How to be your natural moisture barrier’s BFF.
Something we skincare savants don’t talk about much is that our skin does a pretty good job of running the glow show on its own. It keeps out harmful toxins. It pushes dead skin cells to the top to be sloughed off by the next nose scratch. It even makes its own moisturiser. How does skin do all that and what can we do to lend it a hand? Read on for the run down on your skin’s natural moisture barrier.
What is skin’s natural moisture barrier?
The natural moisture barrier makes up the upper most layer of our skin and consists of a tight layer of skin cells and lipids. This brick-and-mortar like structure helps your skin do what it does best: keep your jelly insides together and keep toxic things out. In the past, we imagined the skin like well-fitted tarp kind of just lying there not doing much. But over the last few decades, scientists have found that the skin, even this outer layer, is moving and grooving at all times.
The lipids in the natural moisture barrier are made up of about 50% ceramides, 35% cholesterol, and 15% fatty acids. Diet culture can’t shame these fats because they do the important job of properly sealing you off from the outside world. They’re flexible, slightly-permeable and the main reason why our skin looks and feels the way it does.
What does the moisture barrier do?
Most of the skin cells we can see are actually already dead cells. The deeper layers of the skin push up the expired cells as fresh ones are made. The reason your skin doesn’t look like a scene from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is because the glue that holds those top layer cells together is very much alive. That blend of ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids are woven between cells to form a water-tight seal at the surface of your skin. The strength of that seal is key to keeping you looking and feeling healthy.
The natural moisture barrier and transepidermal water loss
Like the houseplants we acquired in quarantine, we need water to live. But water likes to evaporate and continue its own cycle of life outside of us. When this happens through our skin, dermatologists call it transepidermal water loss, TEWL for short.
Our natural moisture barrier is what keeps the moisture we need in so that our cells and organs can stay hydrated. When our barrier is compromised (more on that later) TEWL happens more rapidly. This can result in everything from dry skin to wrinkles to acne to eczema.
Some TEWL is unavoidable, but deeply nourishing the skin barrier can revive the defense and significantly change the texture, tone and overall appearance of your skin.
How does the moisture barrier get damaged?
Damage to the moisture barrier means higher permeability (not great for our pollutant infested word), less of those fats that give your skin supple structure and more of that dreaded transepidermal water loss.
There are some reasons why your moisture barrier may be damaged that are totally out of your control. Some folks are born with a slightly weaker barrier. The sun, allergens, irritants, dry climates and using water that is too hot or too cold can all cause damage to your natural skin barrier. But if you’re a skincare addict like us, it’s likely that the problem is a little closer to home.
Sometimes our best efforts to transform our skin (with “actives” like vitamin C, retinol, AHAs and BHAs) actually do more damage than leaving skin alone. We’ve all got that friend with gorgeous skin who swears they never use anything more than a bar of gentle soap. Chances are their lack of enthusiasm for skincare products actually saved their moisture barrier by default. The powerful, effective ingredients we love can be hard on the natural moisture barrier. If we use them without securing the barrier first, their superpowers turn destructive and disrupt the delicate balance.
We love a multi-step moment, but complicated routines with products you haven’t tested on your own skin could be causing the very woes you’re trying to solve.
How can you strengthen the barrier?
If you’re experiencing irritation, dryness, wrinkles or acne, chances are you need to give your natural moisture barrier some love. Thankfully, our skin is forgiving if you know what it likes. There are three key ingredients to stock up on to show your skin you really do care.
Lipids (Ceramides, Cholesterol and Fatty Acids)
We know that technically makes our tally five not three, but ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids make up the singular “lipid blend” of the moisture barrier. The connective blend is a majority ceramides and roughly equal parts cholesterol and fatty acids. Search for skin care that mimics the ratio of these elements in your body (about 3:1:1). Applying ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids to skin can replace lost lipids and give you a restored, smooth and glowy look. If you’re the beauty-from-within type, you can also add lipids to your diet from getting a good amount of omega-3s, 6s and 9s via supplements or omega-rich foods.
Another element naturally found in the body, glycerin is a humectant that soaks up water like a sponge. The glycerin found in products has a low molecular weight, so it gets deep into the skin on the lower dermis level. Why is that important? Once it sinks into skin, it’s moisture-magnet qualities help lock hydration in where it belongs and TEWL at a minimum.
Squalane is a bottled up version of a moisturizer our skin makes naturally. It gently hydrates and plumps even the most sensitive and dry skin. Squalane also works like an antioxidant to keep the free radicals that causes sun damage and age spots at bay. Look for products containing ethical, vegan squalane to lock in moisture and strengthen the skin’s barrier cleanly and naturally.
Be your barrier’s best friend
The takeaway is that the natural moisture barrier is our ride or die. Learning to live with it means learning what it is, what it likes and what it doesn’t like. Make nice with the natural processes and they will repay you with your best skin yet.