What to Know About Your Skin Barrier and How to Protect It

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on July 23, 2023
4 min read

Your skin is your body’s largest organ and it’s mainly made up of three layers:

  • The epidermis, or outer thin layer
  • The dermis, or thick middle layer
  • The subcutaneous fatty layer

The epidermis, especially its upper layer -- called the stratum corneum -- acts as a skin barrier and is your body’s first line of defense.

If you looked at the stratum corneum under a microscope, it’s sort of takes after brick and mortar. It’s made up of cells called corneocytes that act as bricks. These bricks are tightly bound, or glued together, by mortar-like fats such as ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids. This layer also contains a protein called filaggrin, which helps make natural moisturizing factors (NMF) for the skin.

Your skin barrier has several functions. It protects you from:

It regulates water loss from the inside out, retains moisture, and keeps you hydrated. The skin barrier also blocks entry to most topical drugs, or those you put on your skin.

If your skin barrier is damaged, it could lead to skin problems like dry, itchy, or flaky skin. Or it could play a role in conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Many things can impact the quality of your skin barrier. These include:

  • A dry or humid environment
  • Hot or cold weather
  • Allergens, irritants, and pollutants
  • Smoking
  • Too much sun exposure
  • Hot baths or showers
  • Harsh soaps or detergents
  • Poor skin care
  • Cuts or injuries
  • Eating lots of unhealthy foods
  • Over washing or exfoliating
  • Certain medications, like steroids
  • Mental or physical stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Family history of skin conditions
  • Aging
  • Being of certain ethnicities

Skin barrier damage may change how the outer layer of skin looks. Symptoms can include:

The first step is to take care of your skin. Good skin care not only keeps your skin soft, strong, and healthy, but helps you avoid skin problems as you age. Follow these tips:

Avoid too much sun. Harsh UV rays can disrupt your skin barrier and speed up skin aging. It can also cause dark skin spots, wrinkles, and raise your risk for skin cancer.

To protect yourself from the sun, you should:

  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. Use ones that are at least SPF 15.
  • Avoid the sun during peak times -- 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- when the sun’s rays are the harshest.
  • Protect your skin with clothes especially during hot and humid months. Use long sleeves, pants, and wide-brimmed hats to block UV rays from your skin.

Moisturize daily. Moisturizers hold water in your skin barrier. Most are water-based and contain ingredients such as glycerin and lactic acid that pull water into the skin, helping to keep it smooth and elastic. For best absorption, put your moisturizer on while skin is still damp. Ask your dermatologist if you’re not sure what types of creams or lotions you should use.

Be gentle. Tugging and pulling at your skin can disrupt the skin barrier. You should:

  • Avoid long, hot baths or showers.
  • Pat your skin dry with a towel.
  • Use gentle soaps or cleansers.
  • Shave carefully (cuts or scratches can lead to infection or irritation).
  • Don’t scratch aggressively.

Eat healthy. Research shows that a good, healthy diet with whole foods and healthy fats can keep your skin looking best. Diets rich in fish oil, antioxidants, or fish oil supplements can help with skin elasticity and keep it looking younger. Drink plenty of water to keep your skin hydrated.

Good-for-your-skin foods include:

Don’t smoke. Smoking can age your skin and cause wrinkles. It narrows the blood vessels on the skin, restricting blood flow. This cuts down oxygen supply and dries skin. Smoking also affects the collagen and elastin levels in your skin. These protein cells provide elasticity to the skin. And smoking increases your risk for skin cancer. If you’re not sure how to quit smoking, ask your doctor.

Manage stress. It can throw your hormones out of whack and trigger skin problems like acne flare-ups.