How can I protect my skin barrier naturally for a clear complexion?

Knowing what your skin barrier is, and how to protect it, is the most important thing you can do for a clear complexion from the outside. Here we explain why, and share skin care tips and natural remedies your skin barrier will love.

What is the skin barrier?

Our skin is porous, so it relies on good defences.

Often compared to a brick wall, the skin barrier is built from tough cells bound with lipids. It defends your skin’s deeper tissue layers and plays a part in what ultimately reaches your blood and lymphatic systems.

A number of trending skin products, ingredients and regimes weaken this precious layer. This means toxins and bacteria that the skin comes into contact with can more easily get inside, and water can more easily escape. Skin becomes drier, more prone to sensitivity, redness, blemishes and signs of ageing.

A high percentage of what we put on our skin ends up inside our bodies. One study shows that the face is several times more permeable than broad-body surfaces.*

A good diet of unprocessed foods rich in antioxidants, along with supplements and staying hydrated, protects the skin from the inside. Still, it’s vital to understand the importance of the skin barrier, so that you aren’t damaging it from the outside.

How can I heal my skin barrier for clearer skin?

Here are our tips for keeping the stratum corneum in good health, for a glowing, clear complexion.

1. Know (or be able to quickly check) your ingredients
Avoid the obvious parabens, fragrances, sulphates and alcohol, all of which are a disaster for the skin barrier. To decode any unknown ingredients in products, which might be worsening skin issues, use an expert, easy-to-use tool like this one.

2. Pass on the double cleansing, and on the micellar water…
A double cleanse might sound like a good idea (you’re putting in the effort, right?) but over-washing damages the vital skin barrier. This causes dry skin to worsen and oily or acne-prone skin to overcompensate, exacerbating the problem. Micellar water, which promises quick and innocuous make-up removal, is a nightmare for the skin’s defence. Part of this is due to the natural acidity of the skin barrier, referred to as the ‘acid mantle’, a protective layer of oils, amino acids (and sweat!).

Despite its popularity, micellar water’s high pH (said to mimic that of tears, therefore promising not to sting our eyes) neutralises the acid mantle and hinders the skin’s ability to repair itself. It also makes skin less elastic and provides an ideal breeding ground for acne-causing bacteria.

The skin’s pH is around 5.5. It’s recommended to not use anything with a pH over 7.

3.  Use cool or cold water
Washing your face in lukewarm water will help preserve the skin barrier. Splashing your face several times with cold water first-thing can help reduce skin puffiness too. It can also tighten pores, temporarily brighten the complexion, and reduce the appearance of wrinkles by increasing blood flow and narrowing blood vessels. Cold water is much better for those with dry skin and eczema, as it doesn’t strip the skin of vital sebum, and for the same reason, it works for oily and acne-prone skin too.

Try washing your face with cold water alone in the mornings – without cleanser – before patting it dry, toning with rosewater and cotton wool, then moisturising.

4.  Choose a gentle cream cleanser over a foaming one
Rather than opt for a cleanser that describes itself as ‘pH balanced’, which doesn’t tell us anything, it’s better to use this rule of thumb instead: if it foams, it’s alkaline. Anything described as cream, gel or ‘milk’ will likely be more acidic and skin barrier-friendly.

5.  Give apricot scrubs a wide berth!
Want to torture your skin barrier? Use an apricot scrub! If you have no such desires, opt for a creamier exfoliant that contains smoother beads. Jojoba beads don’t irritate the skin like apricot kernels or microbeads. A once-a-week exfoliation is ample for clear skin.

6.  What about chemical exfoliants, then, you may ask, like AHA’s, retinol?
Used at too high a concentration or too often, these can drastically compromise the skin barrier and work against a clear complexion. Always take a gentle approach to skincare, even if you’re frustrated with your skin and want to get results. Skin almost always needs less input from us than we think, not more.

7.  Are there any natural remedies for removing dead skin cells?
Leftover yoghurt? Great! A few days out of date? Even better! Skin barrier-friendly lactic acid in yoghurt functions as a chemical exfoliant, removing dead cells to reveal brighter, clearer skin.

8.  Swap your morning cleanser for honey
A 2018 study** found natural ingredients to be far superior in managing sensitive skin than synthetic ones. While it’s not always possible to use all-natural products, the closer we can get to a pure and simple skincare routine the better. It’s cheaper and better for the environment, too.

Honey is an incredible skincare ingredient, packed with powerful antibacterial compounds. Raw honey is even better, but any honey will do! You can use it directly as a cleanser, ideally in the morning when you don’t need to remove makeup. Just use your fingers and a little water if needed, and remove with a damp muslin cloth.

9.  Swap your make-up remover for olive or almond oil
Using olive or almond oil to clean skin in the evenings is one of the simplest, non-stripping ways to cleanse your face. Massage the oil into your skin and eyes, then use the wet muslin cloth to remove all traces of makeup. Use the clean side (or another cloth) in (luke) warm running water, to remove any remaining oil traces.

Tone and moisturise as usual. This won’t leave your skin oily – but it won’t leave it dried out either. Most oils work well but steer clear of coconut oil as it’s very alkaline.

10.  Which toner is kindest to the skin barrier?
Toning is important for clear skin. It removes traces of cleanser, bacteria and dead skin cells. Many toners on the market have a long list of ingredients, some of which can rob from the skin’s defences.

Rosewater is a natural antibacterial toner. Use it with a cotton pad to remove excess oil, and spray it on during the day to keep skin hydrated. Alteya makes one of the purest. Mario Badescu’s facial spray with rosewater is a great natural toner too.

11.  Be careful with essential oils
Essential oils are lovely, enhancing our skincare routines and mood, but too much can ‘burn’ into the skin barrier and increase dryness, visible wrinkles, redness and sensitivity,  so use with caution, especially if you’re adding it yourself.

12.  Choose a moisturiser with fatty acids to protect the skin barrier
Your skin barrier loves fatty acids. For a healthy, clear complexion, look for products that incorporate omega 3, 6, 7. 9 or purchase the plant oils that contain these acids, like rose hip (omega 6 and 3), grapeseed oil (omega 6), sea buckthorn (omega 7), or olive oil (omega 9). You can use these oils alone or massage a little into your skin with your moisturiser.

13.  Plump up your moisturising with glycerin
Vegetable glycerin is a humectant, like hyaluronic acid, which means it draws moisture from deeper layers of the skin into the stratum corneum. This natural colourless, fragrance-free, non-toxic, antiviral, antimicrobial compound doesn’t clog pores and prevents skin from drying out. Look out for it on ingredient lists, or try adding pure vegetable glycerin, available inexpensively, to your moisturiser to make it work harder. Glycerin is well known to help acne-prone skin. It can also be used directly on breakouts, though diluting in a drop or two of water can help with sensitive skin on application.

14.  And we’ll say it again! Always wear SPF, factor 50.
It’s not just about wrinkle prevention. SPF is vital for clear skin too, as it stops skin drying out, which worsens dermatological issues from eczema to acne. It also better enables the skin to repair itself. Ideally, look for brands that make sunscreens free from ingredients toxic to us and the environment, like oxybenzone and octinoxate.

By combining these steps with an antioxidant-rich diet, drinking two litres of water a day, and taking a herbal medicine like HRI’s Clear Complexion – which boasts anti-inflammatory, antibacterial Burdock Root and toxin-eliminating Blue Flag – you can protect your dermatological defence system, for healthier, clearer skin.

*Kasting & Kretsos (2005). **Draelos, Levy, Lutrario & Gunt (2018)

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