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The Skin Barrier

It all starts with the skin barrier. This is the outermost layer of the skin and the first line of defence.

The skin barrier functions to keep pollutants and bacteria out while keeping moisture in. Helping it to do this are naturally occurring fats, known as lipids. These lipids are made up of 50% ceramides, 25% cholesterol and 10-25% fatty acids.

Over time, the depletion of ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids in the skin can result in moisture loss, dryness and cracking. This can also cause inflammation and irritation from the allergens and environmental toxins your skin comes in contact with on a daily basis. Ongoing skin inflammation is pro-ageing and something you want to avoid.

Good skin care preserves and protects the skin barrier, maintains the right pH and keeps it functioning optimally.  This should be the first step in any good skin care routine — making sure you are replenishing your skin’s ceramides and fatty acids.

What weakens the skin barrier?

The skin barrier weakens with age and can be affected by some systemic health issues.

However incorrect skin care can lead to skin barrier issues. An aggressive skin care routine can compromise the barrier, as can the  overuse of actives, such as exfoliating acids, physical scrubs, Benzoyl Peroxide, L’Ascorbic Acid and retinoids.

Even natural ingredients such as lemon juice, vinegar and baking soda that are often recommended in DIY skin care can affect the correct function of the skin barrier.

Alcohol, essential oils, fragrance and other irritating ingredients are other ones to watch out for. While small amounts of these are fine for most people, prolonged exposure to high levels can have an impact.

If your skin was normal and then becomes dry, red, irritated, sensitive and develops atypical breakouts, then you may have an impaired skin barrier.

Ceramides and the skin barrier

Skin that is well moisturised and nourished, and has a good water-to-oil balance, is a more resilient skin.

Forming part of the protective function of our topmost layer of skin are ceramides. Just like cholesterol and essential fatty acids, they are part of our skin’s naturally occurring lipids. They are essential in supporting the skin barrier function and retaining moisture. Without ceramides, skin can become dry, itchy, irritated or dull.

Ceramides make up about 50% of the skin barrier. As well as keeping moisture in and irritants out, they also play an important role in the repair of the skin barrier.

Over time, though, ceramides can become depleted. To maintain your optimal skin barrier function and keep it looking healthy, you need to ensure the right balance of ceramides, cholesterol and fatty acids. If your skin lacks adequate ceramides, it can lead to a number of skin concerns that go beyond dryness or dullness, such as psoriasis or eczema. When ceramide levels are low, your protective skin barrier is weakened, allowing moisture to escape.

Many people with acne or oily skin find their skin becomes more sensitive and more easily irritated when using skin care products designed to reduce the oils in  their skin. In trying to treat their acne, they also may be unintentionally stripping away the skin’s natural defence and making their skin  even more vulnerable.

By applying ceramides to your skin through your skin care routine, you can help restore the skin’s barrier and retain more moisture. This will help strengthen your skin and make it less reactive. However, keep in mind that ceramides need the support of cholesterol and amino acids to do their best work; they are not nearly as effective when they are used on their own.

Cholesterol and the skin barrier

Cholesterol is another element naturally found in the skin barrier, but also can be found as an ingredient in skin care products. Unlike cholesterol in the diet, cholesterol in skin care products is beneficial to the skin. It helps accelerate the recovery of the skin barrier function and improves the appearance of skin elasticity.

It works in tandem with ceramides and fatty acids to replenish and restore the skin, helping maintain a healthy skin barrier that can keep invaders out and moisture in. Just like other lipids, cholesterol hydrates the skin and keeps it feeling smooth.

Fatty acids and the skin barrier

Fatty acids also form part of the skin barrier and ensure the healthy function of our skin.

Most of us are more familiar with the important role essential fatty acids play in our diet than the role they play in our skin barrier. Just like our bodies need essential fatty acids, such as Omega-3 and Omega-6, our skin needs a good supply of fatty acids.

Omega-3 is an oil rich in α-Linolenic Acid while Omega-6 is rich in Linoleic Acid, and both are essential nutrients in our diet as they cannot be synthesised by the body.

Even though we may have a nutrient-rich diet and are getting enough essential fatty acids, this may not be enough for our skin. Essential Fatty Acids that are ingested can become oxidised in the liver before being able to deliver their benefits to the skin, so direct topical application can be beneficial.

Fatty acids help protect skin from cellular damage when exposed UV light and thereby play a role in reducing photo-ageing. This is why we like to see ceramides in moisturisers and support the inclusion of appropriate skin oils in skin care routines for dry and compromised skin types.

Skin care oils have different ratios of fatty acids, and some are more suited to dry skin while others are more suited to oily skin. See our page on Acne and Oily Skin.

Some of the most popular and versatile oils used in skin care include Almond, Apricot, Argan, Avocado, Borage Seed, Camellia Seed, Carrot Seed, Grape Seed, Jojoba, Macadamia, Marula, Moringa, Meadowfoam Seed, Pomegranate, Prickly Pear, Safflower, Seabuckthorn, Shea Butter, Squalane, Sunflower, Tamanu and Watermelon Seed.

So when next see an ingredient list that has ceramides, cholesterol or fatty acids, know that they are there to help your skin. These  are fats that naturally occur in the skin and are important for the skin barrier and keeping it functioning at its best.