Why does my skin get tight, dry and sensitive?
If your skin is feeling dry, tight and irritated, there is one underlying cause to all of this. Your skin’s protective moisture barrier is damaged, and simply layering on a rich moisturiser isn’t going to fix it. Chances are, you are doing something day in and day out that is causing your skin to get damaged, and the moment you take out the culprit, your skin’s barrier can naturally repair itself.
In this blog, I’ll explain what exactly your skin barrier is, what might be causing it to get damaged, and some easy ways to fix it so you can get back to having moist, supple and healthy-looking skin with less tightness, dryness, and sensitivity.
What is a moisture barrier in the skin?
Your barrier is the outermost layer of the skin that provides protection to help retain water and moisture, and defend against external irritants like bacteria and environmental debris from penetrating through and causing sensitive reactions. (Think of it as your skin’s own bodyguard to keep the good in and the bad out.) The barrier is made up of lipids (oils) that bind your skin cells together, and when it’s intact, it’s responsible for keeping it feeling soft, and acting calm and healthy. An example of a perfectly intact moisture barrier can be found on a baby. Plump, smooth, radiant and soft to the touch.
What happens when a moisture barrier gets damaged?
When the skin’s protective barrier gets damaged, it creates small, invisible cracks in the skin. Through these cracks, moisture can easily escape and irritants can enter more easily. Essentially, your skin lost its protective bodyguard and can get tight, dry and sensitive.
How do I know if my skin barrier is damaged?
Symptoms of an impaired moisture barrier include:
- Dryness (from lack of oil)
- Dehydration (from lack of water)
- Tightness (dehydration from lack of water)
- Skin feels sensitive and gets easily irritated
- Rough skin to the touch
- Stinging or burning sensation when products are applied
- Crepy skin and fine lines
- Skin rashes like eczema (atopic dermatitis)
- Increased breakouts
If you have any or all of these symptoms, no matter what your age, this might be a sign that your moisture barrier has been compromised and is in desperate need of fixing.
Note: Sometimes a damaged moisture barrier can just appear on the nose and cause only this area to get dry and flaky.
What causes a moisture barrier to get damaged?
- Exfoliating too often (this is the #1 culprit of a damaged barrier that I see all too often)
- Overly-drying, harsh cleansing products (bar soaps and high-foaming gel cleansers) and using hot water
- Topical prescription acne medications
- Alcohol-based toners
- Not keeping the skin protected from the sun
- Daily use of acidic ingredients like ascorbic acid and L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
- High concentrations of citrus essential oils
- High concentrations of any essential oils
- Synthetic fragrances used in skincare products
If I know my barrier has been damaged, have I done permanent damage? Can I repair it?
If you’re someone who has just been over-doing it with too many exfoliating products for a short period of time, you haven’t done permanent damage and it can easily be fixed. However, for those with years and years of using harsh products and exfoliating too often along with excessive smoking, alcohol consumption and unprotected sun exposure, yes, some damage has occurred. The good news is that it’s never too late to get the skin back into a healthy place, and if you’re making positive changes, you will most definitely see a big improvement. Read on!
How can I fix a damaged moisture barrier?
If you know your skin is acting unusually sensitive or just not feeling healthy, a good mindset to have when fixing a moisture barrier to lessen tight, dry and sensitive skin, is to treat your skin like you would a baby’s skin. This means keeping everything really simple and gentle until it gets repaired. Here are some ways to do that.
Cut back on your exfoliation
With the increase in popularity of products intended to remove surface dead skin cell build-up, many people are using exfoliating products on a daily basis. It’s important to know that this is one of the BIGGEST contributors to damaging your skin and barrier. When you exfoliate too often, you’re stripping off your skin’s protective barrier which guarantees that moisture will escape. This will set off an inflammation cascade which not only leads to the skin feeling tight and dry, but will also contribute to your skin ageing faster. Not good!
Common exfoliants include:
- Sonic cleansing brushes
- Acid-based serums, creams, peels, pads and liquid toners containing ingredients such as glycolic, lactic, salicylic, malic, mandelic and polyhydroxy acids
- Enzyme-based masks and peels
- Facial scrubs
- Washcloths (I always suggest using a baby washcloth instead of a regular one as it’s gentler)
When you are trying to fix your barrier to get it back to a healthy place, I recommend stopping all of your exfoliating products for two weeks and then slowly work back into them once the skin feels repaired. When you do introduce them back into your routine, they should not be used daily, but instead, four to five times a week depending on your skin type.
If you are using a prescription retinoid, this will always be breaking down your skin’s barrier due to the nature of how the product works. While I don’t suggest that anyone go off of it, mainly because it’s so amazing in getting the skin to look and act younger, perhaps avoid using it for 2 weeks then reintroducing back into your regime slowly.
Avoid washing your skin with hot water.
When the water temperature is turned up too high, it will instantly dilate the capillaries and raise the skin’s internal temperature. When this heat has been created, it can impair your skin’s barrier. It’s best to use lukewarm water—especially in the winter when the barrier is most fragile.
Sunscreen is known as the ultimate product for defending your skin from the worst environmental damager—the sun. UV rays given off by the sun will certainly contribute to damaging your barrier. We recommend using La roche posay factor 50
Use a gentle cleanser to wash your face.
Not a day goes by that I’m not explaining how important it is to wash with a gentle cleanser—especially if your skin is feeling tight, dry and irritated. When fixing a damaged moisture barrier, you’ll want to change from a foaming cleanser (even if it’s gentle and sulfate-free) to a cleansing lotion as it’s milder. Recommended cleanser: Shine Organics Native Milk Cleanser
Avoid skincare products that are highly fragranced and use synthetic fragrances.
With all the awareness about synthetic perfumes causing unnecessary irritation, it still amazes me that companies continue to use them.
AVOID these scented ingredients, especially when fixing your barrier:
- Peppermint essential oil
- Spearmint essential oil
- Eucalyptus essential oil
Note: Speaking of essential oils, high amounts of any type of natural essential oil can be irritating to the skin. We do have essential oils in many in our skincare products but in low percentages.
The general rule of thumb is to smell the product and if the scent is very strong, this might (but not always) be a sign that it could be irritating to your skin—especially when the product is being left on the skin versus rinsed off. (A leave-on product would be a moisturiser, toner, and serum and a rinse-off product would be a mask or cleanser.)
Choose your moisturiser carefully.
Moisturisers will most certainly be beneficial for repairing your skin’s moisture barrier when it’s damaged, but it’s important that you look for specific ingredients that mimic the natural lipids found in your skin. Just because a moisturiser feels rich and greasy on the skin doesn’t necessarily mean that it will offer repair.
Look for these ingredients in your moisturiser to repair a damaged moisture barrier:
- Borage Oil
- Bois De Rose Oil
- Carrot Oil
- Evening Primrose Oil
- Cranberry Oil
- Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride
- Linoleic/Linolenic Acids (this is not an exfoliating acid)
- Tocopheryl Linoleate (vitamin E)
- Tocopheryl Linoleate/Oleate (vitamin E)
- Tocopherol (vitamin E)
- Tocopheryl Acetate (vitamin E)
- Shea Butter
- Jojoba Oil
- Sweet Almond Oil
Note: You might be looking at some of the above ingredients and be thinking that a heavy, greasy moisturiser is what is needed. This is NOT the case at all. A moisturiser can use these ingredients in a lightweight formula without clogging the pores. It all simply depends on the percentages used and the oil to water ratio within the formula. We recommend our Native Moisturiser or our Peptide Cream Moisturiser.
Deeply infuse hydration (water) in your skin with this trick.
All types of skin need both water and oil but particularly when you are trying to fix your skin’s protective barrier, deeply permeating the cell membrane is most beneficial.
One of my favourite ways to do this is to use a floral spray like our Organic Rosewater.
How to use:
- Spray your floral water liberally across your face until your skin is quite damp.
- Next, you’ll want to apply a humectant serum like our Hyaluronic Acid followed by a moisturiser for your skin type. These will now provide excellent protection to keep all of the water sealed deep into the skin.
- Perform this technique morning and night for 1-2 weeks. (You can certainly make this a regular habit to keep your skin beautifully hydrated year round.)
Start using a skin oil, but make sure to use it the right way.
Whenever my clients are in need of some serious repair to their skin’s moisture barrier, I always recommend using a well-formulated skin oil like our Anti-ageing Elixir. Thi is applied over moisturiser as the last step in your routine at night. This will provide a much-needed protective seal so everything underneath is less likely to evaporate out of the skin’s surface—especially in winter or if you work in air-conditioned environment.
Listen to your skin.
This one is really easy (and SO important!) if you just take the time to do it. When you are trying to fix your skin’s barrier, you want to avoid anything that makes your skin sting or leaves it feeling tight, dry or irritated.
Many people have fallen into the mindset of “it’s stinging so it must be working.” Sound familiar? While some products can make the skin tingle (exfoliating acids in particular), it’s important that you examine whether or not this sensation is normal. When your moisture barrier is compromised, it will make things that normally wouldn’t sting cause an irritating sensation. The idea here is that you really want to pay attention to some products you might be using that are causing unnecessary irritation.