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.

Comments:

Post a comment
  1. Okay, thanks for the clarification! 😀

    Posted By: Sharifa  | 

    Reply
  2. I’m confused, what is the difference between ascorbic acid and L-ascorbic acid?

    Posted By: Sharifa  | 

    Reply
    • No difference! Just different terms for the same thing!

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
  3. I damaged my skin barrier as I used Cerave BP and Retin A in the same routine mistakenly. It been a week now and my face looks like an old woman in her 80s. My self confidence is so bad. What do you suggest I do please. Moisturize isn’t helping at all

    Posted By: Becky  | 

    Reply
    • Try using a hydrating mask! You can use a water-based hydrating mask every day until your skin returns to normal.

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
  4. I damaged my skin barrier which began after using 0.5% retinol. I had previously used 0.3% retinol without any problems. The higher strength retinol combined with cold air and hot showers ruined my skin barrier. My skin was red, felt tight and would sting after putting my product on it. I stopped using retinol and have been using a moisturiser and
    face oil and my skin feels back to normal and it has now been two weeks. However, the fine lines on my forehead appear more noticeable Whitchurch is very concerning as this was the reason for using retinol to begin with. Can the now deeper lines improve as the moisture barrier heals or have I done permanent damage as my forehead skip n feels thinner than before. Any advice would be much appreciated

    Posted By: Moc  | 

    Reply
    • Since a low dose retinol worked well for you I would suggest trying the Advanced Resurfacing Serum. at .4% strength, this will be a touch stronger than your old retinol that worked and less strong than the one that was too much. Be sure to add the retinol back in slowly and gradually build to four nights a week, in two-day sprees!

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
  5. I have had terrible problems with my skin on my eyes for over 18months been diagnosed with Eczema rosecha of the eyes. I babe tried may prescribed creams but they all sting and burn ! I am protopic at the moment I beige my skin barrier is damaged hence why I can’t put any creams on without the stinging or burning ! Can you help me please you would not believe how desperate stressed and depressed I am ! I have tried so many products so many different routes ! I can’t see a dermatologist new use of Covid and this is killing me ! I just want to get better now . Xx thanks Lisa

    Posted By: Lisa  | 

    Reply
  6. Hello, I have had tons of closed comedones on my jawline, cheeks and now forehead since June. It all started with one or all of these – using tretinoin, squalane based Vit c derivative, and a 15min oil cleanse. They appeared and never went, despite me stopping all actives (tret in august, Vit c in October and acids in December) and “just” hydrating, using oils and niacinamide. This article made me wonder if this could be a damaged barrier? Or could it be that I “overnourish”? I’m at my wits end because all I really want to do is throw acids on but worry it could be detrimental. Thank you in advance xxx

    Posted By: Mags  | 

    Reply
    • Hello! This sounds like congestion, rather than barrier damage. I would suggest dropping the oil cleanser and using a cream cleanser at night and a gel cleanser in the morning to prevent congestion from forming. It might be a good time to get a professional facial with extractions to work this long-held congestion out of the skin. Sticking to an oil minimal routine will be best for your concerns!

      Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

      Reply
      • Thank you so much for taking the time to reply Renee! I will follow your advice and minimise oils, however will have to wait a while for that facial whilst in lockdown here in London! Would it be okay to go back to using a milder retinol twice a week and an acid once/twice a week soon?
        Thank you for this wonderful blog, it has been quite eye opening actually. I wish you had a clinic in London! Xx

        Posted By: Mags  | 

      • I am so glad you’ve found the blog so helpful! If your barrier has fully repaired slowly adding back in exfoliants and retinol would be appropriate.

        Posted By: Renée Rouleau  | 

  7. hey there,
    thanks for such a wonderful article.
    I am wondering which essence brand you recommend?
    my skin is very dry, red, flaky and sometimes itchy. i knowim doing something wrong but im not sure what it is. my face is getting darker even though i dont go out, how is this possible? i have left it alone for months and the barrier still has not repaired. any idea.
    Thanks!!!

    Posted By: W D  | 

    Reply
  8. Hi there,

    I think my moisture barrier is broken too.
    I am not sure what led to it.. does ice dunking get to it?
    I am usually someone who does oil cleansing once in a while coz I get a lot of white heads and my skin gets really dry because of the weather here,even though it’s predominantly oily as in general in t zones.
    I changed my toner and I started breaking out.
    Use ice dunk, it did made those pimples get away.. but I started getting little rashes.. then to subside it I used oils like sunflower hemp oil safflower but it got worse and my face was full of rashes kind of things that had white heads too and also it would be itching once in a while.
    Now it just dries out so much.. I am just using an aloe plant on face, honey mask and then aloe gel mask when sleeping.
    Please suggest what all changes I can make.
    Being and Indian, it’s hard to find the foregin brands that are usually suggested on you tube.
    Please help.

    Posted By: Pragyan Paramita  | 

    Reply
  9. hi!

    i’ve wanted to ask about the long term damage you wrote about – could you please explain what what exactly in the skin has been damaged? skin cells renew so how is the damage permanent?

    i didn’t take care of my skin well (didn’t cleanse nor moisturize my face at all, only when i wanted to which was rare) and i’m 17. i was never educated about skin-care and never even thought about it all, but i got into it through youtube (liah yoo, hyram and many more). finally i took a look on my skin only to realize the damage that has been occurred.

    i have dermatitis neglecta on my face, keratosis pilaris on my face and body, and severely dehydared skin (understood it when products started to sting my skin all of the sudden)! little fine lines all over my body (probably due to my dermatitis [old skin cells build up], dry & dehydrated skin) under my eye area and fine laugh lines.

    i heared about cerave from dr. dray on youtube, tried the hydrating cleanser, as well as the moisturizing cream and the hand cream. the hydrating cleanser striped my skin (i don’t know if it’s because the water in my country is extermely hard, or if it just doesn’t suit my skin! how can i even know?) the moisturizing cream & the hand cream didn’t feel moisturizing at all, both made my skin tight (which, again – can’t know if it’s due to my dehydration or it just doesn’t suit my skin).
    also tried avené cicalfate repair cream, made my skin dry as well.

    i actually wanted to start a new skin care routine with korean products, but covid-19 kinda ruined my plans.

    but if i could order the products online, my skin care would’ve looked like this:

    morning;
    toner
    serum/oil
    moisturizer
    sunscreen

    night:
    cleanser
    toner
    serum/oil
    moisturizer

    i wouldn’t cleanse in the morning since my skin is too dry and the hard water would do more damage than good, so i’ll gently tone with a soft cotton pad. also do it after cleansing to balance the skin ph and rehydrate it from the hard water.

    the treatment for dermatitis neglecta is exfoliation till the old skin cells are removed, but since my skin barrier is damaged and exfoliation is not recommended, i don’t know what to do. i don’t want to worsen my skin condition.

    what would you do if you were in my situation?
    thank you & stay safe! <33

    Posted By: s  | 

    Reply
    • Hi there! What has been damaged is the moisture barrier. This blend of sebum, healthy bacteria and living organisms keeps the surface of your skin in healthy shape. I think you would have great success with our products! Have you had a chance to take the skin type quiz yet? It is easy to build a great routine when you shop one of our kits for your skin type! Also, I suggest cleansing AM & PM so if your cleanser is too harsh to do so I would encourage you to try our Moisture Protecting Cleanser and checking out this post: https://blog.reneerouleau.com/is-washing-your-face-in-the-morning-necessary/

      Posted By: Ella Stevenson  | 

      Reply
    • Hey there, i have damaged moisture barrier too. if you want, we can talk about it further. i am struggling a lot right now too. its been making my self esteem bad.

      Posted By: Nada  | 

      Reply
  10. Hi. My skin used to be really oily but since the winter it has been dry, flaky, irritated, and itchy. Could this be due to my skin barrier being damaged? I’ve been simplifying my routine to see if this will help. I’ve used many products over the years and I switch them quite often. I’m currently just using Aquaphor to soothe the irritation and an oil to moisturize. Thank you.

    Posted By: Poppy  | 

    Reply

Post a Comment:

Find your
skin type

Great skin starts with knowing your skin type. Take our quiz to get personalized tips and product recommendations.

Take the Quiz