How to repair a damaged skin barrier?

In the post "How do I know if my skin barrier is damaged" we looked at how the skin barrier looks, how it works and what it means to have a barrier damaged. We also mentioned that the skin itself can repair moderate damage on its own. This time we will look at what repair mechanisms our skin uses, how to repair a damaged skin barrier, what ingredients are most effective and how to use them for optimal effect.

In the post “How do I know if my skin barrier is damaged” we looked at how the skin barrier looks, how it works and what it means to have a barrier damaged. We also mentioned that the skin itself can repair moderate damage on its own. This time we will look at what repair mechanisms our skin uses, how to repair a damaged skin barrier, what ingredients are most effective and how to use them for optimal effect.

What repair mechanisms does our skin use?

As transepidermal water loss increases, several self-repair mechanisms get triggered within the stratum corneum. The repair mechanisms used by our skin:

  • Immediate release of lipid precursors (lipid preform) into the stratum corneum, which are immediately converted to physiological lipids (such as ceramides), providing approximately 20% restoration of total barrier function.
  • Increasing the synthesis of lipid precursors and converting them into suitable lipids. Lipids are mortar that fill the empty spaces through which water is lost.
  • Increased degradation of filaggrin protein into natural humidifying factor (NMF) components. NMF components, mainly amino acids, maintain a normal level of skin moisture and reduce transepidermal water loss.
  • Increased water loss triggers an inflammatory process in the skin. The inflammatory process promotes increased keratinocyte production. Keratinocyte production increases the thickness of the epidermis and consequently reduces water loss.

So how do you heal a damaged skin barrier?

When restoring the skin barrier, one has to look at one’s own repair mechanisms of the skin, as in this way we get information on what the skin actually needs to recover.

Proper cleansing is the first step in restoring the barrier function

First, it is necessary to properly cleanse the skin with cleansing agents that are adapted for sensitive skin. Cleansing agents should not contain aggressive surfactants such as sodium lauryl and laureth sulfate. Cleansing agents should have their pH adjusted to the skin’s natural pH (between 4.5-6). The skin should not be cleaned too often, as this can further damage the barrier. If you do not use heavy sun creams, double cleansing is not necessary as it can irritate the skin even more.

Increasing skin’s moisture

It is also recommended to use a tonic as it restores the skin’s pH after washing the face with water, while contributing to additional skin moisturizing.

Care must be taken to compensate for the moisture lost through excessive transepidermal water loss. We can look closely at the skin, which itself degrades certain proteins for the production of natural moisturizing factors (NMF). So can we apply serums containing NMF components. However, to know which product to choose, we first need to look at the composition of the NMF.

NMF consists primarily of amino acids, which make up as much as 40% of the total NMF. This is followed by lactate, pyrrolidone acid, sugars, peptides, urea and so on. Glycerol and hyaluronic acid account for the smallest proportion, ie about 0.5%. Therefore, the claim that moisturizing with hyaluronic acid is most effective is not completely true. The best way to increase moisture is to use serums that contain amino acids.

Soothing inflammation

Barrier damage is usually also accompanied by an inflammatory process. Inflammation in the skin can also lead to the breakdown of collagen and elastin. During a damaged barrier, it is necessary to soothe inflammation in the skin with anti-inflammatory agents. You mustn’t use any cosmetically active ingredients at the time when the barrier is damaged as these can further stimulate inflammation.

The only active substance you can use is niacinamide or vitamin B3. Niacinamide has been shown to increase the synthesis of ceramide precursors and free fatty acids in vitro. Topical administration of niacinamide in subjects with xerotic skin (excessively dry skin) has shown an increase in ceramides, which is directly related to a decrease in transepidermal water loss. It also has anti-inflammatory properties.

Use of emollients / occlusives

Even though you are adding moisture in the form of moisturizing serums, the loss of water is still high. You have to take care and lock the moisture into the skin by using emollients or occlusions. Often mineral oils or petroleum jelly are recommended for sensitive skin, as they are completely non-allergenic and effectively prevent water loss by locking it in the skin. However, except for non-allergenicity, they do not show drastic effects and also do not help to restore the barrier.

Just as the skin tends to produce more ceramides in the event of injury, people with a damaged barrier should also seek to use ceramides. Ceramides are substances that are a natural lipid component of the skin barrier and represent up to 40% of all lipids in the skin. Namely, they represent a mortar that maintains a healthy barrier function and therefore the replacement of ceramide components is essential for barrier restoration.

Plant oils for skin barrier restoration?

A study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in 2017 looked at various plant oils and their anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial activity and effect on skin barrier restoration.

Plant oil can act as an occlusive by forming a protective layer on the skin. The formation of a protective layer allows the skin to retain moisture, reducing transepidermal water loss. The study found that sunflower, coconut, argan, soy, borage, jojoba, and oat oil could help to restore barrier skin function.

Sunflower oil: Linolenic acid in sunflower oil triggers a biological response at the alpha receptor, which increases lipid synthesis. This, in turn, increases the restoration of the barrier function.

Argan oil: It has also been shown that the daily topical use of argan oil improves skin elasticity and hydration by restoring barrier function and maintaining the ability to retain water.

Soybean oil: Topical use of soybean oil extracts has been shown to reduce transepidermal water loss. This property is related to the presence of phytosterols, which have shown a positive effect on the skin barrier restoration.

Borage oil: Linoleic acid in borage oil contributes to its therapeutic effect in patients with atopic dermatitis. Topically applied borage oil has been shown to normalize the function of skin barrier function in infants and children with seborrheic dermatitis or atopic dermatitis.

Protection against UV radiation

When the barrier function of the skin is weakened, the skin’s ability to protect us from the harmful effects of UV light is also impaired. Although our skin has its antioxidant mechanisms, it does not mean it works properly when the barrier is damaged. It is important to protect ourselves with sunscreen daily and to use products containing added antioxidants. The antioxidants protect the skin from the harmful effects of reactive oxygen radicals and counteract their negative effects (eg inflammation). The negative effects of radicals are present in the skin for at least 8 hours after the last exposure to UV radiation, so it is desirable that night creams also have added antioxidants.


  • Rosso, J. D., Zeichner, J., Alexis, A., Cohen, D., & Berson, D. (2016). Understanding the Epidermal Barrier in Healthy and Compromised Skin: Clinically Relevant Information for the Dermatology Practitioner: Proceedings of an Expert Panel Roundtable Meeting. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology, 9(4 Suppl 1), S2–S8.
  • Lin, T. K., Zhong, L., & Santiago, J. L. (2017). Anti-Inflammatory and Skin Barrier Repair Effects of Topical Application of Some Plant Oils. International journal of molecular sciences, 19(1), 70.
  • Elias P. M. (2008). Skin barrier function. Current allergy and asthma reports, 8(4), 299–305.
  • Denda, M. (2002). New strategies to improve skin barrier homeostasis. Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, 54, S123–S130.


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