The Truth About Barrier Repair: “It’s The 101 Of Esthetician School”

Photographed by Caroline Tompkins.
I used to think barrier repair creams were très gimmicky (isn't it like basically a night cream?), but turns out, there's a lot of nuance in the ingredients used in protecting or "waterproofing" the skin's barrier. It's not B.S. The skin barrier is considered, by many experts, to be the cornerstone of the entire healthy-skin equation. Which is to say, if you understand yours, you'll have a much easier time avoiding common skin concerns, from acne to dullness.
It's timely, too. I was recently listening in on a skin-care education panel where Charlotte Palermino, the founder of Dieux, became animated on the topic of barrier repair: "It's the 101 of esthetician school — skin barrier." Moreover, Palermino asserts that the main reason we have issues with our skin is due to a barrier that became compromised as a result of skin care. It's not our fault though. "There's a lack of education on it," she adds.
It's true that most of us are not really aware of our own skin barrier or how it can become compromised. The dermatologists simplify it, ahead.

Your skin is a houseplant

According to New York-based dermatologist Dr. Hamza D. Bhatti, DO, FAAD, we're all at risk of a compromised skin barrier by just living. "I always give this analogy, imagine your skin is a plant," says Dr. Bhatti. "When you're watering the plant, the leaves are nice and soft, everything is great. But if you stop watering the plant, or the heat is turned up in the house and it becomes too dry and there's not enough humidity, the leaves turn hard and they crack and become brittle. That is what happens to the skin barrier if you're not caring to the hydration; the skin reacts to the environment because it has no protection. If you keep the barrier controlled, hydrated, it's going to feel like that smooth, soft leaf."

Slugging is not the answer

Here's the truth about slugging: Vaseline and Aquaphor don't add hydration to the skin, they just help occlude the pores to prevent moisture leakage. Thus, if you're acne prone at all, slugging is probably not for you. "If you have eczema, slugging might help," says Dr. Bhatti. "If you don't have eczema, slugging might actually be blocking your pores and causing irritation. This could lead to further breakouts. If your skin is so dry that it's cracking, you can slug away. But if you have normal skin, you don't need it." 

But collodial oatmeal is proven to help

In clinical trials, collodial oatmeal was found to significantly improve dryness and soothe compromised or irritated skin. "They're ground oats," explains Dr. Michelle Henry, MD, FAAD a New York City-based dermatologist. "When you grind them into a liquid, you get an anti-inflammatory, and it contains phenols that help make it an antioxidant and it creates this invisible that's helping strengthen and fortify that barrier."
More than anti-inflammatory benefits, collodial oatmeal also produces ceramides. "There's good evidence of ceramide formation, which forms that proper barrier" explains dermatologist Geeta Yadav, MD. "Colloidal oat has been approved by the FDA as the only ingredient in over-the-counter that can be used to soothe the skin and repair the barrier."
For a skin-care product with collodial oatmeal and beta-glucan (the new hyaluronic acid — more on that ahead), try Kiehl's new Advanced Repair Barrier Cream. It's not occlusive or heavy, but a balm to cream texture. You can add a sheer layer over your moisturizer. Or, you can spot treat with it, around your nose (because you're probably blowing it), on your chin and jawline (if you're wearing a mask and want to reduce the friction), and on your cuticles (because, they're dry right now).

Beta-glucan over hyaluronic acid

If you haven't heard of beta-glucan in skin care, here's the tl;dr: It's a humectant like hyaluronic acid, so it binds to water, but it's got more slip, which means it can penetrate deeper into the skin. "Beta-glucan is a slippery molecule," Dr. Henry explains."It can go around the cell and make its way to the epidermis, instead of just sitting on the top of the skin. You're going to get hydration in the depth of the skin, which is really critically important."
Beta-glucan feels a little bit different that hyaluronic acid, too. "What's unique about beta-glucan that maybe hyaluronic acid does not have is that it creates this nice even film on the surface of the skin," Dr. Henry adds. This helps the moisture stay locked in, but the texture can also provide a smooth canvas for sunscreen or makeup to glide on top of.

Apply moisturizer to damp skin

If you're using a hydrating moisturizer, cream, or serum with any kind of humectant in it — hyaluronic acid, polyglutamic acid, beta-glucan, glycerin — do it when your skin is a little damp. "The way you want to apply them is as follows," says Dr. Bhatti. "After the shower, dry your skin to just damp, then you apply the cream all over." Not only does this feel amazing, the residual water droplets become an extra sip of water for your skin.

Skin-cycle your actives

There are a few smart skin-care swaps most dermatologists recommend come winter. "What I would try to do is switch your cleansers to something a little bit more gentle," offers Dr. Yadav. "Switch out your retinoids — if you're using a prescription retinoid, you can switch it out for an over-the-counter one or try something with a lower concentration. I'd also recommend skin cycling — which is super trendy right not — where you just alternate the days that you use your active ingredients and then leave a couple of days to repair and hydrate the skin."
Really, a simple routine will help prevent damage. "We do know, fundamentally, when it comes to skin barrier, it's the underlying issue with everything," says Dr. Yadav. "From acne and rosacea to eczema and psoriasis — all of it has to do with the skin barrier and the integrity of that skin barrier."
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