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The shelves of beauty boutiques and drugstores are packed with products that aim to protect and rejuvenate your skin. Some of them exfoliate, some plump, and others moisturize. What these products have in common is the fact that they all act on your body’s outermost layer, called the skin barrier.

But what exactly is your skin barrier, what’s its purpose, and what can cause damage?

In this article, we’ll help answer those questions and also explore the steps you can take to protect and restore this vital defensive layer.

Your skin is made up of layers, each of which performs important functions in protecting your body.

The outermost layer, called the stratum corneum is often described as a brick wall. It consists of tough skin cells called corneocytes that are bound together by mortar-like lipids. This is your skin barrier.

Inside the skin cells, or “bricks,” you’ll find keratin and natural moisturizers. The lipid layer contains cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramides.

This fantastically thin brick wall is literally keeping you alive. Without it, all sorts of harmful environmental toxins and pathogens could penetrate your skin and wreak havoc in your body.

Additionally, without your skin barrier, the water inside your body would escape and evaporate, leaving you completely dehydrated.

Your skin barrier is essential for good health and needs to be protected in order to function properly.

Every day, your skin confronts a barrage of threats, many of which come from outside your body and a few that come from within.

Some of the external and internal conditions that can affect your skin barrier include:

The role of the acid mantle

Your skin barrier is slightly acidic. This acidity (the acid mantle) 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.

It’s especially important to protect the acid mantle around wounds, since the skin’s acidity is necessary for many of the biological interactions in the healing process.

Sometimes, a health condition such as diabetes or incontinence can change the acidity of your skin, weakening this buffer. For people with these conditions, experts recommend slightly more acidic skin care products.

When your skin barrier isn’t functioning properly, you may be more prone to developing the following skin symptoms and conditions:

Given the importance of maintaining your skin barrier and acid mantle, what can you do to keep them both healthy and functional? Let’s look at five strategies that can help.

Simplify your skin care routine

If you’re performing a complicated daily skin regimen involving a basketful of products, you may be inadvertently weakening your skin barrier. Consider talking to a dermatologist or skin care expert about which products are essential and most effective.

If you’re exfoliating, notice how your skin reacts to the method you use. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, those with sensitive skin and darker skin tones may want to use a soft cloth and a mild chemical exfoliant.

Some types of scrubs and brushes may temporarily damage your skin barrier.

Pay attention to pH

Your skin’s delicate acid mantle hovers around a pH of 5.7. But the pH of some skin products can range from 3.7, all the way up to 8.2.

Researchers recommend cleansing with a product that’s close to your skin’s natural pH.

Keeping your skin’s pH at a healthy level may help protect you from skin conditions such as dermatitis, ichthyosis, acne, and Candida albicans infections. Although not all products list their pH, some do.

Try a plant oil to replenish your skin barrier

Research from 2018 shows that certain plant oils may help repair the skin barrier and also prevent your skin barrier from losing moisture. Many of these oils have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant effects, too.

Some of the most effective plant oils to use on your skin include:

There are many ways you can use plant oils on your skin. You can apply creams and lotions that contain one or more of these oils as an ingredient. Or, you can pour a small amount of the oil into the palm of your hand and then massage it gently into your skin until it’s absorbed.

Look for formulations that include ceramides

Ceramides are waxy lipids found in especially high concentrations in the stratum corneum. They are crucial for the healthy functioning of your skin barrier.

Research from 2019 shows that products containing pseudo-ceramides may help improve the dryness, itchiness, and scaling caused by a poorly functioning barrier. Ceramide-rich moisturizers may also strengthen the structural integrity of your skin barrier.

Ceramide moisturizers may be especially helpful if you have acne. In acne-prone skin, the barrier is often impaired, and acne treatments can leave skin dry and reddened. Products containing ceramides may also help protect darker skin, which a 2014 review of studies has shown contain lower ceramide levels.

Here are few highly rated ceramide moisturizers, all of which you can find online:

Try moisturizers containing hyaluronic acid, petrolatum, or glycerin

Dry skin is a common problem, and moisturizers are the often-recommended solution.

An occlusive moisturizer aids the skin barrier by reducing the amount of water loss from your skin. These products leave a thin film on your skin that helps to hold in moisture. One of the most frequently recommended occlusive moisturizers is petrolatum, which experts say can block as much as 99 percent of water loss from your skin.

Like occlusive moisturizers, humectants can also improve barrier function. Humectants work by drawing water — either from the environment or from inside your body — and binding it in the skin barrier. Researchers recommend products that contain hyaluronic acid, glycerin, honey, and urea.

Here are two top-rated hyaluronic moisturizers that you may want to try, both of which you can find online:

How to use

Gently apply moisturizer to your skin immediately after you get out of the shower, when your skin is moist.

Not all skin care ingredients work for everyone. That’s why you may want to try a few different products to determine which one works best for keeping your skin healthy and well moisturized.

The outermost layer of your skin, known as your skin barrier, defends your body against a constant onslaught of environmental threats while simultaneously protecting your body’s critical water balance.

Symptoms such as dryness, itching, and inflammation can alert you to a disturbance in this important barrier.

You can help repair your skin’s barrier by simplifying your skin care regime, using products with a suitable pH, and using a moisturizer that contains ceramides or a humectant like hyaluronic acid. Moisturizers with petrolatum can also help your skin barrier seal in moisture.

Your skin barrier is your body’s frontline defense against everything the world throws at you. Keeping it healthy is much more than a cosmetic concern.