How to Maintain a Skin Barrier

Young woman with hands to face.
Although it's easy to take it for granted, your skin acts as an important barrier between your insides and the outside world. See more pictures of beautiful skin.

Advertisements for skin care products can be overwhelming. Turn on your television or open a magazine, and the odds are there will be a multitude of advertisements for creams and lotions. Every brand seems to be touted as the next best thing to help your skin look young and fresh. But is all this fussing really necessary?

While skin may seem uncomplicated compared to other parts of the human body, it is actually a sophisticated and complex human organ. Understanding and appreciating this organ means more than just tending to it after a sunburn, acne breakout, cut or scrape. To help keep your skin at its best, you need to understand a crucial function of this vital organ -- the skin barrier.


To understand the skin barrier, start by taking a closer look at the structure of the skin itself. The skin consists of three main layers, each with own unique function and purpose. The subcutaneous layer is the innermost layer. It is made up of fat, which is used as a fuel reserve and for insulating the body. Next, the dermis contains tiny blood vessels, hair follicles and nerve endings that detect pain and pressure. The dermis is very flexible and can detect changes in temperature.

The outermost layer, the epidermis, is the key to the skin barrier. Made up of overlapping layers of dry cells, the epidermis keeps vital nutrients in and damaging substances and elements out. It also helps keep moisture in the body [source: National Geographic].

This article focuses on the skin barrier provided by the epidermis and discusses ways you can maintain the health of the skin barrier. You'll also learn how beauty products such as creams, lotions and moisturizers can support this vital skin function. When you're finished reading, you'll understand how to choose the best skin product for you and what you need to do to keep your skin looking and feeling healthy. Start by reading the next page to learn how the skin barrier functions.


Skin Barrier Function

A healthy epidermis is crucial to your overall well-being. Learning how to protect skin and keep it healthy will not only make you look better, but it will also help you keep your body functioning correctly.

Your epidermis plays a key role as the protector, defender and gatekeeper of your body. Finer and thinner than plastic wrap, the epidermis performs remarkably well as a protective barrier for the human body [source: Healy].


The primary job of the skin barrier is to keep water-rich internal organs from drying out by preventing water loss in dry environments [source: Denda]. Without this protection, the body would not be able to sustain its normal activities, and everything -- from major organs down to the tiniest cells -- would dry out and die. The skin barrier also acts as a sort of dam, keeping too much water from rushing into the body. The barrier provided by the skin allows just enough water to enter the body without flooding it.

The skin barrier also works to keep other things out of the body. Think about all the elements and substances you are exposed to every day, such as chemicals, pathogens and sunlight. The human skin does a good job of blocking out all these undesirable substances and forces. And all this happens around the clock, on a level so small you can't even see it. The skin's processes are highly complex, and most of them are invisible to the naked eye.

There is one instance, however, in which you can actually see how your skin protects you. When you are exposed to excessive sun rays, the skin produces more of a pigment called melanin, which darkens your skin and helps protect the body from potentially damaging ultraviolet, or UV, rays. You see this happen when you develop a sun tan.

You may be wondering whether the skin products you see in the store and advertised in beauty magazines can help to boost the power of your skin barrier. Read on to find the answer.


Skin Barrier Cream

Now that you understand the structure of the skin, it's time to explore whether you can help maintain this important organ by using skin creams. Many people have succumbed to the ambitious claims of beauty products. Abandoned skin care products quickly fill bathroom cabinets as they are discarded when their promises of health, beauty and vitality prove false. But you can make smart choices about which products you use if you understand the role of the skin barrier and look for products that enhance this skin function.

Start by considering the purpose of a skin barrier cream. You want a cream that is going to help the epidermis retain water. According to researchers, a good skin cream acts as a sort of short-term shield that helps back up the skin barrier. To get the most out of your moisturizer, apply it just after a bath when you've towel blotted your skin. This will help trap water in the surface cells of the skin.


The best kinds of creams contain ingredients that block water from exiting the skin's surface, such as glycerine, silicones, dimethicone and mineral oil. There are also some products that contain synthetic lipids, or fats, that imitate those found naturally in skin. These creams help draw water into the skin and keep the skin moist [source: Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology].

In choosing a skin barrier cream, pick one that does not contain fragrances, since they can cause skin allergies or irritation. Preservatives, which are found in moisturizers that contain water and oil, can also cause irritation. Beware of skin care products with ingredients that claim to improve skin's flexibility or reduce wrinkles or stretch marks. These types of products have not as yet been proven to work [source: Mayo Clinic]. And always bear in mind that it's better to choose a product for its effect on skin's function rather than for its beauty claims.

Read on for some guidelines on choosing a skin cream and information on techniques for maintaining your skin barrier and improving the function of your skin.


Maintaining a Skin Barrier

Now that you understand the skin barrier and know what skin creams can do, it's time to talk about how you can work to support and improve the health of your skin.

The first step in maintaining a good skin barrier is choosing the right type of moisturizer for your skin. Don't let price or brand name be the only factor in your choice. High price tags and familiar brand names do not necessarily mean the product is more effective.


Follow these recommendations to select a product that best suits your skin type:

  • For normal or oily skin, choose a lightweight, water-based product.
  • For sensitive skin, pick a cream that contains no dyes or fragrances, as these can irritate the skin.
  • If you have dry skin, select a product with urea or propylene glycol, and try to find an oil-based product rather than a cream.
  • Elderly people with mature skin should choose products with alpha hydroxy, petrolatum and lactic acid [source: Mayo Clinic].

Beyond choosing a good product for maintaining the skin barrier, there are techniques you can use to help boost the power of your moisturizer. An intense moisturizing technique is the wet wrap. Although this process is a bit time-intensive, it has been reported to improve the skin barrier considerably. After a bath or shower, apply your preferred moisturizer wherever dry skin is a problem. Place a wet layer of cotton cloth over your skin where you've moisturized, then follow with a dry layer of cotton cloth [source: Lewis].

Other suggestions include washing with warm water rather than hot water. You may also wish to wear protective gloves to protect your skin when using harmful or irritating chemicals that can contribute to dryness. Finally, look for skin care products that are pH-balanced -- anything with a pH above seven can dry out skin [source: Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology].

If skin dryness is a problem, don't despair. Take some time to make a good skin care regimen part of your daily activities, and consult a dermatologist if you feel it's necessary. Your skin and your health are worth it.

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Lots More Information

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  • Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, Inc. "Caring for Dry Skin: Maintaining Skin Barrier Function." 1999. (July 26, 2009) references/pdf/dryskin_brochure.pdf
  • Denda, Mitsuhiro. "Skin Barrier Function as a Self-Organizing System." May 19, 2000. (July 27, 2009)
  • Healy, Bernadine. "Skin Deep: As the body's largest organ, skin is a powerful yet unappreciated veneer." U.S. News and World Report. Nov. 6, 2005. (July 27, 2009)
  • Lewis, Victoria (reviewed by). "The Function of Skin as a Barrier." (July 27, 2009)
  • Lowenstein, Kate. "Diet for Healthy Skin." (July 27, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Moisturizers: Options for softer skin." Dec. 16, 2008. (July 27, 2009)
  • National Geographic. "About the Skin." (July 27, 2009)