In this 5 part series on natural acne treatments, we have discussed what acne is, and how hormones and the skin microbiome affect your skin’s tendency to break out. In Part 4, we will explore the skin barrier, its function, and will go over common mistakes that you might be making to disrupt your skin barrier.
What is the skin barrier?
The skin barrier is the outermost part of the skin, and is composed of lipids (oils) and cells. This layer is permeable and regulates which organisms and substances can enter and/or leave your skin. It acts as both an antimicrobial system and as a water regulating barrier. Simply put the skin barrier is important because it keeps water in and bad microbes out. So how does it do it?
Keeping water in
One very important function of our skin barrier is keeping water and electrolytes in. To quote an article I found in the Yonsei Medical Journal:
Ok, that last bit is a little intense, but, seriously, this is important! The lipid composition helps retain water which is essential for healthy skin (and body) function. Remember how oil and water don’t mix? Well the lipid (oil) layer retains water in the skin by preventing it from evaporating. If the skin barrier is compromised, it won’t be able to retain water which is when one will experience dry skin.
What might cause the lipid layer of your skin to become compromised? One main reason is using skin care products that strip the skin of its natural oils. Using harsh cleansers, over exfoliating, and using drying treatments can disrupt the lipid layer of your skin barrier.
Your personal microorganism shield
A microorganism shield? Does this sound familiar to you, like maybe something called the microbiome? Surprise! The microbiome is part of the skin barrier. The skin barrier’s microorganism shield is an antimicrobial barrier that protects against invading microorganisms. The microbiome is the culture of healthy microbes that live on the skin and is part of the microorganism shield.
So what else makes up part of this “shield”? Well, the skin barrier produces different antimicrobial peptides and proteins, which have the ability to inhibit the growth of bacteria, viruses and fungi, and which also have a role in activating the body’s immune response. This means that these peptides and proteins also have a role in regulating inflammation, cell proliferation, and wound healing. If your skin barrier is impaired and the microorganism shield is affected, this could lead to unnecessary inflammation and redness, irregular cell proliferation and slow healing of wounds (like acne lesions!).
Another very important aspect of this “shield” is the acid mantle. More on this below!
Why the PH of your products matter
The acid mantle, which keeps our skin’s PH a little acidic (between PH 4.5 - 5.5), is integral at keeping things balanced and working. This slightly acidic mantle helps protect our bodies from invading microbes by creating an environment that bad microbes cannot survive in while promoting the growth of a healthy microflora. The acid mantle also is integral to the production of ceramide molecules and free fatty acids which are integral for healthy skin permeability barrier homeostasis (aka what is needed to keep water in).
So what happens if our acid mantle is unbalanced? Well for one, studies show that when our microbiome is impaired, it is likely that our acid mantle PH is unbalanced. This makes sense considering the acid mantle helps regulate which type of microbes flourish on the skin! Abnormal PH also affects the skin’s ability to shed skin cells, and a disrupted acid mantle can result in abnormal desquamation which will give you scaly/ashy looking skin.
A little bit of a tangent here, but interestingly our blood is more alkaline than our skin, so microbes that can survive on the skin and are able to enter our body often times cannot survive in our body because of the difference in PH! How cool is that?
So to sum things up simply. . . using products that disrupt the acid mantle affect your skin barrier’s ability to defend itself against microbes such as bad strains of P. Acnes, and also affects your skin’s ability to shed skin cells!
It’s all connected
Scientists now believe that a compromised skin barrier is at the root of most skin diseases, including acne. Studies have shown that if one aspect of the skin barrier is compromised, it affects all other defense mechanisms of the skin. So if you disrupt the lipid layer, the acid mantle, or the microbiome, all 3 will be affected.
Disrupting one aspect of the barrier function can also set off other unwanted chain reactions. For instance, when the lipid layer is compromised, the skin replenishes the skin barrier by producing extra oils (which can cause clogged pores) but also promotes the production of inflammatory cytokine which leads to inflammation. So if your lipid layer is disrupted, your skin could react with acne and redness.
When we talk about how to cure acne holistically, this is what we are referring to with the word "holistic". Holistic means considering the whole system and how each part affects the other, like how stripping your skin of oils can cause inflammation and disrupt your acid mantel. Holistic means addressing the skin and body in a way that considers the whole picture so as to bring balance back to the skin naturally.
How to take care of your skin barrier
So how to keep you skin barrier healthy and balanced? First let’s look at some common mistakes that can affect your skin barrier:
- Using harsh cleansers that disrupting the lipid layer by stripping your skin of its natural oils
- Using strong antibacterial products that disrupt the microbiome
- Using cleansers and other skin care products that are not PH balanced for the skin - this will disrupt the acid mantle
- Over cleansing - which can disrupt the lipid layer, the microbiome, and the acid mantle.
Another factor in skin barrier healthy is age. Unfortunately as we age our skin barrier weakens and becomes thinner. Using products that help strengthen the skin barrier by building up ceramide content and by increasing water retention will help.
So how to take care of your skin barrier? Check out part 5, the final part of this acne series, where we will give answers to this question, basic tools to help you tune in to your skin, and we will go over a step by step skin care ritual that is a holistic acne treatment for clear skin, naturally.