Yes, our skin is pretty resilient, but messing with your skin’s barrier and microbiome is not that hard thanks to overzealous cleansing or exfoliation, or the propensity to mix and match different actives. From a bit of azelaic acid here with a drop or two of lactic acid there, customising our own skincare and playing skin scientist is fun until your complexion becomes irritated, rough, and taut.
Enter Dr Gladys Teo, head of R&D at Singapore beauty brand, ést.lab. With skin sensitivity on a dramatic rise in the last decade according to Dr Teo, so too the rise for effective and scientifically-formulated calming products. Dr Teo speaks with Vogue Singapore on repairing a damaged skin barrier.
What are the signs of a disturbed or damaged skin barrier?
“A damaged skin barrier is vulnerable to infections, irritants and allergens,” shares Dr Teo. “Tell-tale signs of a disturbed skin barrier is when skin irritations such as redness (sign of inflammation), itch, flaky, dryness becomes a common occurrence.”
What are some of the factors that weaken or damage our skin’s barrier?
Aside from the usual suspects of air pollution, chemical hazards which can “disrupt the integrity of the skin barrier by degrading intercellular barrier proteins (proteins that hold the skin barrier cells together), and trigger immune responses in the skin that can develop into atopic dermatitis,” plenty of other easily remedied factors exist.
Take not applying or reapplying enough sunscreen. “Exposure to solar UV radiation decreases skin barrier’s intercellular strength, strain, and cohesion, affecting the critical barrier function of the skin,” says Dr Teo.
Using harsh surfactants such as cleansers and “high pH (highly alkaline) soaps can damage skin barrier through interaction with skin proteins and lipids.”
And finally, being too ambitious with your actives and exfoliants—be they chemical or—moment of silence here—physical such as scrubs that can cause microtears in the skin. “Overuse of harsh chemical peels such as AHAs/BHAs in high dosages (~5-10%) daily removes vital substances such as ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids and alters the microflora of the skin that is required for a healthy functioning skin barrier.” Sure, vitamin C, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and retinols are always trending, but it’s always best to introduce them slowly into your regime if you need them, and never use them all in the same routine. In this case, more is not better and mixing them all in the same routine is an invitation for your skin to stress out.
The best ingredients for soothing and repairing a distressed skin barrier
“Ceramides: a type of lipid and an essential component of the “glue” that holds the skin barrier cells together. It is therefore able to replenish, nourish and repair a damaged skin barrier, and lock in moisture to keep the skin well-hydrated,” says Dr Teo.
“Centella Asiatica: a medicinal herb, traditionally used to treat skin diseases and wound healing. Scientific research has proven its wound healing properties, and found that bioactive compounds, such as asiatic acid, asiaticoside, madecassic acid and madecassoside are the main compounds responsible for its anti-inflammatory actions.”
And interestingly, pumpkin seed extract, “a very potent natural ingredient that can be used as a preventive care for sensitive skin and is proven to take effect within an hour, and significantly reduce skin sensitivity within seven days of daily use.” Est.lab’s new and improved ActivCalm Anti-Stress Hydra Cream “contains an effective dose of pumpkin seed extract that acts quickly to soothe the skin; shea butter, an emollient that contains rich oils to restore the skin barrier; and an anti-pollution ferment yeast extract that protects against external pollutants by binding to particulate and metallic metal and helps build skin resistance to future aggressors.”
Importantly for Dr Teo, “it is usually not just one ingredient but a synergistic combination of ingredients that will provide an overall effective solution for soothing, repairing and strengthening the skin barrier.”
Other ingredients to look out for include moisturising and anti-irritant panthenol (aka vitamin B5), calming cica such as Dr Jart’s Cicapair Cream, heartleaf which is common to Korean skincare products such as Abib’s Heartleaf Fit Sheet Mask.
est lab ActivCalm Anti-Stress Hydra Cream
Kansoskin Simply Better Barrier Cream
La Roche-Posay Cicaplast Balm B5
Abib Enriched Creme
What are the first steps to take when experiencing a damaged skin barrier?
“I’ll definitely recommend to stop using the products if you experience any discomfort. Meanwhile, opt for a simpler skincare routine (use fewer products at the same time e.g. stick to just one serum and one moisturiser).”
As you diligently edit out all actives from your regime, don’t forget to continue protecting your skin with a broad spectrum SPF.
What happens when we choose to ignore a damaged skin barrier?
Skinflammation won’t just vanish on its own accord, especially when it’s been damaged by over-cleansing or over-dosing on actives. “A mildly damaged skin barrier may result in a dull and unhealthy looking skin. At this stage, one may experience occasional redness, dryness, itch and/or flaky skin. However this can quickly escalate into a more serious condition of atopic dermatitis when left untreated. Patients of atopic dermatitis experience white/yellow scaly patches, cracks, extreme itch, burning, etc. which cause a great deal of discomfort and could affect daily activities,” says Dr Teo.