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We all know from seventh grade biology that skin is the largest organ in (er, on) our body…and that it’s our best defense against the outside world. But who knew that the products we use to keep our complexion in tip-top shape could actually be wreaking havoc on something called the skin barrier?

What is it, exactly? The skin barrier, or skin barrier function, is essentially the outermost layer of skin cells (the stratum corneum, if you’re fancy) plus the lipid matrix (composed of ceramides, cholesterols and fatty acids) that holds those cells together. You can think of the skin barrier like a brick wall: The cells are the bricks, and the lipid matrix is the mortar. Altogether, it functions as a crucial protective barrier from environmental irritants and harmful microbes—but it’s also highly permeable and delicate.

And what does it do? Basically, the skin barrier is responsible for maintaining skin hydration, softness and firmness. It also keeps potentially damaging chemicals and irritants out. 

So, how important is it really? Super important, actually. According to dermatologist Dr. Peter M. Elias (who coined the phrase), of all the skin’s protective functions, “most critical is the permeability barrier,” because it slows the process of “transcutaneous evaporative water loss.” Read: It keeps us from shriveling up like raisins. 

How do I know if mine is damaged? If you’ve ever noticed your skin has gotten inflamed, flaky, sensitive or dry seemingly out of the blue, you might have a compromised skin barrier. You might even develop acne or a rash. And the potential culprits? Skin care products with too-harsh ingredients, over-exfoliating and extreme environments (like cold or wind), to name a few.

Ugh. How can I fix it? For starters, talk to your derm—especially if you’re dealing with a rash. They can help you pinpoint the underlying problem (and how to treat it). And to maintain a healthy skin barrier, you should definitely scale back on damaging products like acids, scrubs or oil-stripping cleansers. Instead, reach for creamy moisturizers, face oils and soothing ingredients (like tiger grass) that will strengthen and heal your complexion.

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