I spent a good majority of my teen years and early twenties using drying acne treatments. You name it, I've probably tried it. What I didn't realize, however, was that over time these treatments were slowly compromising the integrity of my skin barrier. A few months ago, I started to notice how cracked, dry, and red my skin looked around the area of my nose and was confused as to why it looked that way. Luckily, an esthetician pointed out to me that it looked like my barrier was a tad compromised—words I'd never heard before or really understood in the past.
She also pointed out that it would probably be a good idea to swap my cleanser for a gentler formula, stop exfoliating for a bit, and lay off the retinol. So basically, all the things I'd been using to combat my breakouts. At first, this seemed incredibly scary to me, but something magical actually happened when I stopped using all those prescription-strength treatments and harsh products. My acne magically cleared up. Sometimes, less really is more, and I had to learn that the hard way. But now, unfortunately, I'm left dealing with the damage these drying products left behind and still get the occasional pimple here and there. If you're in the same boat—aka dealing with breakouts and trying to repair a bit of barrier damage along with it—keep reading for derm advice on the matter. You really can heal your barrier and acne at the same time when you do these things…
What is skin barrier damage and how can you prevent it?
First off, you may be asking what your skin barrier even does or how it helps prevent things like acne. "The skin barrier function refers to the skin’s ability to protect your body from infection, retain moisture, and maintain the integrity of the skin," says board-certified dermatologist, Brendan Camp, MD. "A compromised skin barrier may present with redness, dryness, itching, or irritation."
Board-certified dermatologist Snehal Amin, MD also adds, "The natural skin protective barrier is compromised when the lipids, fatty acids, and ceramides that hold skin cells together are disrupted. This creates openings and channels that make the skin more prone to bacterial overgrowth and breakouts. It is important to keep in mind that some acne treatments can potentially damage the skin barrier, which could exacerbate the issue." Now you know how closely related acne and barrier damage can be. To be honest, this may have been my problem all along and I didn't realize it until I stopped using all these treatments. For more advice, read their top tips below.
1. Choose the right cleanser
"Selecting a cleanser that is gentle enough to remove oil without over-drying the skin is an important step," says Camp. "Key ingredients to look for in cleansers and moisturizers include ceramides and hyaluronic acid. They can help protect the skin and quicken its recovery."
Amin also says it's important not to over-wash your skin as this can dry your skin out further and cause more damage to your barrier.
2. Look for extra-hydrating ingredients in your moisturizer
Both agree that those dealing with skin barrier damage should look for a moisturizer that's rich in ingredients like ceramides, fatty acids, lipids, and hyaluronic acid. Camp also says that using creams instead of gels can also be helpful. "Using cream-based acne treatments instead of gel-based products can help keep the skin hydrated, as gels can contribute to dryness. Applying a moisturizer after the application of acne treatments can also help minimize some side effects like redness, flaking, and itching."
3. Avoid harsh ingredients that can cause further damage
Yep, unfortunately, you may have to take a long break from certain products. "Ingredients that can further damage an already hurting skin barrier include glycolic and salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinols. These ingredients should be used with caution or avoided altogether when trying to address acne and a damaged skin barrier simultaneously. When the skin has repaired itself, it may be appropriate to slowly introduce these types of products back into your routine."
Amin also has a few tips on what to avoid. "Switching skin care regimens too often can also result in irritation," he says. "When trying a new acne regimen give it time, six to eight weeks is recommended to see if it works for your skin. Makeup, skincare, and hair products can often be the culprit in acne breakouts, so look for noncomedogenic products, which don’t clog pores. In general, think of your skin as sensitive. Don’t overdo physical exfoliation, either. Stay away from astringents and alcohols which can be overly drying and look for fragrance-free options. You'll also want to remove makeup before going to bed."
Products derms recommend for Acne and skin barrier damage:
"Serums are designed to deliver highly concentrated ingredients in a way that facilitates skin absorption. This hydrating serum, which contains hyaluronic acid and ceramides, can be layered underneath acne treatments to protect the skin barrier."—Camp
"These provide great lightweight hydration that won’t trigger breakouts. The moisturizer can be used whenever your skin feels dry."—Amin
"This is another lightweight gel that soothes dry skin without clogging pores. It features a peptide blend which supports the skin microbiome, a key component of skin barrier health."—Amin
More products we love for acne and skin barrier damage:
I've been trying out Furtuna Skin's products lately and have been totally obsessed—especially with this moisturizing oil. I love noncomedogenic face oils, but I've found that since my skin has been on the drier side lately, sometimes I need to use a lot to achieve my desired moisture level. That's not the case with this luxe oil. It applies so smooth and creamy to the skin. My complexion feels instantly hydrated and has a radiant glow to it. Basically, since I've found this, it's never left my routine now. It also has ingredients rich in fatty acids that help replenish your skin's moisture barrier.
Paula's Choice products always get the job done. Although this product does have retinol in it, it's paired with hydrating ingredients like jojoba oil, peptides, and essential fatty acids so it doesn't cause further dryness or damage. It's a good option if you absolutely can't give up your retinoids.
Another product that's perfect for repairing and soothing the skin barrier is Furtuna Skin's Replenishing Balm. It helps rejuvenate stressed out skin and repair surface damage with wild-foraged, organic ingredients straight from the hills of beautiful Sicily.