I've always considered my face the perfect guinea pig for trying new beauty products. And I've been fortunate enough to never suffer from severe sensitivities or acne, so trying out a new product or treatment never affected my skin. Well, that was until four months ago.
In a beauty editor's worst nightmare scenario, I came in contact with an ingredient in a mask that, low and behold, didn't agree with my skin. I washed off the mask to find my skin bright red, tight, and stinging, kind of like I had sat outside in the sun for five hours without SPF. I splashed my face with water, applied a cooling mask (which immediately stung), and put an ice pack to my face.
After a few hours, my skin returned to a pink state, but I shrugged it off thinking it was just a bad reaction, and that was that. Over the next few weeks, however, my side effects continued. My normal go-to products stung or burned, I was breaking out more, and I was blotchy. I started treating my skin with more anti-acne products, thinking I was dealing with a bout of blemishes.
Finally, after a few weeks of trial and error, an itchy, pimply rash on my forehead that would not go away sent me to the dermatologist's office.I explained everything to Dr. Patricia Wexler, and she informed me that I had completely compromised my skin barrier.
If this sounds similar to a journey you're currently going through, keep reading to learn what exactly it means when you damage your skin barrier, and how you can fix it.
What Is the Skin Barrier?
According to Miami-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Stacy Chimento, the skin barrier is the outermost layer of the skin that functions to keep all of the good things in and the bad things out. "Your skin barrier is what keeps you alive by keeping all sorts of harmful environmental toxins and pathogens from penetrating your body," she says. "Your skin barrier also keeps the water inside your body that would otherwise escape and evaporate, leaving you completely dehydrated."
My dermatologist, Dr. Wexler, told me that the skin barrier also holds high levels of ceramides that protect the immunologic and homeostasis health of the skin. "In your case, inflammation and an immune response caused this barrier impairment and the loss of moisture from your skin," she said.
What Are the Symptoms Of a Damaged Skin Barrier?
The side effects tend to be inflamed, dry skin, which is exactly what I was dealing with. My impairment also triggered an eczema response, which I figured was acne and started treating it as so. The result of that bad idea? Even more irritated skin because I was sucking whatever moisture I had left out of my face with the active ingredients.
In addition to dry, inflamed skin, Dr. Chimento says, you can also experience symptoms like scaly skin, acne, itchiness, discoloration, or even bacterial or fungal infections.
What Causes a Damaged Skin Barrier?
Now, allergic reactions aren't the only cause of barrier impairment. Atopic dermatitis (eczema) can also play a role, says Dr. Wexler.
Dr. Claire Y. Chang, board-certified dermatologist, and CeraVe brand partner says many external aggressors can cause damage to the skin barrier, too. For example, excess sun exposure, dry weather, allergens, environmental pollution, over-exfoliation, and using harsh soaps or detergents can all compromise the skin barrier.
How Do You Fix a Damaged Skin Barrier?
In my case, cutting most of my serums, oils, and favorite cleansers out and swapping them for mild (read: less likely to irritate and with little actives) formulas did the trick to fixing my skin. I also cut out the acne products because they were further irritating the rash of eczema on my forehead.
A personal routine that Dr. Wexler recommended is gentle micellar water, like Simple's Micellar Cleansing Water ($5; target.com), Eucerin Eczema Relief Creme ($8; walgreens.com), a prescription for my rash on my forehead, Elta MD Clear SPF Broad Spectrum 46 ($37; dermstore.com), and SkinMedica HA5 Rejuvenating Hydrator ($178; dermstore.com). I was also instructed to pat all my products on my face, instead of rubbing which could trigger an allergic response.
On top of eliminating potentially irritating ingredients, Dr. Chimento says to look for skincare ingredients such as ceramides, hyaluronic acid, petrolatum, or glycerin in your product formulas to improve dryness and strengthen your skin barrier. The key to repairing your skin barrier is all about keeping it simple and hyper-focusing on moisturizing.
Over six weeks, the redness faded, the rash on my forehead completely cleared up, and my skin felt and looked like my moisture levels were rising. The stinging subsided, and I started to feel more confident not wearing foundation or concealer on the weekends because my tone was getting back to normal. When the skin returns back to normal, Dr. Wexler says patients can slowly add back in favorite products.
How Do I Prevent a Damaged Skin Barrier?
So, am I cured? Maybe — but maybe not. According to Dr. Wexler, patients with barrier issues could have a genetic predisposition and should be extremely careful. However, if it's due to an allergen, which seems likely in my face, recurrences aren't expected.
If you're wondering how you can avoid all of this in the first place, though, having a daily skincare routine filled with good-for-you ingredients (like the ones mentioned above) is step one. Dr. Chang also recommends avoiding excess sun exposure, which disrupts your skin barrier and causes premature skin aging.
"It is crucial to moisturize your skin daily to repair the skin barrier," she says. "Also, avoid harsh soaps, scrubs, and excess exfoliation, and long, hot baths." She adds that using humidifiers during the winter to keep the air and your skin moisturized is also helpful.
My suggestion, though? If you're dealing with a bad reaction to a product or suspect you're having issues with your skin barrier, don't diagnose yourself and go see a dermatologist as soon as you can.
And while I'm so excited to give my anti-aging serum the limelight once again, I will definitely be taking it one tub of cream at a time.