Everything you need to know about your skin barrier

You might want to sit down for this: It's very possible that you're making some serious mistakes with your skin. Nope, we're not talking about all those times you've popped pimples (though, pls, pls, pls resist the urge to pick). We're talking about everyday habits that subtly hurt your skin's outermost layer—aka the skin barrier. 


So, what's the skin barrier?

Let's say your fave water bottle gets a huge crack down the side. You'd end up losing most of your water, and gross bacteria could make its way into the bottle, too. Ew. 

Your skin, which is made up of hundreds of millions of tiny cells, kind of works the same way. Lipids, or fatty compounds, hold all those cells together, keeping in moisture and nutrients while keeping out dirt/pollution/bacteria (like, say, what's on your phone and just about every other surface you touch). 

Those lipids—combined with your skin cells—make up the skin barrier, explains dermatologist Dr. Audrey Kunin. In short? the barrier is responsible for how great your skin looks (or, if you've been messing with it, not so much). 

What you might be doing wrong

We've all spent hours scrolling skincare routines on TikTok and wondering how people with gorgeous skin possibly have the time to layer dozens of products on top of each other on the daily. 

Spoiler alert: There are much better things you could be doing with your morning/money—and that influencer is probably using a filter.

"Some of the videos I've seen are truly cringe-worthy in terms of the harm people can do to their skin," says dermatologist Dr. Iris Rubin. Time to fix these facial faux pas...

Skin barrier bummer: Washing too much

"Over-washing can strip the skin of important oils, compromising the integrity of the skin barrier," explains dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner. 

We get why it's tempting to wash your face over and over in an attempt to clear acne or cut down on oil, but chances are, you're only causing more issues. How? When you constantly cleanse, lipids can become weak and break down.

"When the barrier is disrupted, your skin can become red, dry and start peeling, plus it'll feel tight and itchy," Dr. Zeichner adds. 

Your best bet? Limit cleansing to twice a day, once in the morning and once at night—plus maybe one more time if you sweat a lot at softball practice. 

Skin barrier bummer: Using the wrong cleanser

Picking the right wash is v. important, too. "Products that contain harsh ingredients like sulfates [which cause your cleanser to get sudsy] can throw off the skin barrier," says Dr. Rubin. 

So don't go for the strongest, foamiest face wash that promises to rinse away acne. Instead, look for labels with words like "gentle", "sulfate-free" ad "for sensitive skin."

After cleansing, apply a moisturizer with skin-repairing ingredients like ceramides to lock in hydration and reinforce those lipids, suggests Dr. Zeichner. (We heart CeraVe Moisturizing Cream, $17, 

Skin barrier bummer: Over-exfoliating

Ditch harsh exfoliators and opt for an acid-based serum or toner instead. "Scrubs that contain rough, jagged particles can actually cause scratched and micro injuries on the skin, leading to inflammation. Plus they can make any existing redness or irritation worse," states Dr. Rubin.

She recommends something with lactic acid, like DermaDoctor Ain't Misbehavin' Healthy Toner with Glycolic & Lactic Acid ($39, Just limit your use of acids to once or twice a week to avoid over-exfoliation. "look for a product that acidifies your skin's pH, replenishes hydration and lightly exfoliates clogged pores, advises Dr. Kunin. 

Skin barrier bummer: Being too extra

When it comes to skincare, often less is more. If you're piling on peels or products with added fragrance, alcohol-based toners and other potentially irritating ingredients that can break your skin barrier, it's time to ditch that 10-step routine.

"The key word is gentle," stresses Dr. Rubin. "Beyond a mild cleanser, the only other essentials are moisturizer and sunscreen."

And while we're calling out culprits, know that even hair products (which come in contact with your face/body while you're in the shower) can compromise your skin barrier. To keep things clear and calm head to toe, look for non-irritating, sulfate-free washes like Seen Fragrance Free Shampoo ($29, 

Skin barrier bummer: Not staying consistent

The best bet on the ideal skincare routine? Make it gentle, simple and something you can stick to.

Then, do your face a favor and skip the too-hot, too-long showers, limit time in the sun (SPF always!) and don't skimp on sleep (eight hours!) or water (10 cups!). 

If you're doing all of this and still struggling with breakouts? See a dermatologist. A pro can help you establish a system that'll be best for protecting your skin barrier—and get you that glowy look you love.

Trust us: Your skin is going to be looking *flawless* with these extra beauty tips:
The best makeup wipe alternatives
Why you should drink more water
Get your glowiest skin ever

Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that this story originally ran in our April/May 2023 issue.
Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.

Top image: @iskra
Slider image: @glossier
All GIFs via Giphy


by Erin Reimel | 4/28/2023