Pin It
Skin barrier
Photography Suzie Q & Leo Siboni

The real reason every skincare brand is now doing barrier repair products

First the industry ruins your skin, then it fixes your skin

You may have noticed a term buzzing around the industry recently. It’s a phrase you’ve probably heard before, but now suddenly it’s everywhere: skin barrier repair. It’s the hot new thing in skincare right now, with all your favourite brands offering up products that promise to strengthen and rejuvenate compromised and damaged skin barriers

Last month, Glossier released its new intensive moisturiser After Baume, whilst Violette FR’s barrier cream C’est La Cream! was released today. Dieux Skin recently launched its barrier cream, Instant Angel, as did SkinFix, Augustinus Bader, Allies of Skin, Eighth Day and Eadem. Meanwhile Byoma, which launched in January, has dedicated its entire brand to barrier care products including cleansers, serums and mists. 

But what is a skin barrier, why does it need repairing, and – crucially – why the sudden slew of products? To answer that we need to understand what’s been happening in the industry over the past few years.

Thanks to the accessibility of the internet and the rise in popularity of skincare influencers, the beauty industry has gone through a sort of enlightenment period over the last decade. Consumers are increasingly clued up on the science behind their skincare, and demand is driven by products that can prove their effectiveness through dermatologist-approved ingredients and authentic customer reviews.

“Our skin barrier is an amazing function that protects the skin, it’s a layer of self-produced lipids (oils) that coat the skin and protect it from environmental aggressors.” – Sofie Pavitt

As a result, ingredient-led skincare became all the rage, with brands like The Ordinary and Inkey List taking products like retinol and BHAs out from dermatologists’ offices and onto retailers’ shelves. Before long, bathrooms became makeshift labs as actives, acids and strong exfoliants became leading DIY beauty products. Skincare routines had steps into the double digits, actives came in increasingly high dosages, daily exfoliation was encouraged and peels were being misused, largely thanks to social media. 

Over lockdown this intensified further as our collective focus shifted to skincare (#skincareroutine has 16.6 billion views on TikTok, over four times as many as #makeuproutine) and dewy skin became the ultimate beauty accessory. Instead of giving us better skin, however, often all these products and steps just led to our skin getting worse. For all the complex ingredients and fancy routines, we were doing some serious damage to our skin barriers.

“Our skin barrier is an amazing function that protects the skin, it’s a layer of self-produced lipids (oils) that coat the skin and protect it from environmental aggressors,” explains licensed aesthetician and certified acne specialist Sofie Pavitt. This natural protection can be damaged, however, through things like over-exfoliating, overusing strong actives, or even long term use of PPE. 

“If our skin barrier function breaks down, our skin can feel irritated, dry, sensitised to the touch, and even break out,” says Pavitt. This is because the breakdown of the barrier can lead to Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL), where moisture from the skin is released, resulting in dry, dehydrated and textured skin, as well as skin conditions like rosacea.

Dr Sam Bunting, cosmetic dermatologist and founder of Dr Sam’s skincare, has seen a recent uptake in clients with “all the common inflammatory skin issues that affect the face including acne, rosacea and perioral dermatitis,” due to pandemic-related damage to the skin barrier from mask-wearing and overuse of skin care products. “People seem to be wearing fewer cosmetics but playing more with their skincare and using active skincare ingredients from brands like The Ordinary and The Inkey List,” says Dr Bunting. “Skincare seems to be viewed almost as entertainment with people using lots of different products mixed in together, which, when not done correctly, can really damage skin barrier function.”

It was exactly this trend that led to the creation of Byoma, whose colourful displays you might have noticed in your local Boots. Focusing specifically on barrier boosting products, the brand was created after founder Marc Elrick noticed the “squeaky clean, shiny, and stripped skin” beauty trend making its way across social media – often in the form of TikTok’s aspirational “clean girl aesthetic” – and identified a potential problem. “People were playing chemist in their bathrooms, experimenting with new, super-strength actives,” he says, “overusing, over exfoliating and overbuying skincare.” Elrick quickly realised that people were “breaking their barriers in search of short term, quick fixes that often cause more harm than good.”

We have all been there: trapped in the cycle of being unhappy with your skin and buying endless products to try to exfoliate your way to a brighter, baby-like visage, but achieving the opposite effect in the process. So what can you do if you’ve compromised your barrier? By simplifying your skincare routine, exfoliating with nothing rougher than a fingertip, backing off anything that foams or is fragrant and opting for occlusive moisturisers that trap water in the skin, you can begin to build the skin barrier back up, says Dr Bunting.

“Ceramides are our natural moisturiser and are key to maintaining a healthy skin barrier” – Dr Denning

Once you have made these simple changes to your skincare routine, look to products that can support the skin barrier function by supplementing ceramides: the class of lipids that make up around 50 per cent of the skin barrier. A combination of regenerative ceramides and gentle oils can help to strengthen and replenish the protective layer of lipids that seal in moisture. “Emollient products like Glossier’s After Baume are my go-to in such instances,” says Sophie Pavitt who worked with Glossier on the product which is described as a “puffer jacket for your skin.”

Despite the sudden influx in new products, skin barrier repair is far from the latest beauty fad. Brands like Dermalogica have had barrier repair products in their range for years, while Japanese skincare brand Curél was launched in 1999 following the discovery of the crucial role of ceramides in restoring the skin’s moisture barrier the previous decade. The brand has been creating products aimed to replenish ceramide levels and repair the skin moisture barrier ever since. 

“Ceramides are our natural moisturiser and are key to maintaining a healthy skin barrier as well as to help prevent superficial ageing of the skin,” echoes Curél brand expert Dr Catharine Denning. Ceramides can be “expensive to extract from their whole-grain source and are harder to stabilise so that they are still active by the time they reach the skin barrier,” explains Dr Denning, so Curél uses a lab-made ceramide-like technology in its products.

So, if despite hours dedicated to your skincare routine each night, your skin is dry, irritated or lacklustre, it might be time to tone down the ten-step skincare routine, cut the daily exfoliating, and put down the retinol in favour of some SPF. “A gentle routine focusing on hydration, antioxidants, and moisturising is key to restoring a compromised skin barrier,” says Sophie Pravitt. It’s not even about buying new products because, when it comes to good barrier care, less is more. Ultimately, healthy skin is more important than dewy skin.