How to Repair a Damaged Skin Barrier: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Close up of a mouth area covered with a white substance flaking off

Have you ever started using an acne treatment with high hopes, only to find that your skin becomes irritated and dry and your pimples just seem to get worse?

You may have experienced the vicious cycle of a damaged skin barrier that is almost a rite of passage when learning the complex balance of taking care of acne-prone skin. The more we damage our skin barrier with harsh acne treatments, the more acne is able to take hold in a less protected environment.


#stitch with @alexa Breakouts can sometimes be a sign of a damaged skin barrier. Acne and rosacea can flare if your skin barrier isn’t healthy. Gentle cleansers and clinically proven moisturizers are absolutely critical before you think about ramping up drying actives.

♬ original sound – Dr. Whitney Bowe

What is the Skin Barrier?

The skin barrier is the outermost layer of our skin, also known as the stratum corneum, and sometimes referred to as the moisture barrier or acid mantle of the skin.

The structure of the skin barrier looks like bricks and mortar with skin cells as the bricks and a matrix of lipids including ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol, as the mortar holding it all together. Additionally, the skin barrier contains natural moisturizing factors (NMFs) such as amino acids, urea, and lactic acid, which help to maintain the skin’s hydration levels.

What Does the Skin Barrier Do?

Your skin barrier tries to keep the bad out and the good in. It provides natural protection from external irritants such as pollution, UV radiation, and bacteria. It also regulates hydration levels by preventing moisture loss from your skin. The skin barrier even works to maintain a slightly acidic pH level of around 4.7, which is important for healthy skin function and protection against harmful bacteria and other irritants.

A healthy skin barrier appears smooth, firm, and well-hydrated. It is able to effectively perform its functions of protecting the skin from external irritants and retaining moisture.

Causes of a Damaged Skin Barrier

A damaged skin barrier can be caused by various factors, including:

  • Excessive exposure to hot water or dry air
  • Use of harsh soaps or detergents that strip the skin of its natural oils
  • Overuse of skin care products that contain irritating ingredients
  • Exposure to environmental toxins or pollutants
  • Certain medications that can dry out or damage the skin
  • Aging, which can cause a decrease in natural oils and moisture in the skin
  • Genetic predisposition to skin conditions that compromise the skin barrier

Signs of a Damaged Skin Barrier

When your skin barrier is stripped and damaged the lipid matrix is unable to maintain the moisture level of the skin leading to transepidermal water loss, which will leave your skin feeling dry and dehydrated. With a damaged skin barrier, your skin might become more sensitive and reactive, leading to inflammation and redness. You might notice that products are stinging your skin more than before.

A damaged skin barrier can make your skin more vulnerable to the environment and bacteria. Because a compromised skin barrier is no longer able to provide the same level of protection as a healthy barrier, bacteria can get through more easily, leading to inflammation and acne breakouts.

How to Heal a Damaged Skin Barrier

The most important factor in restoring a damaged skin barrier is scaling back harsh treatments and treating your skin gently while it heals. Now is not the time for scrubs and chemical exfoliants! If you have active breakouts, use hydrocolloid pimple patches in the place of drying treatments.

Try skin streaming and go back to basics and use a gentle fragrance-free cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen. Pay attention to how your skin feels after using each product, as there are some ingredients that should be gentle to the skin barrier, such as niacinamide or hyaluronic acid, that can be irritating to sensitive skin types.

You will need to both hydrate the skin with humectant ingredients and seal the moisture in with occlusives. You can do this by layering a hydrating serum or toner on damp skin and following with a thicker moisturizer. Incorporating products with glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and ceramides will help to soothe and heal the skin barrier.

An extra complication to healing the skin barrier for those of us with acne-prone skin is that most of the rich occlusive formulas that help soothe the skin barrier can also cause clogged pores and pimples. If you can’t find a thicker cream that works for you, try layering lightweight hydrating products on damp skin to help nourish and support your skin barrier while avoiding exacerbating acne.

Once you have a healthy and functioning skin barrier, your skin will be able to better protect itself from acne causing bacteria. Be gentle with adding new acne treatments and continue to use a good moisturizer. Take care of your skin barrier and it will take care of you!

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