Dermatologists are buzzing about your skin's outer layer (the barrier, they call it) and how a healthy one may be the key to a complexion that looks and acts younger. Their advice — backed by the latest science — will strengthen your beauty defense system.
Let's start with a simple bio lesson: Picture the surface of your skin as a brick wall. The "bricks" are dead skin cells, which are held together by a mix of fatty acids and oils — the "mortar." This is your skin barrier, and it protects the deeper layers by keeping water inside and all sorts of junk out — irritants, bacteria, free radicals (wrinkle-causing molecules generated by the sun and pollution). "The barrier is so thin — we're talking millionths of a meter — but it does so much to keep your skin functioning properly," says Adam Friedman, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at George Washington University.
Now imagine that wall beginning to crack and crumble. Your skin no longer holds onto moisture or blocks out the elements the way it should, so you're left with a dry, cranky complexion that can't protect or repair itself. You're suddenly a lot more vulnerable to skin conditions like eczema and flare-ups of psoriasis, and because bacteria and other pore-clogging gunk can easily get in, you even start to notice acne spots popping up here and there. Over time, thanks to those free radicals that slip through, wrinkles and brown spots appear. Not a pretty picture, right? Let's rebuild that wall, with help from smart doctors.
WHAT'S BOTHERING YOUR BARRIER?
Your Daily Cleanse
Cleansers, of course, are supposed to remove dirt and oil, but sometimes they do their job too well. Soaps and other harsh surfactants (like sodium lauryl sulfate) can't tell the difference between bad oils and good, so they just strip them all, including those mortarlike fats, says Friedman. Your skin is left feeling dry and uncomfortably tight. "The high pH of most soaps can also trigger inflammation, which then further breaks down the skin's barrier," says Robert Anolik, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at NYU School of Medicine. Even long, hot showers and baths can do damage, literally dissolving away the natural moisturizers that fortify skin.
The Fix: Pick a cleanser that says "nonsoap," "mild," or "gentle" on the label, all signs that it won't overstrip. "These tend to be pH balanced and either don't contain harsh surfactants or use tweaked versions that are gentler," says Friedman. Also look for moisturizing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, glycerin, and ceramides, which replace those natural moisturizers that may get washed away. After cleansing, slather moisturizer on damp skin immediately to lock in water.
Exfoliating dull, dead skin gets you a brighter, smoother complexion, but experts say you can definitely overdo it. Grainy scrubs, scratchy loofahs, even motorized cleansing brushes can tear up your skin's surface if you use them roughly or too often, explains Friedman. Irritating astringents like alcohol, witch hazel, menthol, and synthetic fragrances can also strip skin and trigger inflammation.
The Fix: Switch to gels and at-home peels that contain sloughing acids like glycolic or lactic acid, which mimic your skin's natural exfoliating process. "The idea is to break down the top layer safely to let new healthy cells come to the surface," Friedman says. Do it no more than twice a week, backing off entirely if you see irritation. A cleansing brush can also gently exfoliate without doing damage, but not if you press down hard. Let the bristles do all the work (you should feel a gentle vibration, not pulling or tugging), and don't brush up more than two to three times a week. The potent anti-ager retinol has a reputation for being harsh, but our experts say it strengthens skin's structure from the inside out, so you'll wind up with a stronger barrier in the long run. Layer it with a moisturizer to offset any potential dryness or irritation.
Too Many Stressful Days
It disrupts our sleep, sends us straight for the chocolate cake, and messes with our skin. In fact, studies have shown that skin actually loses more water when we're feeling tense, says Richard Fried, MD, a dermatologist and clinical psychologist in Yardley, PA. "As water escapes, your skin cells become dehydrated and can shrink up like a raisin, leaving microscopic gaps along the surface," says Fried. (Picture those bricks getting looser and looser.) Plus, during stressful times, your body releases a cocktail of inflammatory hormones like cortisol, which undermine your barrier even more.
The Fix: Pick any one of the many activities proven to reduce stress levels — a yoga session, some meditation time, aerobic exercise, reading, talk therapy — and do it often, Fried recommends. "These help decrease the high levels of inflammatory chemicals in your body, giving your skin a break so it has plenty of time to heal," he says. Beyond getting your om on, stick to a diet full of antioxidants (like leafy greens, berries, and green tea) to protect cells against the onslaught of free radicals that can sneak through the cracks in your skin's wall.
The Beating Sun
Don't think you need another reminder of just how damaging the sun is for your skin? Here's one anyway: A few hours after being exposed to ultraviolet light, your skin cells start turning over rapidly in an effort to thicken your outer layer and protect it from further UV damage, says Friedman. It all happens too quickly, though, and you end up with a poorly formed barrier (kind of like a quick, sloppy repair job on that brick wall). Then comes the sunburn. That hot, red, and inflamed reaction is basically your surface layer sending out an SOS. "Sunburned skin is losing lots of water, which is why it feels so tight," says Friedman. It's also more vulnerable. "Your skin's ability to fight off further sun exposure — as well as free radicals and bacteria, fungi, and viruses — is diminished." A golden glow is no better: "Sorry, but a suntan is a sign of injury too," says Friedman.
The Fix: Prevent the damage in the first place with sunscreen (yes, duh), and go for the big guns. "Studies show that people don't apply nearly enough to get the SPF number listed on the bottle. So when you start with a higher number, like SPF 50, you're more likely to get an effective level of protection," Friedman says. If sunscreen tends to irritate your skin, look for a formula with multiple filters (ingredients such as avobenzone, octocrylene, and homosalate), which tend to have lower, less irritating concentrations of each ingredient. Or go with a physical blocker such as zinc oxide, which shields you from the full spectrum of UV light without the sting. Modern formulas sink in better, so you don't have to worry about the lifeguard look. Got accidentally burned or tanned? Turn to a moisturizer with anti-inflammatory ingredients such as aloe or licorice. If your skin is really painful and red, pop an oral anti-inflammatory such as aspirin or ibuprofen, says Anolik. Taking down inflammation quickly means less stress on your barrier.
STRENGTH TRAIN YOUR SKIN
OK, you've stopped the barrier-breaking habits on the previous pages. Now it's time to keep your skin in fighting shape with the right moisturizers. These are the key strengtheners our experts suggest you look for.
You need these good fats to plug up the small cracks in your skin's surface. A few to look for: ceramides, cholesterol, shea butter, flax, meadowfoam seed, oat, or sunflower, safflower, or coconut oils. Make sure there are at least a few listed. "Applying just one type of lipid can actually damage the barrier by throwing everything off-balance," says Carl Thornfeldt, MD, a clinical dermatologist in Fruitland, ID, and a renowned skin barrier researcher.
These lightweight hydrators, which include glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and urea, attract water to your skin and keep it locked there, plumping your surface layer so it repels outside troublemakers.
Like little fire extinguishers, they keep a tiny spark from burning down your entire wall. Using them daily can soothe inflammation on the spot and help prevent a complete barrier breakdown, says Thornfeldt. Licorice, turmeric, aloe, green tea, and allantoin are potent (and commonly used) examples.
If you think of your barrier as the first line of defense for the deeper layers of your skin, topical antioxidants are like the goalies. If any free radicals slip past, antioxidants spring into action, working hard to disarm the invaders before they get into your cells and cause real damage. Look for vitamins C and E, green tea, polyphenols, and soy — all good bets.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY BARRIER IS WEAK?
"If you have sensitive skin that's easily irritated by products, water, sunlight, or wind, that's a pretty good indication," says Thornfeldt. Other signs: chronic dryness all over or in one area (like your always-parched hands). Not you? Congrats, your surface layer is in good shape. Keep reading to hang on to what you've got.
WHAT IF MY SKIN IS OILY? COULD I HAVE A PROBLEM BARRIER?
Yes. Even oily or combination types can have issues, but they're mostly self-inflicted. "People tend to use overly aggressive products to combat oiliness," says Friedman. The result: dried-out and damaged skin.
This story originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.
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