IHTM: I Tried a Skincare Product That Jacked Up My Skin Barrier So Here's How I Handled It

I basically called my mom for help. Except when I say mom, I mean an esthetician.
Publish date:
December 22, 2016
breakouts, skincare products, irritated skin, estheticians, Skin Barrier, Skincare Advice

In all my years as a product-hoarding skincare slut... the unthinkable had finally happened to me. Something I tried backfired. The worst part is that I think I know which product it was, but I cannot be totally sure because I love trying new things and sometimes will overexcitedly swap out products all willy-nilly when I get new ones. In this particular case, I had added three newbies to a couple days' routine and any one of them could have mutinied.

I don't have reactive skin, mind you. I've trained my skin in the arena of every kind of facial acid you can think of probably and now it is strong like bull. My skin is on the combo/dry side or combo/oily side depending on the season but overall is pretty well-behaved and has been ever since I started taking care of it in a very mindful and serious way.

Anyway, the product (or multiple/combo of products?) that jacked up my face did so after about two to three days — it wasn't an immediate scourge, which is unusual, right? Rather than break out in zits or a burny redness, my skin texture became crazy congested-feeling as if there was one of those egg crate mattress pads underneath — it was as if my skin was trying to keratin itself a protective shell against the offending luxury skin care product. I didn't think too much of it until without warning it also broke out all along my lower face in both actual breakouts as well as flaky patches. Fun! Just throw it all on there, why don't you?

So following logical suite, I freaked out. I stopped using anything new that I had added in the last week, ceased all chemical exfoliants (for fear of further irritation) and used only the most gentle products made for sensitive skin (that I had previously scoffed at) I had in my apothecary. It stung to even put on moisturizer. No bueno. Until my skin returned to its semi-normal texture of "relatively smooth and plump" I lined up the offending products on my desk so I could accusatorially scowl at them in a How DARE you? sort of way, vowing to suss out WHO DID THIS TO ME once my skin had completely healed.

But in the meanwhile, considering how this was a rather uncommon occurence in my face's history, I figured I'd ask a skin expert, AKA an esthetician. I had met De Anna Caoizzo at Silver Mirror Facial Bar a month or so ago when she gave me one of the most enjoyable facials of my life that included that antioxidant peel Roxanne was talking about and some very good facial education (which is what you should be getting if you're shelling out for a facial, right?). If you're going to talk skin with anyone, talk to a biochemistry buff because it will be faaaaaascinating.

What exactly is your skin's barrier and how does it function?

De Anna: One of the most important jobs of the skin is protection. Think about it — how amazing is it that this thin, flexible material we call skin allows us to walk around in a world full of toxins, parasites, and bacteria and LIVE through it? It's all thanks to an amazing blend of enzymes, oil, acid and water that is secreted by our skin. Because this secretion is slightly acidic, we call it the acid mantle, otherwise known as the "barrier."

I like to think of the skin as the world's most sophisticated cosmetic chemist, because this thin layer on the surface is such a simple, yet effective formulation. Imagine if a brand could formulate a serum that dissolved excess sebum, killed bacteria, kept the skin soft and pliable even in harsh environmental conditions, blocked the entry of viruses and boosted the skin's immune system! That product would crush it!! In fact, most skin care products are formulated in part to mimic or replace the barrier. This protective film is literally driving an entire industry — it's that important. In fact, I believe the starting point for ANY skincare regimen begins with supporting the barrier. Once the barrier is healthy and strong, other conditions such as aging, acne, etc can be addressed. ALL healthy skin begins with a healthy barrier, period.

What are habits that can mess with your skin's barrier function, including ones that you may not know are jacking up your skin?

There are some general practices that have the potential to impair a barrier. Because your barrier needs to maintain an acidic pH to work properly (healthy skin lives at a pH around 5.5), products that are too alkaline are not a good idea. You're probably thinking, "But, if the barrier is so important, why would there even BE alkaline products?" Well, you would be surprised. The biggest offenders are cleansers. Even today, many brands are formulating alkaline cleansers. This is why I test products with pH strips before I recommend them or use them myself. I think the reason we still see so many alkaline cleansers is because they give that "squeaky clean" feeling that people think they like. In fact, that "fresh and tight" feeling is actually your barrier being stripped and screaming for help. Imagine you're in the Alaskan hinterland and all your clothing is suddenly ripped off. You would scream too.

You can also impair your barrier by "overworking" it. This includes things like using too many "active" products, abrasive products, and neglecting to support the oil/water balance in the skin. Now that exfoliation looms large in the consumer's mind, I see a lot of people that are impairing their barrier because they have too many or the wrong exfoliating products. Boosting cell turnover is great, but if your skin is inflamed, feels tight or "raw," it's time to back off.

Other common culprits are scrubs and rough skin habits. Grainy skin scrubs are fine for people with thick skin, but most skin I see can't handle facial scrubs. This includes those ever popular Clarisonic brushes, which can be fine when used once or twice a week, but most people use them too often. Besides, you can get better resurfacing from an AHA or BHA.

How you dry your face is important. I can look at a person's skin and tell if they rub their face with a towel after cleansing. ALWAYS pat dry.

Lastly, using the right products for your skin is important. This one is a bit difficult for the average consumer to achieve on their own. Your skin requires a balance of oil and water, and topical products are amazing at maintaining that blend. But you have to know skincare ingredients AND be able to tell which things the skin is lacking. That's why a knowledgeable skin therapist and/or dermatologist can make all the difference.

How would you even know if your barrier is compromised, rather than just confusing it for dry skin or a breakout? Is there a way to test it or signs to look out for?

This is an interesting question and a bit difficult to answer. Mostly because many skin conditions including dry skin, breakouts, eczema, psoriasis, etc, are influenced by barrier health. In fact, we now know that many people suffering from acne have an acid mantle that isn't quite as acidic as people without acne, which plays a part in why their skin is more susceptible to bacteria growth (i.e. acne). Also, some newer research has found that people with skin diseases related to malfunctioning barriers (psoriasis, eczema) are actually genetically deficient in a protein that helps the skin heal and close the barrier and retain moisture. So barrier health is pretty much always part of the problem when it comes to skin issues. In other words, dry skin is a sign of a compromised barrier, although a compromised barrier may not always express itself as dry skin. Does that make sense?

Of course, that isn't too helpful for someone trying to self-diagnose. For clients, I focus on educating about behaviors that commonly lead to an impaired barrier.

Here are some barrier no-no's:

  1. Washing the face with hot or even extremely cold water
  2. Using astringents and/or alkaline cleansers (you would not believe how many people wash their face with bar soap!)
  3. Rubbing the skin too roughly with a washcloth, facial brush, towel, etc.
  4. Not applying a moisturizer after cleansing
  5. Spending a lot of time outdoors (prolonged exposure to UV, wind, cold, pollution, etc)
  6. Using too many actives (for example, using a glycolic wash and toner, followed by a BHA acne treatment gel, followed by Retin-A at night)

Do certain skin types have to be more mindful of maintaining their skin's barrier functions?

YES. Everyone needs to keep their barrier in good shape. However, sensitive/reactive skin has to be a wee bit more careful because of how easily they get inflamed. Also, older skin is much thinner and slower to heal, so it needs constant barrier maintenance. Healing a severely impaired barrier in an older skin can take months. Acneic skin needs consistent barrier help because it lives in a state of near-constant impairment. Drier skin is more prone to water loss and needs help as well. Oh, dear. That pretty much covers everyone in the world, doesn't it?

In short, everyone needs to be mindful, but the consequences are more severe for the acne-prone, aged and sensitive. You "normal" skin types can take more chances. But remember — the rest of us hate you a little bit. So, there.

What are some skincare ingredients and/or practices that especially help to amp up your skin barrier so it can be its healthiest?

This depends, of course, on what the skin is lacking. The barrier is a combo of water and lipids. For people with healthy oil production, this means looking for humectants on the ingredient list (in the top five ingredients, preferably): glycerin, sodium hyaluronate or hyaluronic acid, lactic acid (low concentrations), aloe vera, etc.

Drier skin types may need both water AND oil which can be found in various plant oils or ingredients like squalane (which is not technically an oil). Also important are other lipids found in our barrier like ceramides, fatty acids and cholesterol. Silicones can be helpful as well since they provide a breathable barrier for the skin, which can be imperative with a barrier that is severely compromised. SkinCeuticals recently came out with a product, Triple Lipid Restore, that was designed to mimic the ratio of lipids in the natural skin barrier and that's also in a silicone base (dimethicone).

What's your best advice (since everyone's skin is different) on making sure your barrier is fortified, so to speak, for harsh changing weather or travel?

The starting point is to follow that list of barrier no-no's. Once those healthy habits are maintained, you can supplement what's missing with products (i.e. more water or lipid content, more or less resurfacing, etc).

In the drier winter weather, water loss becomes an issue. Adding in a hyaluronic serum or doing a hydrating sheet mask one or twice week is helpful. Prevent further water loss with a silicone-based product or balm. You may need a richer cream at night and don't neglect a daily morning antioxidant as well. Keeping down inflammation helps everything.

  • Have you ever had a beauty product backfire on you and suddenly you see your whole (skin)life flash before your eyes?
  • Who knew skin barriers could be so fascinating? I did not!
  • What's your retaliation for misbehaving skin?