Has your skin ever had a super tight feeling after cleansing? Have you had sensitivity to products you usually wouldn’t be sensitive to? What about very oily skin that is somehow also dry and flakey? These could all be signs of a compromised moisture barrier. 

Well, how can we fix a compromised moisture barrier? To dive into that we must first understand what the moisture barrier is. The moisture barrier goes by many names, including the acid mantle, the outermost layer of the stratum corneum, and the horny layer. The bottom line is, its the outermost layer of the epidermis and is the front-line of defense in skin protection. The moisture barrier is super important because its function is to keep bacteria out and moisture in. We want moisture. 

However, sometimes the buildup of oil and dead skin cells is too much and causes comedones or breakouts. Thats when people typically reach for the face scrub or acid exfoliants. The thing to remember about exfoliation is that there needs to be a balance. If you do too little exfoliation, youre still going to suffer from dull, lackluster skin, comedones, and breakouts. But if you do too much, youre going to destroy the horny layer and your skin’s ability to retain moisture! 

‌‌‌‌How to Determine if Your Skin’s Moisture Barrier Is Compromised

Many years ago, before I began my skincare journey, I had every kind of salicylic acid product ever made on planet earth. I used a pink grapefruit wash, a spot treatment, and even my moisturizer has salicylic acid in it—let us pause and take a moment of silence for my 2008 moisture barrier.

My skin was tight. It literally felt so tight and so stretched out after washing it that I swear it could have ripped if I smiled too hard. It was also absurdly oily and also flakey, and I was also constantly breaking out. So, what did I do? Apply more acid, which was a huge mistake! I was so confused and at a loss at what was going on with my skin. 

If you have three or more of these criteria, it might be safe to assume you also have a compromised moisture barrier:

  • Tight feeling skin after cleansing: Your skin should always feel clean and bouncy after washing, if it’s tight, your cleanser is too harsh and likely too acidic. 
  • Sensitivity to products that you normally wouldn’t be sensitive to 
  • Unusual redness
  • More breakouts than normal 
  • Increase in oiliness: The lipids in the horny layer are diverting from their normal structure, and your body is trying to overcompensate for the loss. This can lead to more breakouts. 
  • Constant dry or dehydrated feeling skin: A compromised moisture barrier increases transepidermal water loss. 
  • Flaking skin

‌‌‌‌Healing the Moisture Barrier

Healing the moisture barrier requires three important steps:

  1. The first step is to remove all and everything exfoliating in your routine. Put down the acids and skip the face scrubs (this applies to exfoliating face masks as well). In order to repair the moisture barrier, you must give it the things it needs to thrive: natural lipids and dead skin cells. You cant expect it to repair itself if you are still taking away the things it needs. It can seem counterintuitive to skip part of your normal routine, or to skip things that technically “treat acne,” but it is very necessary. 
  1. The next step is to also remove products that are causing irritation to your skin. If you find that, for example, a toner you are using is causing a little sting to your face after washing, remove it. You want to give your skin the most gentle routine possible. This would be the best possible time to either continue or begin to use a gentle oil cleanser. If oil cleansing isnt for you, thats totally okay, but make sure your cleanser is gentle, pH balanced, and does not include any sort of actives or irritants, like harsh fragrance, scrubbing beads, or essential oils.
  1. Lastly, you should try to add as much moisture back in and try to retain as much water as you can. Some ideas include drinking adequate water (drinking water alone will not fix all of your problems, but it will certainly help a little bit with dehydration), running a humidifier while you sleep, and adding in a humectant (something that attracts moisture) like: 
  • Hyaluronic acid, which can hold up to 1000 times its weight in water
  • Glycerin, which is very sticky, but works great if you add a few drops into your favorite moisturizer
  • Squalane, which is derived from olives or sharks has barrier-replenishing properties
  • Niacinamide, which can also help replenish your barrier
  • A nightly occlusive: Wrap up the end of your PM routine with something that is going to help keep moisture in, like a facial oil, a sleeping mask, or petroleum jelly. 

One last thing: if you are suffering from a compromised moisture barrier it is more important than ever to ensure you are wearing sunscreen. You should always wear sunscreen, but you are at greater risk for damage when your barrier is compromised. 

‌‌‌‌Products That Help Heal the Skin Barrier

When it comes to creating a routine that supports a healthy moisture barrier, I can’t recommend K-Beauty products enough, as many include unique ingredients that support the function of the moisture barrier. K-Beauty brands that have excellent moisture barrier-supporting products include (but are not limited to) CosrxMizonSecret Key, and Etude House, (the Soon Jung line in particular).

Here are a few of my favorite products for a healthy moisture barrier:

Mizon All In One Snail Repair Cream

This all-in-one moisturizer seems to do it all—it helps heal damaged skin, reduces fine lines and wrinkles, moisturizes, and protects the skin from environmental damage. This product is 92% snail mucin, which is an excellent ingredient for treating the moisture barrier with skin-friendly antioxidants, proteins, elastin, and glycolic acids. This repair cream is almost more of a treatment for keeping the moisture barrier happy. I would recommend utilizing it as a treatment prior to either a thicker moisturizer or sleep mask. 

Etude House Soon Jung 2x Barrier Intensive Cream

This lightweight moisturizing cream uses gentle ingredients to hydrate and maintain the moisture barrier. Key ingredients include glycerin and panthenol which are great humectants (they draw water to the skin), madecassoside which helps reduce inflammation and regenerates the skin’s barrier, and sunflower seed oil which moisturizes and smooths the skin. This is a simple cream, good for those who are actively trying to repair their moisture barrier or those with ultra-sensitive skin. It’s especially effective at helping to restore the water-oil balance of the skin, so it is a great option for those who have noticed their moisture barrier might be compromised because of the oiliness of their skin. 

Trilogy Rosapene Night Cream

Any good routine that aims to repair or focus on the moisture barrier will include a stellar moisturizer. This night cream from Trilogy is a rich, ultra-hydrating moisturizer that includes rosehip oil with super antioxidants to help protect against signs of aging while also soothing and repairing the skin. Another excellent key ingredient is Manuka honey which has extreme hydrating and repairing properties. 

Vaseline Moisturizing Beauty Sheet Mask with Petrolatum Jelly & Ceramide

A holy grail product when it comes to the moisture barrier, this ultra restorative sheet mask utilizes key ingredients like milky cream essence and petrolatum jelly, which boots moisture to the skin, ceramides that support the function of the moisture barrier, and a nude-cell sheet which helps the ingredients absorb best into the skin. This product is a perfect addition to a PM routine and can be followed up by a moisturizer and Vaseline for a hydration-locking, skin-restoring treatment. 

‌‌‌‌Gentle Is Better

When it comes to your skin, gentle is better. Acids and exfoliants have their place when used properly and sparingly, but an intact moisture barrier is the key to healthy, clear skin.