How To Tell If Your Skin Barrier Is Compromised (And How To Fix It)

Protect your body's largest organ with dermatologist-approved skin care products (and a TikTok hack that actually works).
Faace/Mutha/Ambari

When you wash, exfoliate and moisturize your skin, you’re treating the outermost layer called the skin barrier. As its name implies, the skin barrier keeps the good stuff, like water, in, and harmful pathogens, like environmental toxins, out.

If compromised, you can throw off your skin’s microbiome, or “flora,” which not only leaves you susceptible to potential invasion of harmful organisms, but can result in skin conditions like breakouts, rosacea or psoriasis.

This might make you wonder if a compromised skin barrier (from too much hand-washing, perhaps) can make you more susceptible to contracting viruses like COVID-19, but there’s no need to worry. “As far as we know, SARS-CoV19 is not a blood-borne pathogen, which means that it cannot be transmitted via broken skin,” board-certified dermatologist Dan Belkin explained. “Theoretically a blood-borne virus like HIV or hepatitis C can be spread through a splash onto non-intact skin, however unlikely. But the virus that causes COVID is a respiratory pathogen, which means it requires a mucosal surface like the nose or mouth in order to infect.”

But a compromised skin barrier can have negative effects on your skin’s health. Board-certified dermatologist Dendy Engelman put it this way: “A pollution particle entering a pore is like a tennis ball going through a basketball hoop. It’s pretty easy for these harmful pollution particles to penetrate into your skin without any line of protection or defense against them.”

We spoke with several leading board-certified dermatologists to find out how to tell if your skin barrier is compromised and how to restore its integrity. Doing so not only promotes healthy skin, but makes sure you’re getting the most mileage out of your multi-step beauty routine and the myriad products that plump, soothe, smooth and condition skin.

What is the skin barrier?

We often talk about our skin as the body’s largest semipermeable organ. But what exactly does that mean? Lavanya Krishnan, a board-certified dermatologist specializing in medical and cosmetic dermatology and the founder of Arya Derm in San Francisco, explained: “Our skin serves as the barrier that protects the remainder of our body from the outside world. It also helps prevent key components of our bodies from escaping our bodies.” She went on to say, “A key component to this barrier function is the skin’s ’flora,’ which is composed of millions of bacteria, fungi, mites and viruses. These components help make up the defense function of the skin.”

Engelman added, “Our skin barrier function is an incredibly effective system — it delivers vital nutrients via topical application but also has the ability to shield us from environmental aggressors.” She also explained that the skin has multiple layers, from stratum corneum, stratum lucidum, strantum granulosum, stratum spinosum to the stratum basale. “If our barrier function (or stratum corneum) is compromised, then harmful pathogens penetrate into the multiple layers listed above, and it can have many consequences.”

A diagram of the skin’s many layers.
Stocktrek Images via Getty Images
A diagram of the skin’s many layers.

How To Tell If The Skin Barrier Is Compromised

When barrier function breaks down, “moisture can escape, causing excessive dryness,” Krishnan explained. Additionally, environmental damage, according to Engelman, can result in “skin that is irritated, dry, dull and inflamed.” Rashes, acne, psoriasis and rosacea can also manifest. Krishnan noted that “the friction caused by mask-wearing can affect skin barrier function and contribute to mask-ne as well.”

You’ll want to address skin barrier function in order to optimize your skin care regime and prevent valuable skin care from going to waste. “A compromised skin barrier makes it harder for your anti-aging skin care products, geared towards the collagen and elastin deeper in the epidermis, to penetrate skin,” Engelman told HuffPost.

How To Heal A Compromised Skin Barrier

Once skin barrier function is compromised, it requires care and time — up to one month, according to Krishnan — to heal. “The exact length depends on many variables, including the level of injury and surrounding inflammation of the skin,” she told HuffPost.

Outside of your cleansing and moisturizing routine, lifestyle plays a role in healing a compromised skin barrier. “Minimize practices that can aggravate the skin,” advised Mamina Turegano, a triple board-certified dermatologist and lead dermatologist for Dermatica in the U.S. “These include hot showers, over-washing, over-exfoliating, using harsh chemicals like cleaning products without skin protection and using products with a lot of fragrance.”

Belkin noted that because we’re in a pandemic, regular hand washing is recommended, despite the damage over-washing might cause to the skin barrier. “In terms of COVID prevention, it’s better to be washing your hands and sanitizing regularly if exposed even if the skin barrier suffers,” he told HuffPost.

Skin Barrier Ingredient Dos And Don’ts

In order to remedy a compromised skin barrier, you’ll need to tweak your skin care routine. The first step is to balance skin pH. Krishnan advised using products that have a “neutral pH,” which means steering clear of harsh alkaline washes and detergents, or on the other side of the spectrum, any type of acid. “When the skin barrier is already compromised, I advise avoiding ingredients that have exfoliating properties like retinols, glycolic, salicylic or mandelic acids as well as alkaline soaps,” she said.

In addition to avoiding anti-acne fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, Turegano recommended paying extra attention to inactive ingredients in your products. “Some skin types can also be very sensitive to alcohol and fragrance,” she told HuffPost.

When it comes to ingredients you should look for, one of them is ceramides, which hydrate and combat irritation. Plant-based epidermal growth factor (EGF) proteins help repair the skin, and are also key in fortifying skin barrier function (a baby’s skin is brimming with EGF, for point of reference). EGF, Engelman said, is a “great alternative for those that can’t tolerate retinol. This is safe for sensitive skin and especially those that have a compromised skin barrier function where the skin needs to repair before and true results from other actives can be seen.”

Finally, Engelman is a fan of slugging, a skin care hack made popular of late thanks to Reddit and TikTok that involves coating your skin with Vaseline, leaving you with a slimy, slug-like complexion that does wonders for the skin barrier. “Slugging is becoming trendy, but it’s something I have advised for years,” she said. “Moisture wounds have been proven to heal much effectively and rapidly. We used to think wounds needed to air out and scab, but moisture actually helps. The most important thing to look for is an occlusive, which is designed to prevent water loss.”

Note that slugging might not be ideal for all skin types. “I don’t recommend it for oily or acne-prone skin,” Turegano said. “If you slug, I recommend that you first use a moisturizer rich in ceramides, squalane, glycerin, dimethicone, niacinamide, colloidal oatmeal or hyaluronic acid, designed to nourish your skin. Then use the Vaseline on top to trap that moisturizer in your skin.”

Finally, people with sensitive skin might notice that their skin barrier gets compromised more easily. A dermatologist can address this issue remotely with teledermatology. “People tend to forget that they can talk to their dermatologist about ways to fix their compromised skin barrier. At this time when many people have issues of affordability and access, it’s important to know it doesn’t have to be a huge expense.”

At-Home Products To Try

The Route

Applying makeup when you have a compromised skin barrier can be a nightmare. A hybrid skin care-makeup primer can help foundation or concealer go on smoothly. This one is formulated with a boosting peptide and instantly calms chapped, red skin.

Elizabeth Arden

Engelman recommended this serum, designed to fortify the skin barrier while increasing collagen and elastin production.

Curel

This hydrating face wash is part of Curél’s ceramide care system designed to boost skin’s natural barrier function.

Glo

Engelman uses this on patients in her practice after laser treatments to expedite recovery.

Ambari

Balancing skin pH isn’t limited to cleansing. This serum is formulated with a low pH and high acid concentration to optimize recovery. Plus an infusion of clinical strength CBD calms inflammation for overnight results.

Mutha

This treatment uses niacinamide to restore the ceramide barrier. It’s also formulated with bio-fermented active ingredients to actively feed skin flora.

Faace

Part mask, part treatment, this product’s formula contains vegetable glycerin to lock water into the skin’s outer layer. It’s helpful to use after washing your face, but before applying serums.