF, moisturize daily, be gentle with your skin, eat a healthy diet, drink water, avoid smoking and manage stress as best you can. While that seems simple, we all know that in today’s environment avoiding stress and eating a healthy diet can sometimes feel next to impossible. And in an atmosphere that promotes elaborate skincare routines, it can feel counterintuitive to bring it back to basics.
The 10-step method of the Korean beauty routine is one such example. It consists of a double cleanser (steps 1 and 2), an exfoliant and toner (3 and 4), an essence, which is essentially a light moisturizer (step 5), serum, a sheet mask and eye cream (more moisturizers – steps 6, 7 and 8), then finally finishing with an actual moisturizer (step 9) and then a thicker night cream or an SPF if it’s day (step 10). Undoubtedly this is a hard routine to maintain, both financially and as a consistent habit.
Thankfully, Vlahovic emphasizes the importance of really only one aspect of this routine: moisturizer. “A moisturizer restores barrier function to the epidermis, creating a protective film, increasing hydration and improving the skin surface visually.” Dr. Kathi C Madison of the Department of Dermatology, University of Iowa explains further how moisturizers work to heal and protect our skin, “Topically applied moisturizers work by acting as humectants or by providing an artificial barrier to trans-epidermal water loss.”
Dr. Madison recommends utilizing a moisturizer and an SPF in the daily care of your skin. Some products combine the two into one convenient morning product to ensure skin maintenance is as easy as possible, and therefore most likely to be maintained.
Our skin barrier plays a vital role in keeping us hydrated and healthy. Environmental and personal health factors can damage our skin barrier, but utilizing a simple skincare routine and healthy personal habits can help repair and protect the skin. Consult with a dermatologist before trying a new skincare routine.
Note: This article was originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.