The Skin Barrier Series: Part Four: Damaging the Skin Barrier: Pitfalls to Avoid

Posted by Emily van Oosterom on

Part 4: Damaging the Skin Barrier: Pitfalls to Avoid

Maintaining a healthy skin barrier involves not only nurturing and supporting its function but also being mindful of habits and products that can compromise its integrity. By avoiding certain skincare pitfalls, we can minimise the risk of damaging the skin barrier and ensure its optimal performance.

One common mistake that can harm the skin barrier is over-cleansing. While cleansing is important for removing impurities (dirt, makeup, sunscreen residue) and maintaining skin hygiene, excessive cleansing can strip the skin of its natural oils and disrupt the protective lipid barrier (Draelos, 2000). It is advisable to cleanse the skin no more than twice a day, using gentle cleansers that are formulated to maintain the skin's natural pH balance.

Using harsh alkaline bar soaps or cleansers that contain aggressive detergents can also compromise the skin barrier. These products can be overly drying and irritating, disrupting the balance of the skin's natural protective lipids. Opting for mild, pH-balanced, sulfate-free cleansers can help minimise the risk of barrier disruption and maintain the skin's natural moisture balance (Marsella & Nicklin, 2006).  Oil cleansers are a great choice for those of us who need to remove make-up and sunscreen at the end of the day.  They work by blending with the impurities and carrying them away when you remove the excess oil, rather than by dissolving them with harsh surfactants as soapy cleansers do. 

Frequent exfoliation can also pose a risk to the skin barrier. While exfoliation can remove dead skin cells and promote cell turnover, excessive or aggressive exfoliation can lead to skin irritation and compromise the barrier's function. It is important to choose exfoliation methods and products that are suitable for your skin type and to follow a moderate exfoliation routine (Pavicic et al., 2011).  Using harsh mechanical exfoliants such as salt crystals or ground walnut hulls will create micro-abrasions, damaging your skin barrier and increasing the penetration of pathogens.  Conversely - overuse of chemical or enzyme exfoliants such as AHA or BHA can also compromise the integrity of the skin barrier.  Opt for occasional (no more than twice a week) exfoliation with gentle, skin-friendly exfoliants.

Excessive use of hot water during cleansing or bathing can strip the skin of its natural oils and disrupt the skin barrier's function. Say goodbye to those long, steamy showers.  Hot water can dehydrate the skin, leading to dryness and increased vulnerability to barrier damage. Using lukewarm water instead helps maintain the skin's natural moisture balance and minimises the risk of barrier disruption (Rawlings et al., 1994).

Environmental stressors can also compromise the integrity of the skin barrier. Excessive sun exposure can damage the skin's natural protective mechanisms, leading to barrier dysfunction. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation can induce oxidative stress, promote inflammation, and weaken the skin's barrier function over time (Svoboda & Tiosano, 2019). Protecting the skin with sunscreen and minimising sun exposure during peak hours can help mitigate these effects.

Pollution is another environmental factor that can negatively impact the skin barrier. Airborne pollutants, such as particulate matter and chemicals, can adhere to the skin's surface and penetrate into the deeper layers, contributing to oxidative stress and inflammation (Lademann et al., 2019). Cleansing the skin thoroughly and using skincare products with antioxidant properties can help counteract the damaging effects of pollution.

By avoiding over-cleansing, harsh soaps or cleansers, excessive exfoliation, hot water, and minimising exposure to environmental stressors, we can protect the skin barrier and maintain its optimal function. Prioritising gentle skincare practices and making informed choices in our daily routines can help preserve the integrity of the skin barrier, ensuring a healthy and resilient complexion.


Draelos, Z. D. (2000). The science behind skin care: Cleansers. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 13(1), 16-19.

Lademann, J., Schanzer, S., Jacobi, U., Schmitt, H., Richter, H., Meinke, M. C., ... & Rühl, E. (2019). Basics of pollution-induced skin aging: Topographic and microscopic evidence. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 32(1), 1-9.

Marsella, R., & Nicklin, C. (2006). Evaluating the efficacy of shampoos for healthy dogs. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 47(7), 394-398.

Pavicic, T., Wollenweber, U., Farwick, M., Korting, H. C., & Braun-Falco, O. (2011). Epidermal barrier and dermal water‐holding capacity in atopic dermatitis: An in vivo study on the influence of a moisturizing cream. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 24(5), 269-273.

Rawlings, A. V., Scott, I. R., & Harding, C. R. (1994). Bowser's membrane models—their limitations and uses. Journal of Dermatological Science, 7(3), S17-S21.

Svoboda, R. M., & Tiosano, S. (2019). The skin barrier: effects of age and the environment across different ethnicities. Cutis, 104(6), E21-E25.

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