How to Repair and Manage an Upset Skin Barrier

Photo Illustration: Allie Pakrosnis
Photo Illustration: Allie Pakrosnis
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Carving out a skin-care routine that prioritizes skin discoloration can be tricky — and it's a challenge many Black and Brown women are all too familiar with. With so many products out there to test, it's not uncommon for you to come across a highly-recommended product touted to fade discoloration, only to find out it uses ingredients that overstimulate the skin, subsequently leaving behind more marks. When this happens, it usually means one thing: your skin barrier has been disrupted.

With all of this in mind, we decided it was time to return to the basics with some education about our skin barrier, and how it works even as you work to smooth discoloration. So we asked board-certified dermatologist Dr. Caroline Robinson, MD, FAAD, to explain why a healthy skin barrier is essential to getting the most out of our routines and our best skin yet.

Get to Know the Science of Your Skin

Our skin is made up of three main layers: the epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous layer. While each layer is essential, Robinson tells us, the epidermis — the topmost layer — which contains the stratum corneum (the barrier that prevents unwanted materials from entering and excessive loss of water from exiting the body), is possibly the most important layer of the skin.

"The function of the stratum corneum is sometimes described as similar to brick and mortar," she says. "It contains special 'flattened' interconnected skin cells (the 'bricks') and a rich network of lipids (the 'mortar'). This layer is constantly balancing moisture and hydration, keeping bad things out, providing defense against external aggressors, protection against heat, moisture loss, and receiving and sending signals, and constantly evolving as we age."

Pay Attention to How Your Barrier Reacts

Have you ever used a product and ended up with angry skin? That is likely a physical indicator that your skin barrier has been compromised. This is why Robinson emphasizes the importance of understanding how our skin's moisture barrier impacts our skin's functions. "A compromised skin barrier can contribute to skin dryness, irritation, and poor skin quality," she says.

Additionally, getting to know what causes your skin irritation, which impacts the health of your skin barrier, is especially important for those who tend to develop dark spots, areas of discoloration, or uneven skin. "Many widely available treatments for dark spots can be harsh and cause skin dryness or irritation, which ultimately makes things worse. Supporting the skin's moisture barrier with the right skin care can make all the difference in achieving hydrated, more even, and radiant skin," she says.

Incorporate Wet Moisturizing

Whether we know it or not, moisture is the cornerstone of a skin-care routine that yields positive results. This is why Dr. Robinson often recommends that her patients practice wet moisturizing, which can help prevent unnecessary transepidermal water loss (TEWL). So, how do we wet moisturize? "Wet moisturizing involves leaving the skin wet (or damp) after cleansing and applying a hydrating moisturizer to the skin to 'lock in' that dewy goodness," Robinson explains.

Wet moisturizing can work well with ingredients like hyaluronic acid because it is best applied to damp skin. The Clinique Moisture Surge™ 100H Auto-Replenishing Hydrator ($46) is formulated with two different molecular weights of hyaluronic acid alongside soothing aloe bioferment, an ingredient derived from the aloe vera plant concentrated over 500 times that goes through a diligent 10-step fermentation process over five days. The oil- and fragrance-free, non-comedogenic (i.e., it won't clog pores) moisturizer delivers instant hydration that soothes skin in three seconds and provides 100 hours of stabilizing hydration. A win for dry and combo skin.

Invest in Moisturizing and Brightening Products

Brightening skin discoloration isn't an overnight journey. However, there are steps you can take that don't involve the application of harsh ingredients. Instead, you can opt for a formula that brightens and hydrates at the same time. Vitamin C is one of those ingredients infused into the Moisture Surge™ 100H Auto-Replenishing Hydrator, which helps brighten sans irritation.

"Vitamin C is known for its role as an antioxidant, helping in skin repair by neutralizing free radicals," Robinson says. If you're unsure of what free radicals are, they unfortunately break down our skin's collagen, which can support the formation of wrinkles, dark spots, fine lines, and even saggy skin. Meanwhile, Robinson says vitamin C counteracts those environmental aggressors. "Vitamin C also helps improve the appearance of the skin by boosting collagen production, which helps to improve the appearance of wrinkles, skin laxity (think: tightening), and radiance."

For anyone looking to smooth skin discoloration, vitamin C can also even skin tone by influencing tyrosinase, the enzyme responsible for excess pigment production. "These three functions make [vitamin C] a must have in a healthy skin-care routine and a game changer for your skin routine," she says.

Learning to care for your skin and its unique concerns can take some time. However, one thing we've learned from our expert is that hydration is the foundation of a routine that prioritizes skin barrier health.