Why a healthy skin barrier is key to clearing acne

Wait! Need a refresher on your skin barrier, it’s components and function? Check out this article for all the background info you need to know, plus even more tips for protecting and supporting your skin barrier.

Think about the primary causes of acne – individual oil chemistry, the rate of cell turnover and skin shedding, bacterial growth and inflammation. Now, think about the structure and function of your skin barrier. It’s composed of lipids and hardened dead skin cells, which keep bacteria, pollutants and irritants out and trap water in. When your skin barrier is damaged, it is more susceptible to infection, dehydration and inflammation. See where we’re going? Acne and your skin barrier are inextricably linked. 

Your Skin Barrier and Acne

Your skin barrier has a lot of responsibilities. As your body’s first line of defense, it prevents environmental stressors (like pollution, allergens and bacteria) from passing through. The complex of dead skin cells and lipids create a physical barrier, as well as antibacterial and antimicrobial protection. If these environmental stressors aren’t kept out, they can cause inflammation and infection. This is one way that a compromised skin barrier can contribute to acne. 

Another function of your skin barrier is water retention. Without anything blocking it, water is constantly evaporating off the surface of your skin via a process called transepidermal water loss or TEWL. Your skin needs hydration to carry out all of its processes, reduce inflammation, regulate skin shedding and oil production (dehydrated skin produces more oil!) When any of these things are out of balance, the likelihood of acne breakouts increases.

Knowing how all of these processes are related, you can see how easy it is for an impaired skin barrier to get stuck in a never ending cycle of dehydration, inflammation and irritation that’s unable to repair itself or heal acne breakouts. When your barrier is impaired, bacteria can enter and proliferate, inflammation creates redness and swelling, water escapes, skin cells can’t shed and your skin remains in a constant state of vulnerability.

For this reason, a healthy, strong, supported skin barrier is crucial to prevent, treat and manage acne and must be the first step. Otherwise, the cycle will continue.

Best Practices to Support Your Skin Barrier

  • Don’t over exfoliate or use stripping cleansers. A primary cause of skin barrier damage is over-exfoliation, especially for the acne-prone. It may seem counterintuitive when treating acne, but your exfoliants can’t do their job if they’re just stripping your barrier. Choose the right exfoliant and cleanser for your skin type and concerns. 
  • Look out for signs of a damaged barrier. Redness, stinging, itching, burning, increased or never-healing breakouts. If you experience any of these, listen to your skin and go back to basics. Discontinue all actives and only use a gentle cleanser, fragrance-free moisturizer and sunscreen until it resolves.
  • Don’t jump back into actives too quickly. Once your barrier is showing signs of healing, introduce your active products slowly and one at a time. It may take weeks or months for your barrier to fully repair and pushing your skin too quickly will only prolong the process.
  • Keep barrier-supporting products in regular rotation, even when your barrier isn’t in a state of compromise. You want to keep it that way, right? Look for moisturizers with ceramides, lipids, fatty acids, humectants like glycerin, panthenol and hyaluronic acid and soothing ingredients like colloidal oats, green tea and allantoin. 
  • Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen. Your barrier will never be healthy if it is constantly being damaged by UV rays (over here to learn why)