Our skin can do some miraculous things, like heal wounds and tell us when it’s too cold, too hot, or too painful—but it also moonlights as a security system both by controlling what’s allowed inside you and letting you know when something’s not right. Just think of stress-related inflammation, or the dry, flaky skin you get when you’ve skipped on water. The layer of skin responsible for these signals is the skin barrier, and keeping it healthy has implications beyond a dewy complexion.
What’s A Skin Barrier?
The outermost layer of your skin—aka the stratum corneum—works as a buffer between you and the elements, keeping the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. It’s primarily made up of skin cells, held together by fatty and amino acids, two components that are crucial to skin health. Think of it as a brick wall, where skin cells are the bricks, and the two acids make up the mortar in between.
When your skin barrier is at its best, it helps skin retain moisture and stay balanced, while preventing damaging sun rays and environmental pollution from making their way into your body. A healthy, glowing face is a good indication of a skin barrier doing its job.
What Causes A Damaged Skin Barrier?
As with so many skin issues, sun exposure can lead to a compromised skin barrier, as can over-exfoliating and using products with harsh ingredients, like alcohol and fragrance.
Your lifestyle also has a role in a damaged moisture barrier: stress, poor nutrition, and alcohol consumption can all wreak havoc on your skin.
A damaged skin barrier can leave you with a dry, dull, and inflamed face, and can lead to eczema and psoriasis. It also won’t stop harmful UV rays and pollutants from penetrating the barrier and leaves the door open for harmful chemicals to make their way deeper into your skin and yes, even into your bloodstream.
How Products Can Get Into Your Bloodstream
When your skin barrier is depleted, it tends to let things slide and irritants and other harmful ingredients can move into the epidermis, and then potentially even deeper down into the dermis, where blood vessels reside and where toxins can access the bloodstream.
Even with a healthy skin barrier, some molecules are small enough to penetrate the various skin layers and potentially into your bloodstream, just think of nicotine patches, for instance. There are skincare ingredients like the penetration enhancers found in some lotions and sunscreens that are actually designed to get past the barrier, bringing its other potent ingredients with them.
Other than getting a degree in molecular chemistry, the best way to avoid toxins from getting into your bloodstream is to take the time to read product labels. You can check unknown ingredients on the Skin Deep database for safety, but some red flag ingredients you’ll want to steer clear of include:
Although these are widely used as preservatives in skincare and makeup, some research suggests they can cause hormonal and fertility issues. They’re enough of a concern for the EU to put a ban on five of them.
Although it sounds innocuous, “fragrance” is just a cheeky way to not call an ingredient by its name. The International Fragrance Association lists thousands of materials that can be found in fragrance compounds used by cosmetic brands, some of which have been linked to cancer, reproductive toxicity, and allergies. There is no way to know if the ingredient listed as “fragrance” contains them.
These include aluminium, lead, and cadmium, and can be found in everything from lipstick to deodorant and can cause organ damage as well as allergic reaction.
It’s important to be mindful of what you put on your face, but the good news is that your body has a slew of ways to significantly diminish the chances of toxins getting into your bloodstream. The dermis level of your skin is full of metabolic enzymes that break down toxins, similarly to the enzymes found in your liver. Speaking of which, if harmful toxins do get into your bloodstream through your skin, the liver, lungs and kidneys will work to try and get them out of your system.
Given that exposure also plays a part in what gets absorbed into your skin, it’s crucial to protect yourself from pollutants and UV rays by building up your skin barrier.
How To Strengthen Your Skin Barrier
To help minimize the damage from external pollutants, and aid in skin barrier repair, use products loaded up with antioxidants, like vitamin C and E, and stay out of the sun, when possible and pair a non-toxic sunscreen with a hat when it’s not.
You should also support your skin’s microbiome. The microorganisms that live on your skin help keep it in balance, functioning properly and fighting off harmful invaders. Harsh soaps and exfoliants can strip away these helpers, so focus on gentle cleansers and products with microbiotics that support your skin barrier instead.
Keeping your skin hydrated is vital for a healthy skin barrier. Look for moisturizers with natural emollients that lock in moisture and form a protective layer on the skin, as well humectants like glycerin that pull water to the skin barrier.
It can be overwhelming to think about all the ways toxins and pollutants can get into our bodies and affect our health, but when it comes to skincare (unlike the air in your city) you can take full control over the products you choose. There are wonderful effective and nontoxic skincare products available, so why take any risks?