“It’s a dry heat!” We’ve all heard that before, but even living in a desert we can forget that dry, tight and itchy skin isn’t normal. Often times, I find myself blaming my dry skin on the weather change or Phoenix in general. Most everyone’s reaction to dry skin is a great deal of lotion, but if that isn’t working for you, maybe it’s time to see if your dry skin is a part of a bigger problem.
I know that too often I’ve noticed that my sunscreen or makeup is settling into a textured flaky surface, especially around my nose. I’ve made all the mistakes in the past: I’ve picked, scrubbed daily (and way too abrasively), gooped on a thick layer of heavy creme and applied mask after mask only to result in redness, inflammation and angry breakouts. I’m sharing this so you know that I have most definitely been in your shoes, the problem was that I was trying to solve a complex issue without understanding what was really going on with my skin. If you are having a similar experience let’s dive into what may be happening and how you can solve it.
If you don’t have time to read this whole article, make sure you skip down to the bottom and grab a breakdown of real things you can do at home to help. It also includes a bonus list of ingredients to look for when purchasing your home care products.
What is your barrier function?
Your barrier function is a term used to describe your skin’s main line of defense. Just like a wall, this thin layer has two jobs: holding things in and keeping things out. We want to hold in water and our natural combination of water-binding agents (electrolytes, urea, amino acids, and lactates) (Lynde) while keeping out any extraneous components that could cause harm. Think in terms of environmental toxins or materials that could cause infection. We come in contact with these external aggravators on a daily basis, so making sure our skin is ready to defend itself is important. (Natsuga)
Simply put our outermost layer (the stratum corneum) is made up of dead skin cells (corneocytes) and lipids (ceramics, cholesterol and fatty acids). The best description of this barrier is the “bricks and mortar” model (Lynde). Consider this exceedingly thin layer as a wall: those skin cells are the bricks while the lipids are the glue or mortar that holds the skin cells together. I’ve always found this depiction extremely helpful in understanding our skin.
Another integral element to keep in mind, is that your skin exists in a delicate balance and when left unmaintained can result in a number of complications.
How does a compromised barrier function affect your skin?
A compromised barrier function can manifest in many ways. You could be experiencing dryness, itchiness, texture, flaking, inflammation, surface oiliness or an increase in breakouts. Let’s tackle these one by one:
- Dry skin: This dryness is often caused by transepidermal water loss (TEWL) which is the term used to discuss how much water is forfeited to diffusion and evaporation. It is somewhat impossible to discuss the topic of TEWL without bringing up occlusive skincare ingredients. An occlusive ingredient creates an actual water-loving barrier that locks in moisture to compensate for a compromised barrier function (Sethi). One of the ingredients I use often in my facial treatments because of it’s many skin benefits is jojoba oil. Jojoba also falls into another category of skincare ingredient that can help to increase moisture for your skin and that is a humectant. Humectants are water-binding ingredients that take water from the air and lower layers of the skin to moisturize.
- Itchiness and inflammation: The itchiness and inflammation is caused by aggravating factors making there way in through the permeable damaged barrier. These stressors can cause our skin to attempt to protect itself creating inflammation resulting in irritation. There are many great anti-inflammatory skincare ingredients out there to help calm your skin, but one of my favorites is turmeric.
- Texture and flaking: The fatty acids in our lipid makeup help to fill the spaces between our skin cells giving it a soft and smooth feel. When these fatty acids are missing from our wall-like construction we can experience uneven texture. The best type of ingredients that fix this issue are emollients. Emollients helps to fill those spaces giving you back that supple feel you’ve been missing (Lynde).
- Surface oiliness and breakouts: These two things regularly come hand-in-hand. Too often people are convinced that their oiliness and breakouts can be cured by oil-free washes and medicated treatments. However, surface oiliness can be caused by our skin simply attempting to protect itself. Without it’s natural mix of protective agents, when attacked, your skin produces oil to compensate which can result in this surface oiliness. Also, medicated treatments often include harsh ingredients that exacerbate the problem.
Three steps can you take to strengthen your skin?
- Avoid: Reduce environmental damage by avoiding pollutants and wearing sun protection. Remove harsh products and synthetic or high allergen ingredients from your skincare routines.
- Rebuild: Use lipid strengthening and water-binding natural skincare ingredients that have the ability to fill in the gaps in your damaged barrier (i.e.: emollients and humectants).
- Protect: Give your skin a better chance of trapping in water by using ingredients that lower TEWL (i.e.: occlusives)(Lynde).
What other factors affect your barrier function?
I like to remember that the body is a whole and our skin is a reflection of our overall health. Diet, age, hormones and water intake can have a definite affect on the health of your barrier function.
- Diet: Making sure you get enough essential fatty acids (EFA’s) can really affect whether your skin is functioning properly. Good sources include fish, flaxseed and walnuts. If you are pregnant you might already be taking a fish oil supplement which as long as it’s good quality can be advantageous (Cates).
- Hormones: Our hormones are little messengers that communicate with our body’s systems and can therefore trigger unfortunate responses such as inflammation and dryness (Cates).
- Age: One of the most prevalent and important lipids that exist in our stratum corneum is Squalene. As we age our bodies produce less of this essential lipid. You can find squalane as an ingredient in skincare to help balance the effects of lipid damage caused by environmental factors (Sethi). Want to read about an anti-aging hero ingredient in the skincare world? Check out my post on aloe vera.
- Water Intake: In order to make sure your skin is well hydrated and your body can easily filter out any toxins that may be entering a compromised barrier function drink at least half your weight in oz of filtered water each day (Cates).
Have been experiencing these skin problems? Were you a scrubber like me? Share what you’ve done in the past that hasn’t worked.
If you feel like that was a great deal of information or that’s too many steps to implement into your life? That why I created a breakdown of this blog post in an easy pdf just for you called 10 Ways to Strengthen Your Skin. It includes 5 things you can do every day and 5 things to stop doing. I’ve also included a list of lipid-strengthening ingredients you can search for when you are trying to find good natural skincare products. Grab your printable download below to start repairing and protecting your skin’s defense system today!
Cates, T. (2017). Clean Skin from Within. Beverly, Massachusets: Fair Winds Press.
Lynde, C. W. (2015, Dec 11). Retrieved from skintherapyletter.com.
Natsuga, K. (2014, April). Retrieved from http://perspectivesinmedicine.cshlp.org.
Sethi, A., Kaur, T., Malhotra, S., & Gambhir, M. (2016, May). Moisturizers: The Slippery Road. Indian Journal of Dermatology, 279-287.