How does one damage their skin barrier?
New York osteopathic dermatologist Camille H-Verovic says that when you start introducing elements of irritation, your barrier becomes compromised. A common irritant we’re all experiencing? The new routine of wearing face masks. Moisture from breathing (a veritable utopia for bacteria to thrive) and the fabric rubbing at your skin causes chafing, and that can remove your ever-precious barrier. Outside of genetic reasons and persistent mask wearing, another common cause of damaged barriers is, as H-Verovic puts it, “self-inflicted.” H-Verovic explains that excess cleansing is one cause, but anything that’s “keratinolytic” can damage a barrier when used incorrectly. Keratinolytic ingredients are those that break down dead skin cells. Ingredients that increase skin shedding or turnover include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid, beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid, and retinoids. With the pandemic, resurfacing products have started to trend. In February, The Ordinary’s “red peel” went viral on TikTok. A few months into the pandemic, Google Trends listed The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution as a “breakout” search term. This solution contains one of the highest amounts of exfoliating acids in an over-the-counter product that’s possible with 30% AHA and 2% BHA; any product used correctly is safe for most people, but with exfoliation, less is always going to be more.
How often should you exfoliate?
Hirsch says that exfoliation isn’t something most people should be practicing regularly, especially if you’re wearing a mask all day. Hirsch notes that “for most, once a week to once every two weeks” is enough exfoliation. If you’re very oily you “can look at every other day or so.” For dry skin, you’re looking at even less: Hirsch recommends once or twice a month. A caveat with all of these recommendations? The formula, the dosage of acids, and what else you’re using in your routine need to be evaluated. For example, if you’re using a retinol you need to practice caution when adding an exfoliating acid. Retinol thins the stratum corneum while thickening deeper layers; if you add an exfoliating acid and a mask, your potential for a face wound just went up.
Wong provides a helpful breakdown of acids. If you’re experiencing breakouts because of your mask, a spot treatment of salicylic acid can help. Breakouts can also happen because of clogged pores, and salicylic acid has the added bonus of being anti-inflammatory. AHAs like glycolic acid accelerate your skin’s shedding process, so if you’re experiencing a weakened barrier or wearing a mask all day, all you’re doing with exfoliation is eating into your protective layer of skin.
Generally speaking with AHAs, says Wong, glycolic acid is strongest, followed by lactic, and then mandelic acid. This is based on their molecular sizes. The real test for how strong an exfoliating acid is is the formulation and dosage. If you’re new to skin care or want to avoid irritation, a lower percentage is your best bet. Also, remember to scan the ingredients in your routine because exfoliating acids or retinoids are sometimes buried in those lists. Another option? Skip the exfoliation altogether; other than SPF, there’s little your skin “needs,” especially if it’s irritated.
What about melanated skin?
When it comes to melanated skin, there are a lot of opinions on the internet about how to use exfoliating acids. It’s true that people with melanated skin experience post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation more easily, and a compromised barrier can lead to hyperpigmentation, but this doesn’t mean all exfoliating acids are off limits. As H-Verovic puts it, she’s a fan of “responsible exfoliation.” Using AHAs every day isn’t the right move for most people, but using a keratolytic product like a retinol or exfoliating acid once or twice weekly is more tolerated. If you have melanated skin, don’t be as hung up on the type of exfoliating acid as the percentage, the formula as a whole, and how it is incorporated into your routine.
If you think your barrier is compromised and can’t get to an appointment with a dermatologist, here’s some good news: Your skin is begging you to slow down. Forget exfoliants, astringents, retinols and anything resurfacing or heavily fragranced. The 20 to 30 layers of dead skin you disrupted are trying to rebuild, so let them. You want to look for ingredients traditionally used in wound healing. Simple moisturizers containing glycerin, panthenol and, if you’re very dry, petrolatum and dimethicone can help. Lastly, if a product contains ceramides, lipids, or fatty waxes like cetyl alcohol, these ingredients can help rebuild what’s been stripped from your face. If you’re experiencing breakouts, you can spot treat with salicylic acid, but you can also reach for a hydrocolloid acne patch. A damaged barrier is a reminder that you don’t need to buy a product or try something new to “fix something.” Because, really, the answer is within. All you need to do is sit back and let your skin do what it does best: protect you.