Dry Skin? Your Moisture Barrier May Be Damaged—Here Are 10 Ways to Fix It

Moisture Barrier

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 
  • Smoking
  • 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.

6Avoid 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.

Next, read up on five skincare mistakes everybody makes (and how to correct them!).

Disclaimer: Content found on www.ReneeRouleau.com and Blog.ReneeRouleau.com, including text, images, audio, or other formats were created for informational purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website or blog.

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  1. Hi I have a question I think my skin barrier is damaged is there a way a doctor or dermatologist can tell like with a test or skin biopsy. Also my skin is itchy and irritated I think it’s from the barrier being damaged is it ok to use a cleanser with physical exfoliants right now I also have acne and I read online if your sensitive to stay away from manual exfoliants. I’m getting more into skin care since I’m 25 once I fix the barrier when will be ok for me to get procedures done like chemicals peels and microdermabrasion and other skin treatments.

    Posted By: Morgan Mckinney  | 

    Reply
    • Hello! If you feel like your barrier is damaged it probably is. It is always best to be cautious with exfoliation. I would suggest skipping any forms of exfoliation for at least one month to give your barrier time to rebuild. If your skin is routinely sensitive you may not be a great candidate for manual exfoliants, even if your barrier is intact. When you’re ready to jump back into professional treatments you may want to consult with your personal esthetician about what treatments will meet your skincare goals!

      Posted By: Ella Stevenson  | 

      Reply
  2. Hi! I am Aiyshah and I am very confident that I have patches of damaged skin barrier on both my cheeks. Although I do follow all these steps, I am also worried as I have an acne-prone, combination skin in addition to a damaged skin barrier. I can actually see holes on my skin and I am suspecting that the holes are the reason why it is easy for dirt to enter my pores and clog it, explains the frequent 5-6 pimples that pop out way too often.

    You said in the blog not to exfoliate and not to use harsh cleansers with exfoliating acids that can compromise the repairing of my skin barrier. However, these are the only products that keep my pimples in bay. Thus, I want to ask your advice on how to repair my skin barrier when it gets clogged too often by too hydrating products and dirt without using harsh products on my face.

    Would be grateful if you answer my queries.
    Thank you:)

    Posted By: aiyshah  | 

    Reply
    • Great question! Instead of working on exfoliating the blemishes away, try calming and soothing the skin. This will reduce the skin’s inflammatory response which will result in fewer breakouts. I recommend trying the Skin Correcting Serum! It’s designed to reduce the frequency of breakouts.

      Posted By: Ella Stevenson  | 

      Reply
  3. Hello. I have a damaged moisture barrier I think (because my skin breaks out suddenly and my skin is irritated, itchy,dry). So I have been using this moisturizer (NMF + HA by The Ordinary) when I applied this product, my cheeks felt so itchy (only cheeks) and at other parts of my face, it feels good. So good. Does this mean I need to change my moisturizer. Thanks.

    Posted By: Dania Shipka  | 

    Reply
    • I don’t know how other companies are sourcing their formulas so I am not sure if this moisturizer is a good fit or not. If your barrier is damaged I would suggest using our Phytolipid Comfort Creme!

      Posted By: Ella Stevenson  | 

      Reply
  4. Hi Renee,

    In early Feb, my dermatologist told me I broke my skin barrier, apparent with the very dry skin over my entire face, redness and scaly. For over a decade (I am 51), I had been using 1% Retin A Micro every night, followed by a hyaluronic acid serum and Cerave PM moisturizer. In the a.m., I applied Skinceuticals C E Ferulic, Coenzyme Q10 serum, Cerave PM moisturizer and sunscreen. I had been using EltaMD SPF46 but 6 months ago started using Avene Anti-Age SPF50 that I purchased in Europe. Since my diagnosis, I have been washing my face at night with VaniCream Gentle Face Cleanser, only rinsing with lukewarm water in the a.m., spot applying Differin where necessary, and covering with Cerave Moisturing Cream. My skin looks much better, but is still a little dry around my eyes. When can I start re-introducing anti aging products? Do you have any recommendations on which products, when, and how often? Thank you!

    Posted By: Patricia  | 

    Reply
    • I would encourage you to think of moisturizing products as anti-aging products! Anything that hydrates and calms the skin keeps the skin youthful. I would suggest trying the Total Eye Repair Creme to nourish the delicate skin around your eyes.

      Posted By: Ella Stevenson  | 

      Reply
  5. Hello, I suffer from acne, damaged skin barrier, comedones, acne scars, uneven skintone and basically everything in one. Can I please send you photos of how my skin looks and help me?

    Posted By: Linda  | 

    Reply
  6. Hi Renee,

    I found out about you through the “Breaking Beauty” podcast. I wanted to ask you what you feel are going to be the top 3 products to help heal the moisture barrier. I was on accutane several years ago and had good results. However, it has really done damage on my barrier and now I am dealing with worse breakouts than before I was on accutane. I’m not at the point were I can afford all the products you suggest, but I am willing to invest in a few to start my healing process. Thank you!

    Posted By: Mallory  | 

    Reply
  7. I think my Skins barrier is messed up from acids. I took your skin quiz and it’s says type 3. I am oil cleansing and it is clearing up my skin. I am puzzled because you say my skim routine should be oil free and bha. So what you think now that my skin barrier is messed up

    Posted By: Whit  | 

    Reply
    • I’m sorry to hear that your barrier is damaged! I would suggest skipping exfoliation for two to four weeks to allow time for your barrier to heal.

      Posted By: Ella Stevenson  | 

      Reply
  8. Hi I was wondering if a severely damaged skin barrier will ever repair? I did the worst thing ever by getting a chemical peel I didn’t know I was allergic to then did a microdermabrasion right after which screwed my face over and for a year I was desperate to find something else that’ll fix it so I did a lot of microneedling then finally decided to go to a dermatologist that did 4 procedures on me at once. He used clear+brilliant, laser genesis prp with microneedling and I had crazy dermatitis appear right after it’s almost all clear except for left side of my cheek but my main concern is my forehead! It looks horrible I’m only 23 and it’s been a year now. I’m thinking it’ll take a really long time to repair ? What can I do to speed up the process

    Posted By: Rebeka i  | 

    Reply
    • It sounds like your skin has been through a lot. I would find a reputable dermatologist or esthetician who can help you focus on barrier repair. Stay away from professional treatments for a while!

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
  9. Hi can you still use an aha/ bha cleanser if your barrier is damaged my skin feels itchy and I think it’s the barrier

    Posted By: Morgan Mckinney  | 

    Reply
    • I would recommend something more gentle and soothing like the Purifying Face Wash. Seal in hydration with a face lotion such as Skin Recovery Lotion as your last step!

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
      • Once the barrier is repaired can I use the aha bha cleanser again

        Posted By: Morgan Mckinney  | 

      • Sure! If it didn’t bother your skin before feel free to go back to it when your barrier is repaired.

        Posted By: Ella Stevenson  | 

  10. Hi renee ! I think my skin barrier already damaged since i used apicot scrub on my face a year ago. After that, my face always breakout. Huge pimple keep on appearing on my cheeks, on my forehead n chin. Bumps also on resurface on my forehead and cheek. Recently, i try To repair my skin barrier by using kiehl’s celendula face wash, soon jung toner and aloe propolis soothing gel as a moisturiser. Accoding to you, these products can help to repair my skin barrier? I have an oily and acne prone skin by the way. Thank you!

    Posted By: Ila  | 

    Reply
    • Hi! I would recommend visiting our website and taking the skin type quiz. If you’re still breaking out, the products you’re currently using may not be the right fit for your skin. The results of the quiz will help guide you and tell you what kind of routine would be best. Hope this helps!

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply

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