A healthy barrier = quicker healing,
less environmental damage and skin that holds onto moisture longer.
Put simply, the healthier your barrier, the healthier your skin
As many of you are aware, I believe that correct barrier function is the foundation of healthy skin.
This article is the culmination of years of research on components missing in some people’s skin, and the skin-identical ingredients that can replace them. I want to make sense of misinformation out there; not only for my readers, but for many of my clients who I see on a daily basis with compromised skin, be it from poorly performed treatments, incorrect product usage, environmental or systemic damage, or premature ageing.
You need only read the list below to realise that skin with a damaged barrier can lead to a lot of troubles:
- Sallowness or dullness
- Pimples, papules, and pustules
If your barrier is out of whack, it’s bad news all around. An impaired barrier leads to dryness, irritation, and inflammation; the skin will often turn red with just light contact and may sting when any product is applied. To understand this further, we first need to look at barrier function.
What’s our skin’s barrier made up of?
This paper is an interesting read that shows the proportions of lipids in topical applications, and whilst there are many kinds of lipids, CERAMIDES, CHOLESTEROL, and FATTY ACIDS are the dominant forms.
However, with age, your body’s production of these lipids declines, leading to a disruption of your skin’s natural functions – really bad news for your skin’s natural self-repair. The ideal proportion for ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids in a formula is 3:1:1 – or, put another way, three parts of one ingredient to each one part of each of the other three.
Mistreating skin can compromise the barrier function
Generally, our skin goes through a complete renewal process within a period of about 4 to 6 weeks. We also experience a depletion of “ingredients” due to natural cellular turnover, age, or abrasive treatments used on the skin. In addition to this, the skin loses basic substances through the solvent effect of liquids.
- Water: This can wash out protective substances, especially at a higher temperature. For example, a bath can induce a swelling effect, as the hot water affects the vasodilation of vessels in the skin and the stratum corneum becomes waterlogged.
- Surface-active substances: Soaps and cleansing agents can be a major problem for the skin, as surfactants wash away the natural fatty substances and skin acids and form holes in the structure of the barrier layers.
- Emulsifiers: These can have a “wash-out” effect on the skin. Emulsifiers are used in formulae to stabilise a mixture of oils and water in the form of an emulsion that transports fatty acids into the skin. Emulsifiers stay in the skin and will not degrade. Upon contact with water or partial cleansing, the skin reactivates the emulsifiers which again transport natural barrier substances, this time out of the skin. This process is very harmful for sensitive skin types and has even worse effects on skin with symptoms of dermatitis. Products such as Bio Lipid Complex, which is free of mineral oils and emulsifiers, and is able to repair any gaps in the barrier layers with similar bi-layer structures, are greatly helpful.
What should be in a barrier repair cream?
The Naked Chemist uses skin science combined with skin-identical ingredients that may be missing in your skin to maintain the skin barrier in its natural and intact condition. Our products use a combination of ingredients that resemble the membrane structure of the natural skin barrier. Similar to your own skin’s barrier layers, the Naked Chemist barrier-active formulas contains the following:
- Phosphatidylcholine from Soybean Lecithin
- Triglycerides from Coconut Oil
- Squalene from Olives
- Sterols from Shea Nut
- Humectant Urea and Hyaluronic Acid
As discussed above, a major prerequisite is that these ingredients are added in the perfect ratios. Under these circumstances, they are able to exactly copy the physical properties of your skin’s own barrier structure.
Both Fortify Barrier Repair and Bio Lipid Complex mimic the natural lipids that form the bi-layer of your skin cells with a formula containing one part ceramide, to one part cholesterol, to one part palmitic acid, to three parts linoleic acid. The results and feedback from my clients have been fantastic – simply layer Bio Lipid Complex under Fortify and watch your barrier function go through the roof. This seriously is next-level skin care at its best.
Recap on skin science
Your outermost layer of your epidermis – the stratum corneum – has a brick-and-mortar like structure; think of the bricks as skin cells (referred to as “corneocytes”) and the mortar as a fatty matrix that seals your skin, keeping the bad guys out and the good guys in. It is this fatty matrix that is crucial to barrier repair, consisting of ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids.
If the skin barrier is disordered, the skin has an undesirable look and feel, and is more susceptible to penetration of foreign substances due to its irritated state. Therefore, it is important to maintain the natural skin barrier preventatively, using formulae that avoid the breakdown of protective components. Additionally, when the skin’s protective layer is intact, your skin’s ability to hold its natural hydration will be balanced and barrier disorders are avoided.
The superstar ingredients
In the case with my formulae, there are four SUPERSTAR components that will help your skin’s repair mechanism to do its job:
Phosphatidylcholine otherwise referred to as soy lecithin.
These are essential for the healthy organisation of our tissues into structures; they are responsible for keeping the barrier repair mechanism of our skin functioning well, preventing trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL) and keeping bad things out. Ceramides are found in our skin at a concentration of about 50%. A decrease due to exposure to different temperatures, or the natural decline in their production as we age, decrease the efficacy of the stratum corneum’s ability to keep water in and other things out.
This plays an important role in your skin – it is one of the most common lipids in our body, giving our cells structure and fluidity, and is an integral component of the “mortar” that sits between our cells. Young and healthy skin has a thick “mortar”, with no cracks. As we age, cholesterol levels in our skin decrease, by as much as 40% by the time we reach the age of 40. The result is a thinner mortar and a dilapidated brick wall, which leads to premature ageing.
I just love fatty acids, as there are so many different benefits they bring to the skin. How do they work for barrier function? Our skin’s lipid matrix is composed of about 50% ceramides, 25% cholesterol, and 15% free fatty acids, so they are absolutely crucial to the proper function of your stratum corneum. Let’s take a look at each one in detail, and how they help in a formula to create that all-important barrier cream.
Linoleic Acid: Studies have shown this is super important when it comes to normal barrier function, and people with atopic dermatitis and acne show reduced levels of linoleic acid in their skin. Without it, you can expect to experience serious essential fatty acid deficiency, which leads to increased water loss, dryness, inflammation, and breakouts.
Linoleic Acid is one of the fatty acids that are crucial to cellular function but cannot be biologically synthesised by our bodies. We have to get it from outside sources, which is why it is called an “essential” fatty acid.
I find what many manufacturers don’t realise is that Linoleic Acid is a polyunsaturated fatty acid, so most of the oils in their formulations have short shelf lives and go rancid – this includes sunflower oil, and sadly, rosehip seed oil.
Oils I recommend for speeding up the skin’s barrier mechanisms
Soy Bean Oil: It has a tonne of linoleic acid, and because it is abundant with Vitamin E, all of those lovely antioxidants significantly extend the shelf life of the oil.
Sesame Oil: This contains about 40% linoleic acid with almost equal amounts of oleic acid at 45.5%, which also helps with shelf life. It is incredibly high in phytosterols and resembles some of the fatty acids found in human sebum. It offers great moisture regulation and significantly reduces inflammation in the skin.
Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA)
Another essential fatty acid, our body uses GLA to manufacture prostaglandins, the hormone-like substances that balance and regulate cellular activity. It can increase ceramide synthesis and also reduces inflammation.
Evening Primrose Oil: I’m a huge fan – with its high amounts of linoleic acid, coupled with gamma-linoleic acid, it helps our skin’s repair mechanism do its job correctly.
Marula Oil: This oil deserves its own little mention as it is rich in oleic acid (at around 70%) and works to support the natural build-up of the skin’s lipid layer. Marula oil possesses anti-inflammatory properties, reduces trans-epidermal water loss, and contains high levels of important antioxidants such as Vitamin C and E. These offer advanced protection against photo-ageing by neutralising free radicals whilst building healthy collagen.
This is found in our skin’s fatty acid profile and is a building block of the skin, helping to protect against burns, wounds, and scratches. It is also the most active anti-microbial substance in our sebum.
Sea Buckthorn Oil: This oil is rich in palmitic acid at around 7.2%. It is a great source of essential fatty acids, phytosterols, and vitamins A, C, B, and E, making it an amazing antioxidant.
This won’t help with barrier function because it isn’t part of our skin’s normal ingredients, so applying it topically doesn’t change the make-up of our skin’s barrier lipids. However, because many oils mimic our natural sebum, they are absorbed really well by our skin, and have wonderful moisturising, anti-inflammatory, and regenerating effects.
The following are a list of oils containing oleic acid:
- Camellia Seed oil 80%
- Avocado oil 80%
- Almond oil 61%
- Macadamia nut oil 50%
- Shea butter 50%
- Sesame oil 45%
- Mango butter 46%
- Sea buckthorn oil 20%
What’s not in the Naked Chemist
Equally as important when it comes to barrier repair ingredients are those that will disrupt the barrier:
- Perfumes and some essential oils: These can cause serious irritation of the skin.
- Mineral oils: These can affect the natural production of the skin’s own protective substances.
- Amines: These can stress the skin.
- Silicones: Again, they affect the skin’s ability to make its own protective substances.
- Alcohols and actives: They will strip the barrier and alter the pH, causing inflammation and sensitivity.
Being free of these ingredients allows the products to have a proactive and positive effect on the skin, preventing a breakdown of the skin’s natural defence system by protecting the acid mantle, regenerating skin cells, and improving hydration.
The Naked Truth
The real point here is that traditionally, the focus of skin care products has been about adding new ingredients to the skin and still is.
But I feel that instead, we should turn our attention to replenishing what should naturally be there, with ingredients that match the composition of our skin. Read more about skin-identical ingredients here.
Compared to ingredients that are too active or harsh and have no place on the skin, as they only lead to irritation and a compromised barrier, I have seen some really wonderful results in my clients with my formulae – especially in terms of skin penetration, repair, and regeneration. So, why not treat your skin using “like with like”, and give your skin a dose of what it really needs?