Dealing with a damaged skin barrier? These derm tips will help

Avoiding over-exfoliating and using gentle skin care products are good places to start.

Between wearing makeup, days spent laying in the sun and everything that comes in between, we put our skin through a lot. It’s no surprise that there are effects we can’t see, particularly when it comes to skin barrier damage.

Shop TODAY spoke to a few dermatologists about what exactly the skin barrier is, how we can avoid damage and, if the damage has already occurred, how to repair it.

How to avoid damage to the skin barrier

“The key is [to try to] do no harm,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Mary Lupo says. She recommends washing your skin with tepid to cooler water. Her other tip is to avoid scrubs of any kind.

If you really want to exfoliate, she offers two ways to safely do so. There’s enzymatic exfoliation with things like pumpkin extract, but be sure the product doesn’t have alpha hydroxy acids in it, she warns. Follow it up with a moisturizer that contains lactic acid, which she calls “exfoliative without being dehydrating.”

The other way you can exfoliate is by lightly shaving your face. “It’s the same as dermaplaning and it removes the vellus hairs and…the top layer of dead keratinocytes. And there’s no chemical with it of any kind, so you’re not going to dehydrate your skin by doing that,” Lupo explains.

New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Debra Jaliman recommends being very gentle with your skin by using a mild cleanser and a moisturizer and to not exfoliate too much. For your moisturizer, she advises picking one with hyaluronic acid, glycerin or ceramides.

Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Ranella Hirsch also suggests only use one active ingredient at a time. “You [should] never introduce more than one active [ingredient],” she says. Once you introduce that active ingredient into your skin care routine, it’s important to make sure you’re fully adjusted to it, which she says can take weeks to months.

“Realize that it’s not a contest to use the most potent version of everything or to use it for the longest period of time or whatever. The goal is to just get the effect of exfoliating that you want, but gently,” she advises.

How to repair the skin barrier

Similar to avoiding damage to the skin’s barrier, the first step in repairing the barrier post-damage is using a gentle cleanser. “A lot of people use exfoliating cleansers that have glycolic acid or salicylic acid. You’d want to use a cleanser that has glycerin or hyaluronic acids or ceramides,” Jaliman says. Lupo shares the same recommendation, adding cholesterols to the mix which are “bad for your arteries but very good for your skin.”

When picking products for your new gentle routine, Jaliman advises keeping your skin’s pH in mind and choosing a product with a pH similar to your own so that you don’t disrupt the balance. (The average skin pH ranges between 4 and 6.)

While you’re adjusting your skin care routine and paying closer attention to ingredients, Hirsch recommends removing products with active ingredients like retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids that can irritate the skin.

“You want to take away anything that might be irritating. Then you can swap over to a gentle moisturizer because you don’t want to introduce something particularly irritating or problematic. Then, sunscreen — super, super, super gentle sunscreen is [what you want to use].”

Hirsch’s most important tip? “Stop doing whatever it is you’re doing that got you into this mess in the first place!”

She believes that people tend to have a “no pain, no gain” philosophy for skin care, but that’s not the best approach. Similar to exercising, it’s okay to have a slight adjustment period in the beginning where your skin may react differently, but if it’s ongoing and painful, then you shouldn’t continue doing it.