If 2020 was all about the high-strength, not-for-beginners exfoliating acids (The Ordinary‘s AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution was impossible to miss on TikTok, especially if you’re a skincare junkie), brands have started to re-calibrate.
Instead of launching product after product that promises to polish, buff to perfection and basically give you a whole new level of “glow” (think Euphoria‘s Cassie and her 4am exfoliating routine), many brands are doing a 180 and are now focusing on things designed to repair the skin barrier – common descriptors include healing, recovering, nourishing, soothing, replenishing (you get the idea).
But first of all what is the skin barrier and why does it need repairing?
The skin is the human body’s largest organ and it’s actually made up of several layers. The outermost layer is known as the stratum corneum (aka the skin barrier). It has many different purposes but some key ones are to protect your body from external stressors, like infectious agents (something we’ve all become familiar with over the past two years), pollution and UV radiation, as well as retaining water to keep your body and skin hydrated.
In other words, a healthy skin barrier is essential (and no, we’re not just talking for vanity reasons) to ensure your body’s various systems are balanced.
But what’s got our collective skin barriers going out of whack? The causes are numerous and can sometimes be out of our control, including too much sun exposure, pollution, stress, wintry weather, genetic conditions like eczema, as well as the constant mask-wearing brought about by the pandemic.
That said, consumers playing chemist at home is among the key factors that are self-inflicted problems. “One of the skincare trends that emerged during the pandemic was the increased use of active ingredients including exfoliation with acids,” notes Dr Rachel Ho, medical director of La Clinic.
“Consumers are now inundated with a lot more information about using active ingredients, skin barrier and exfoliation; especially with the slew of doctors now using social media platforms to educate viewers; and more skincare companies such as Deciem (the parent company of The Ordinary) are releasing more products with high concentrations of active ingredients in their products,” adds Dr Ho.
“Inappropriate and overuse of these active ingredients (such as retinols, much-hyped Vitamin C and acid exfoliants) can lead to symptoms of dermatitis and damaged skin barrier such as hypersensitivity and dryness.”
Indeed, while active ingredients such as Vitamin C and exfoliating acids are extremely popular (both in the press and on social media) and can bring great benefits to the skin, they tend to possess very low pH levels, which can damage the skin barrier when used too often – the latter being something that tends to be overlooked or not mentioned in the search for “flawless” or “glowing” skin.
While brands may advise consumers to use such potent acids and other high-strength actives up to twice daily, the frequency of use really depends on each individual person’s tolerance.
The best way to find out is to personally experiment with where your limits are but if you find that your skin starts to go red, sting, feels rough or irritated, those are all signs that it’s a good idea to cut back on frequency (or simply stop using temporarily).
“I’ve been noticing that a lot of our new customers were over-exfoliating and have sensitised skin. We also have a lot of customers that were doing monthly professional treatments like lasers and chemical peels,” concurs Nicolas Travis, founder of skincare line Allies of Skin.
The brand recently launched the Molecular Barrier Recovery Cream Balm to be included in both pre- and post-procedure skincare routines. He says: “I wanted to create a do-it-all product that will help repair and restore a weakened barrier and train skin to be more resilient.”
So how do we go from the depths of skincare hell to a healthy, supple state of things?
Well firstly, ever notice how dermatologists always preach keeping a simple but solid skincare routine (usually comprising of staples like fragrance-free cleansers, moisturisers and sunscreens)? It’s quite the opposite of what we usually see from the trendy products used by skincare influencers or the complicated, many-steps routine of K-beauty.
Next, look out for ingredients that strengthen the skin barrier such as ceramides, fatty acids, cholesterol and niacinamide, and reduce water loss from the skin (things like petrolatum or shea butter), advises Dr Ho.
She adds: “Try to avoid or (temporarily stop using) products that may damage the skin barrier such as physical scrubs. Chemical exfoliants such as AHAs and BHAs are very useful in keeping skin rejuvenated and smooth; but they can disrupt the skin barrier so really, use them in moderation.”
In short, drop the actives for now, simplify your routine and stick to the staples (cleanser, moisturiser and sunscreen), especially when you’re battling a damaged skin barrier.
Below, a round-up of both classic and new product launches that are all designed to heal things up. PS. they are often moisturisers and can take up that step in your routine.