Updated 09/10/21. If your skin is feeling dry, tight, and irritated, there is an underlying problem—your skin’s moisture barrier is damaged. When people learn this, their first instinct is to layer on a heavy moisturizer, but that won’t fix it. Chances are that you’re doing something day in and day out that’s causing it to become damaged. The moment you identify (and remove) the culprit, your moisture barrier will naturally mend itself.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about your moisture barrier, including what it is, how it works, and what might be causing it to become damaged. Plus, learn 10 expert-recommended ways to fix it. You’ll be back to having soft, healthy-looking skin in no time.
What Is a Moisture Barrier?
The moisture barrier is the outermost layer of the skin that helps retain water and provide protection from external aggressors, like bacteria and environmental debris. Think of it like your skin’s personal bodyguard, which helps keep the good in and the bad out. It’s made up of lipids (oils) that bind your skin cells together. When it’s intact, it’s responsible for keeping the skin feeling soft and smooth and acting calm and healthy. An example of a perfectly intact moisture barrier is a baby’s skin. They have plump and smooth skin that’s soft to the touch.
When the moisture barrier becomes damaged, small, invisible cracks are created in the skin. Through these cracks, moisture can easily escape and irritants can easily enter. The skin may start to feel tight, dry, and sensitive. Essentially, it’s like your skin lost its protective bodyguard.
How Can I Tell If My Moisture Barrier Is Damaged?
As an esthetician with over 30 years of experience working hands-on with clients and their skin, I can say that almost every single skin concern can be traced back to an impaired skin barrier. In fact, not a day goes by that I’m not pinpointing a damaged moisture barrier as the underlying cause of someone’s skin issues.
Common signs of a damaged moisture barrier include redness and rosacea, dryness and dehydration, flakiness and peeling, irritation, itchiness, roughness, a stinging or burning sensation when products are applied, and even increased breakout activity. If you experience any or all of these things, no matter your age, you might have a compromised moisture barrier. If that’s the case, keep reading to learn how to fix it.
What Causes a Moisture Barrier to Become Damaged?
There are many different things that can cause a damaged moisture barrier. It could also be a combination of factors, which is why it’s important to be attentive to your skin, as well as your skincare routine and lifestyle habits, to pinpoint the culprit(s).
- Exfoliating too often (this is the most common culprit and one that I see all too often)
- Using drying skincare products (such as alcohol-based toners and high-foaming cleansers)
- Using acidic skincare ingredients (like certain forms of vitamin C) daily
- Washing the face with hot water
- Skipping the use of moisturizer
- Too much sun exposure
- Prescription retinoids
- Drinking alcohol
- Dry climates and air conditioning
- Using certain skin devices, such as a dermaroller
- Medications that list dryness as a side effect
- Genetics (Some skin types are naturally susceptible to a weakened moisture barrier)
- Aging (the moisture barrier becomes more vulnerable after age 45)
10 Ways to Fix a Damaged Moisture Barrier
You haven’t done permanent damage if you’ve been overdoing it with exfoliation for a short period of time. In that case, it’s easily fixable. However, some damage has occurred if you’ve been using harsh products and over-exfoliating for years. Especially if that has gone hand-in-hand with smoking, drinking, and sun exposure. The good news is that it’s never too late to get the skin back to a better place. If you’re making positive changes, I can assure you that you’ll see an improvement. Read on for 10 ways to fix a damaged barrier!
1. Care for Your Skin the Way You Would a Baby’s Skin
If your skin is acting unusually sensitive, a good mindset to have is to care for your skin like you would a baby’s skin. This means keeping everything simple and gentle until it feels back to normal. Go back to basics and lay off of potentially irritating active ingredients for some time.
2. Cut Back on Exfoliation
Now that exfoliating products are so popular, many people use them daily. This is hands down one of the biggest and most common contributors to a damaged moisture barrier. When you exfoliate too often, you’re stripping your skin’s protective barrier, which all but guarantees that moisture will escape. This can set off a cascade of inflammation, which not only leads to that uncomfortable dry, tight feeling but also contributes to skin aging. Not good!
Common exfoliants include sonic cleansing brushes, exfoliating acid serums, creams, peels, pads, and toners, as well as enzyme-based masks, facial scrubs, and washcloths. As for the latter, I always suggest using a baby washcloth instead of a regular one. They tend to be much softer and gentler on the skin.
When you’re trying to fix your moisture barrier, I recommend laying off all exfoliating products for two weeks. Slowly work them back in once your skin feels better. When you do reintroduce them into your routine, don’t use them every day. Instead, use them four to five times a week depending on your skin type. Don’t know your skin type? Take the skin type quiz. Then, to find out the safest way to exfoliate your skin without causing damage to your moisture barrier, read my beginner’s guide to exfoliants.
Note: If you use a prescription retinoid, know that it will break down your skin barrier due to the nature of how it works. While I don’t suggest that anyone stop using one, mainly because it’s so great for getting the skin to look and act younger, I do have some recommendations for how to use it to lessen dryness. Read my beginner’s guide to retinol and prescription retinoids.
3. Use a Gentle Cleanser
When fixing a damaged moisture barrier, you’ll want to switch from a foaming cleanser (even if it’s gentle and sulfate-free!) to a cleansing lotion. These cleansers are generally much milder, which is important, especially when it comes to cleansing dry, tight, or irritated skin. Read up on cleanser do’s and don’ts to learn how to cleanse your skin without disrupting your skin’s barrier.
4. Avoid Washing Your Face With Hot Water
Hot water dilates capillaries and raises the skin’s internal temperature. It can also impair the skin’s moisture barrier. That’s why it’s best to use lukewarm water to wash your face—especially in the winter months when the barrier is typically the most fragile.
5. Wear Sunscreen
Sunscreen is the ultimate product for defending your skin from one of the worst environmental damagers—the sun. The UVA and UVB rays that are given off by the sun will only contribute to a damaged moisture barrier. That’s why it’s so important to apply sunscreen generously and consistently, rain or shine. Learn how much sunscreen you should actually be wearing.
6. Avoid Skincare Products That Are Highly Fragranced
Individuals with sensitive skin can react negatively to fragrance, whether natural or synthetic. So, before using a product, I recommend taking a look at the ingredient list. Avoid using the product if the ingredient list contains the words, “perfume,” “parfum,” or “fragrance.” Information regarding fragrance is usually found towards the end of the ingredient list. (Learn more about understanding ingredient labels and percentages.)
I also recommend avoiding ingredients like menthol, camphor, peppermint essential oil, spearmint essential oil, and eucalyptus essential oil. That’s because high amounts of any type of natural essential oil can be irritating to the skin. While I do use essential oils in many of my skincare products, I use them in low percentages. Sometimes they are used to provide a specific skin benefit. Other times they are used simply to mask another ingredient that doesn’t smell very pleasant.
The general rule of thumb is to smell the product before using it. If the scent is very strong, this might (but not always) be a sign that it could be irritating to your skin, especially if the product is being left on the skin versus being rinsed off, such as a moisturizer, toner, or serum.
7. Choose a Moisturizer That Contains Specific Ingredients
Moisturizers can certainly aid in fixing your skin’s damaged moisture barrier, but it’s important to use those that contain ingredients that mimic the natural lipids found in the skin. And remember, just because a moisturizer feels heavy and greasy doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the best for fixing your moisture barrier. Again, it’s all about the ingredients.
Specific ingredients include those natural lipid-mimicking oils such as borage, evening primrose, cranberry, sunflower, soybean, safflower, jojoba, and sweet almond. You can also look for ingredients such as niacinamide, ceramides, phospholipids, squalane, vitamin E, phytosterols, and shea butter. All of these can help support a damaged moisture barrier.
Note: You might be looking at some of the above ingredients and think a heavy, greasy moisturizer is necessary. That is not the case. A moisturizer can include these ingredients without being pore-clogging. It all depends on the percentages that are used and the oil to water ratio in the formula. Read more about comedogenicity and what makes ingredients pore-clogging in this post.
8. Deeply Infuse Your Skin With Hydration Using This Trick
All skin types need water, but particularly when you’re trying to fix your skin’s barrier, deeply permeating the cell membrane is beneficial. One of my favorite ways to do this is to use an “essence.” An essence is like a toner, but it is serum-infused with water-binding ingredients. It has a slippery gel-like texture as opposed to a watery consistency of toner.
Here’s how I recommend using an essence toner. Start by washing your face with a gentle cleanser. Then, apply a generous amount of the Moisture Infusion Toner to a thin toning cloth and wipe it over your face. Next, pour a quarter-sized amount of the toner/essence into the palm of one hand. Pat the product all over your face using the fingertips of your other hand. Repeat this two more times. Afterward, your skin should feel cool and plump. Seal in the hydration with a serum and moisturizer. I recommend performing this technique twice a day for one to two weeks (although you can certainly make it a year-round habit for hydrated skin).
No matter if you’re using a traditional toner or an essence, apply it within 60 seconds after cleansing. Doing so will prevent water loss. I call this the Golden Minute Rule, and it’s very effective for keeping the skin nice and hydrated.
9. Start Using a Facial Oil, but Make Sure to Use It the Right Way
Whenever my clients are in need of a serious fix, I always recommend that they use a well-formulated facial oil, like the Pro Remedy Oil. I suggest patting it over moisturizer as the last step in their nightly skincare routine. This will provide a protective seal over the skin so everything that’s underneath is less likely to evaporate. If you incorporate a facial oil into your routine, just make sure you use it correctly.
10. Listen to Your Skin
This one is easy (and so important!). When fixing your moisture barrier, you want to avoid anything that makes the skin sting or feel dry, tight, or irritated. I know this sounds simple, but many people fall into the mindset of “if it’s stinging then it must be working.” While some products can make the skin tingle (exfoliating acids in particular), you should really examine whether or not the product is supposed to give that sensation. Remember, when your moisture barrier is compromised, it will make things that normally wouldn’t sting cause an irritating sensation. The idea here is to pay attention to products you might be using that are causing unnecessary irritation.
How Long Does It Take to Fix a Damaged Moisture Barrier?
If you’re eliminating the things that are causing damage, and you’re investing in the right products to correct it, you should be able to fix your moisture barrier within two to four weeks. For some people, it could be quicker. The skin is truly incredible in that it’s always working to address whatever stressors come its way. That’s why you want to work with it, not against it.
There is really no reason anyone should suffer from dry, tight, or irritated skin. It’s truly an easy fix, and if you use the right combination of products for your skin type, it shouldn’t revert back to a bad state. You just have to be mindful and refrain from overdoing it with certain skincare products.
I hope you found this post helpful. I also hope your skin will return to a smoother, calmer, and more hydrated state soon. For additional guidance, schedule a virtual consultation with a licensed esthetician. They will be able to get your skin back on track.
Celebrity Esthetician & Skincare Expert
As an esthetician trained in cosmetic chemistry, Renée Rouleau has spent 30 years researching skin, educating her audience, and building an award-winning line of products. Trusted by celebrities, editors, bloggers, and skincare obsessives around the globe, her vast real-world knowledge and constant research are why Marie Claire calls her “the most passionate skin practitioner we know.”