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The Importance of the Skin Barrier

By: @curanaturopathy

Our skin barrier plays a crucial role in a healthy glowing complexion, but unfortunately there are many internal and external factors that influence the functionality of our skin barrier. 

The skin barrier is the outermost layer of your skin, referred to as the epidermis or status corneum - this layer of tissue is composed of epithelial tissue that acts as a protective layer against the external environment. This protective function derives from its sturdy structure consisting of tightly packed cells (corneocytes) bound together by lipids (ceramides) to form its structure. Underneath the epidermis consists of the dermis which contains sweat glands, blood vessels, collagen and elastin (proteins that give your skin its elasticity, plumpness and healthy glow). This is the layer the skin barrier helps to protect.

Why is the skin barrier so important?

The skin barrier acts as the interface between the external environment and inner health. Due to its permeability, our skin barrier is susceptible to external stressors and environmental aggressors that penetrate through the epidermis. This permeability is bidirectional, meaning that what your skin is exposed to externally affects your internal health and vice versa.

See below for a list of its main functions.

Promotes Moisture Levels

Regulating moisture and lipid levels whilst maintaining a balanced pH level is one of the main roles of the skin barrier. When the skin barrier becomes damaged, allowing the tight junctions between cells to become more permeable (meaning, foreign irritants penetrate the skin’s surface and allowing water to leave our skin from the inside out), this can result in transepidermal water loss (TEWL). The common presentation indicating TEWL includes dryness, redness, irritation, dehydration and/or flaky skin.

Protection from Pathogens

The skin barrier acts as our first line of defence and also acts as an antimicrobial barrier consisting of its own microbiome to protect against pathogens, viruses, bacteria and fungi. 

It plays a role in immune health due to its correlation with digestive function which impacts the immune cells inhabiting the epidermis and dermal layers of the skin. When our gut health is compromised whether it’s from excessive antibiotic use, poor diet, medication, stress, chronic illness, etc., this can reduce the gut microbial diversity, which results in a weakened immune system. This weakened immune response contributes to systemic inflammation therefore exacerbating skin inflammation and damaging the skin’s protective barrier.

Nourishing both the gut and skin microbiome assists in protecting against pathogens that contribute to a damaged skin barrier and/or the onset of skin complaints.

Mitigating the Effects of Environmental Stressors/Aggressors

Our skin is constantly exposed to environmental aggressors from overexposure to sunlight, blue light from screens, weather conditions, smoke, pollution, harsh chemicals, allergens, and more - all factors that influence the skin’s permeability, compromise the skin’s protective barrier and photo-protective function.

Our skins photo-protective function serves to mitigate skin damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation, however if this becomes compromised by external stressors, the host is more vulnerable to skin issues such as thick dry skin, sensitivity, rosacea, atopic dermatitis, eczema, acne, breakouts, skin infections etc.

How a Weak Skin Barrier Ages Us

Our skin is one of the most noticeable areas that becomes affected when it comes to ageing. Despite this normal biological process, a weakened skin barrier can certainly exacerbate ageing skin concerns.

If our skin barrier becomes weakened (whether this occurs due to increased water loss, overexposure to UV light/external stressors, inflammation, over-exfoliating, poor diet, lack of adequate hydration in the epidermis) this can contribute to reduced skin elasticity, fine lines, wrinkles, redness, dullness, dryness, age spots and/or pigmentation.

The most common causes of aged skin concerns derives from:

A natural decline in skin cell turnover
Slower natural biological production of collagen and elastin
Lack of adequate moisture and hydration
Overexposure to UV light/radiation
A natural reduction in sweat and oil glands in our skin’s barrier allowing the barrier to become more easily compromised and/or irritated.

How to Protect, Repair, and Nourish the Skin Barrier

  • Avoid over-exfoliating as this strips the pH level of your skin and damages the transdermal layer (protective layer) resulting in a weakened barrier
  • Avoid harsh chemicals, scrubs and soaps which can strip the skin barrier of its natural oils. Opt for natural/gentle cleansers that are correct for your skin type to promote barrier repair.
  • Do an overhaul of your current skincare, and ditch products that contain excessive ingredients, harsh chemicals, fragrances, etc
  • Consider whether essential oils and fragrances are irritating your skin, and/or if your current products are too stimulating/active for your skin type (such as retinol in Vitamin A) as this could be contributing to heightened permeability and sensitivity
  • To optimise your moisture levels, implement a hydrating face oil and/or moisturiser that contains ingredients specifically utilised for their hydrating and nourishing properly such as humectants (i.e. hyaluronic acid), emollients (i.e. squalene), fatty acids (i.e. jojoba, organ oil), antioxidants (i.e. Vitamin A, C, E)
  • Wear a natural/organic broad-spectrum sunscreen (at least SPF 30) and wear a hat when outdoors to prevent hyperpigmentation (as well as regularly getting your skin checked by a professional GP!)
  • Lastly, ensure you’re consuming a diet rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients to assist with skin barrier repair and protection.
If you’re looking for further support with skin health, please contact Tayla via email hello@curawellness.co, Instagram @curawellness.co or book in for a naturopathic consultation (Australia-wide only).
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