Michele Ross is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She primarily covers beauty, wellness, nutrition, and culture, and her goal is to empower readers to make informed decisions about their routines. Both on and off the clock, she geeks out on skin care ingredient deep dives, astrology, and K-pop.

If you struggle with breakouts, eczema, sensitivity, and inflammation, the quest for healthy skin can seem like an intricate science experiment. But sometimes the secret to conquering your biggest complexion concerns is taking a less-is-more approach. This rings especially true if your skin barrier is damaged, which can lead to a cascade of adverse effects on your complexion.

Keep reading to discover the ins and outs of the skin barrier—including five telltale signs that your own could use a lifeline. And later: a step-by-step guide to skin barrier repair from the outside in and inside out.

What Is the Skin Barrier?

The skin barrier is mainly present in the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the epidermis. Experts often use a “brick-and-mortar” analogy to help visualize it.

Skin cells (bricks) are bound together by healthy fats, aka lipids (mortar). This lipid matrix includes cholesterol, fatty acids, and ceramides. The stronger the mortar is, the more intact the skin barrier will be, enabling its protective powers.

Why Is the Skin Barrier Important?

The importance of a healthy skin barrier can’t be underestimated. It’s the first line of defense of the body’s largest organ,

and its primary duties are to:

  • Protect against environmental stressors — including pollution, UV rays, and harsh weather conditions, but also physical aggressors like harsh topical products
  • Prevent transepidermal water loss (TEWL) from within

A healthy, hydrated skin barrier promotes balanced, glowing skin. Poor skin barrier function will not only leave your skin dull, dry, and uneven, but it’ll also make it more susceptible to damage and inflammation.

Signs of a Damaged Skin Barrier

Telltale signs and symptoms of skin barrier damage include:

5 Ways to Tell Whether Your Skin Barrier Is Damaged

1. Sensitivity

Does your skin sting or get reactive after applying skin care? Are you experiencing a random bout of sensitivity despite the fact that your skin usually tolerates whatever topicals you apply? If so, your skin’s moisture barrier isn’t as strong or healthy as it should be.

2. Irritation

Perhaps you used a heavy hand with an exfoliating scrub, stayed out in the sun for too long, or used too many products at once. Each of these scenarios can sensitize your skin and result in redness, irritation, and heightened reactivity (i.e., a compromised skin barrier).

3. Dehydration

Remember: A damaged skin barrier has a harder time retaining hydration and moisture. When you don’t know how to hydrate skin properly, it can feel tight, itchy, and dry; and there’s a good chance that it will also flake off. It can also appear more dull and lackluster than usual, and you may find that your skin tone is uneven.

4. Breakouts

There are several root causes behind breakouts, from hormonal imbalance to diet. However, research shows that a compromised skin barrier can also trigger breakouts. This emphasizes how important skin barrier function is for people with oily and/or acne-prone skin, in addition to those who routinely struggle with dryness and sensitivity.

If your acne is flaring up more than usual and you’re experiencing any additional symptoms listed above, restoring your skin barrier’s integrity can help clarify and calm your complexion.

5. Eczema + Rosacea

People with dermatological conditions like eczema or rosacea are more susceptible to skin barrier damage. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and sticking to a proper skin care regimen can help keep skin barrier dysfunction at bay. But when these inflammatory flare-ups come back around, it signals that your skin is under stress and needs extra nourishment.

How to Repair the Skin Barrier

Skin barrier damage may be uncomfortable, but know that it’s not permanent. In fact, you can make a few simple modifications to strengthen and replenish your skin’s outermost layer of defense — even noticing improvements in the look and feel of your skin in as little as a day or two. If you want to know how to improve moisture barrier function, then taking a slow and steady approach is crucial.

Simplify Your Routine

As much as certain niches in the beauty industry may lead you to believe otherwise, you don’t need to include 10 or more steps in your skin care regimen. In fact, using too many products can end up doing more harm than good — especially when you mix too many harsh ingredients at the same time. Once you start to notice the symptoms of skin barrier damage, take them as a sign to pare down your routine and go back to basics.

Avoid Aggressors

Certain products and formulations — like alkaline soaps with abrasive foaming agents — can wreak havoc on the skin barrier, so it’s always smart to nix them from your routine. In addition, many physical exfoliants have jagged edges that can create micro-tears in the skin, so these are worth avoiding as well.

If you’re trying to clear acne and repair a damaged skin barrier simultaneously, pause using your stronger topicals. These include products that contain benzoyl peroxide, retinol/retinoids, and prescription acne-fighters. Anything too strong or concentrated is bound to sensitize your skin further, so prioritize balance and nourishment for the time being.

Topical products aren’t the only things that can aggravate your skin. Washing your face with hot water, harshly rubbing your face dry, and using a rough towel can all compromise your skin barrier. With that in mind, cleansing with lukewarm water and patting your face dry with soft washcloths can prove to be saving graces for your skin.

Be Gentle

Focus on products that are gentle enough to not sensitize your skin any further, including:

Lock in Moisture

One of the best ways to repair your skin barrier is to learn how to apply moisturizer properly as well as choose a rich moisturizer with occlusive ingredients. Remember that

your skin barrier needs healthy fats to “glue” skin cells together and keep its protective “wall” intact.

A dewy, natural moisturizer like Cosmic Cream™ works wonders to nourish the skin barrier since it’s full of Emollient Fatty Acids to seal in moisture and help support the skin’s natural barrier function.

Cosmic Cream™ also includes 3 potent adaptogens for an additional layer of protection:

  • Ashwagandha helps protect from blue light
  • Schisandra helps promote the skin’s natural collagen
  • Reishi helps nourish the barrier to tame irritation

In addition to boasting protective plant-powered ingredients, this decadent moisturizer is formulated without parabens, petroleum, pesticides, propylene or butylene glycols, phthalates, sulfates, PEGs, and silicones — all of which can stand in your way of achieving a healthy, harmonious complexion.

Shield Your Skin

It’s important to protect your skin from UV exposure and harsh weather year-round, but even more so when you need to repair a damaged moisture barrier. Applying SPF as the final step in your morning routine is an absolute must — even when it’s cloudy outside or you’re staying indoors, since UV rays can penetrate through clouds and windows. Until your skin barrier functions as it should, avoid prolonged direct sunlight, wind exposure, and excess heat as best you can.

Support Your Gut

These tips for skin barrier repair can only get you so far if you have gut imbalances. If you have a leaky gut — aka intestinal permeability — your skin often shows it via breakouts, eczema, and inflammation. Per a 2022 review in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, “​​Microbiome dysbiosis can cause damage to the skin barrier, which is associated with inflammatory skin diseases.” (This can also go both ways: imbalances in the skin can also cause adverse effects in the gut, which reflects the bidirectional nature of the gut-skin axis.)

You can simultaneously support your skin from the inside out and work on healing a leaky gut with the right dietary modifications. Reduce your intake of processed and inflammatory foods — common culprits include dairy, sugar, and gluten — and limit others that trigger your unique sensitivities. Prioritize fresh, whole foods and items proven to nourish the gut — such as fermented foods, tea, and bone broth — all of which help to repair the intestinal lining.

If you’ve ever heard of leaky gut, a broken barrier has similar implications. And interestingly, the two are actually related to one another. When you experience leaky skin, a root cause may also be a leaky gut. That’s because our skin and gut biomes are closely connected and communicate through the immune system. When the gut is leaky, the intestinal lining is more permeable than usual, triggering an immune response and inflammation that shows up on the skin. Not only can a situation in the gut show up on the skin, but imbalances in the skin can also get taken down into the gut.

The Takeaway

As tempting as it may be to put your faith in potent topicals and indulge in an intricate skin care routine, overdoing things can weaken your skin barrier and lead to damage. But sometimes certain environmental aggressors — like pollution, UV exposure, and harsh weather conditions — can also leave your skin less healthy than usual.

Whatever the case may be, recognizing the symptoms of skin barrier damage is the first step for repair. Above all, avoid the key culprits that are sensitizing your skin and dial back your morning and nighttime regimen to the bare minimum. A pH-balancing gentle cleanser, a hydrating serum, and an occlusive moisturizer from Moon Juice are all you’ll need for a gentle reset to restore the integrity of your skin barrier. A healthy, nutrient-dense diet can also promote gut integrity and reduce inflammation from within. Before you know it, your skin will feel protected and look replenished, proving the merits of a slow, steady, and simplified approach to skin care.