Ask an Expert: The Secret to Great Skin? It’s a Healthy Barrier.
“Our skin is like our body’s poster,” says Dr. Vivian Shi, “and if we don't feel comfortable in our own skin, it's hard to become successful and feel competent in other areas of life.” Dr. Shi is a board-certified dermatologist and an Assistant Professor of Medicine in Dermatology at the University of Arizona, and she’s talking through several skin topics with us. We’ll take it from the top, starting with the skin barrier.
BB: Could you talk a little bit about what the skin barrier is?
Dr. Vivian Shi: The skin is the armor of the body, and the skin barrier is the armor that protects our skin. A healthy skin barrier works to prevent good things from escaping from our skin, and prevent bad things from coming in.
I like to describe the skin barrier as kind of like a brick wall—you have bricks that are supposed to sit on top of each other very tightly, and then you have the mortar that holds the bricks together.
When you have a defective skin barrier, the bricks start to crumble and the mortar won’t hold them together anymore. Water evaporates out to cause dry, flaky skin. At the same time, microbes and chemicals that cause skin allergies and irritation can enter. It’s a double whammy. You not only get skin dryness, irritation and inflammation, but infection can drive more irritation and inflammation, creating a vicious cycle.
Is possible to repair the skin barrier?
The most recent advance in skin barrier repair has been introducing beneficial ingredients into the skin, rather than just trying to block things out. They can be called “bioactive ingredients.” Some bioactive ingredients have antioxidant and/or anti-inflammatory properties, while others can restore the microbiome.
For example, long-chain fatty acids like ceramide are missing in people with barrier defects. I recommend people seek out ingredients, like coconut oil and sunflower seed oil, which have been shown to actively push these beneficial ingredients to mix back into the skin. Coconut oil has also been shown to combat common skin infections, while sunflower seed oil can lessen skin inflammation.
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