Plenty of hydration, protection from excessive sunlight, a diet of whole foods including essential fats, and a gentle skin care regimen with moisturizers are foundational, whether your skin tends to be healthy, dry, oily, peeling, or red.

Barrier-Supporting Skin Care

Skin care products range from barrier-friendly to barrier-disrupting. Choose gentle cleansers, lotions, and creams with a slightly acidic pH (ideally around pH 5 to 5.5) that contain ingredients to reduce water loss and replenish barrier components. 

A Slightly Acidic pH Is Best

Depending on how and where on the body skin pH is measured, it typically ranges from 4.1 to 6. 

This slightly acid pH is optimal for both production of the stratum corneum and for its functioning. The enzymes that make the lipids in the stratum corneum work best at an slightly acidic pH, so when pH is elevated (alkaline pH over 7), lipid supply and barrier integrity are reduced. 

A comprehensive review of skin products in people over 50 concluded that pH of products was an important factor in skin health. The use of skin products with a slightly acidic pH of 4 was reported to improve skin barrier health. Soap has a very alkaline pH, but non-soap cleansers are available in a slightly acidic to neutral pH range of 4 to 7. (There’s more info on skin cleansers here.) 

Skin peel products that are strongly acidic (less than pH 4) may be used occasionally as exfoliating treatments, but they work by damaging the skin and they strongly disrupt the skin barrier. The best products for regular use are neutral to slightly acidic. 

A Gentle Cleanser, Not Soap

Soap is not only more alkaline than desirable, but harsher. Compared to soap and water, skin hydration is better when non-soap cleansers like isethionates and glucosides are used. 

Moisturizers for Dry Skin

Moisturizing lotions and creams can reduce dryness and itching, improve skin hydration by supplying moisture and reducing moisture loss, and support skin barrier function. The most effective moisturizers contain occlusive agents that prevent water from evaporating, humectants that attract water, lipids, emollients, emulsifiers, antioxidants, and preservatives. 

In people over 50, moisturizers containing humectants that attract water have been shown to reduce dryness and itching, and the use of products containing glycerol (a humectant) or petrolatum (an occlusive agent) has been shown to reduce skin tears. Here’s a rundown on the basic ingredients in moisturizers.

Occlusive agents provide a physical barrier to prevent water from evaporating. Some examples are:

  • Mineral oil made from petroleum, which can improve softness and barrier function. The claim that it is comedogenic‚ÄĒclogs pores and promotes acne‚ÄĒhas been disproven.
  • Petroleum jelly (petrolatum) made from petroleum, which is effective and nonirritating. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an organization that analyzes and grades ingredients and products for their effects on health and on the environment, does not have concerns about this ingredient other than the¬†need to verify purity.¬†
  • Silicone-based occlusive ingredients including¬†dimethicone and cyclomethicone, which are softening and moisturizing and are common in products labelled ‚Äúoil-free‚ÄĚ. However, cyclomethicone persists in the environment, may have adverse effects on health, and is given¬†a poor score¬†by the EWG. The EWG also¬†scores dimethicone¬†poorly.¬†
  • Oils and fats such as jojoba oil and coconut oil also have¬†occlusive properties.

Humectants are substances that attract and absorb water. Glycerol, amino acids, lactic acid, pyrrolidone carboxylic acid (PCA), and urea are humectants used in cosmetics and naturally found in NMF, the moisturizing complex present in the stratum corneum. Allantoin is a natural humectant that is a derivative of urea, and it is effective at lower levels and is less irritating than urea. Other humectants include hyaluronic acid, aloe, propylene glycol (which is linked to contact dermatitis), and sorbitol. The smaller ones like glycerol and urea penetrate more deeply into the skin than larger molecules like hyaluronic acid. 

Humectants pull water from the body into the stratum corneum. When the air is moist humectants can also absorb water from the air. But when the air is dry, the water they pull from deep in the body may evaporate and be lost. To prevent this, humectants are used together with emollient and occlusive agents to coat the skin and keep the water in the skin itself. 

Emollients provide a soft and smooth feel to the skin, and some of them also reduce water loss. Emollient ingredients include jojoba oil, sunflower seed oil, coconut oil, almond oil, and lanolin, which is grease extracted from wool, primarily from sheep. Lanolin is purified and cleaned for use in cosmetics, but may cause allergic contact dermatitis. 

Lipids are a large category including fats, oils, free fatty acids, waxes, squalene, cholesterol, ceramides, phospholipids, and sphingomyelins. Fatty and oily ingredients act as both emollients that coat and soften the skin, and occlusive agents that form a thin layer to reduce water loss. Lipids generally stay on the surface of the skin, perhaps penetrating into the topmost layer of the stratum corneum, and possibly into the second and third corneocyte layer when skin is very dry. 

Natural oils such as jojoba, coconut, and sunflower seed have been used for hundreds of years to promote healthy skin. They help keep water in and irritants out of the stratum corneum. Most oils consist of triglycerides, which are three fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule. 

Free fatty acids help keep moisturizers acidic so that they mimic the pH of healthy skin. And fatty acids work in other ways to reduce inflammation and support the skin’s antimicrobial properties. Free fatty acids may also be formed in the skin from fats and oils. The triglycerides in fats and oils can be broken down by bacterial enzymes, releasing fatty acids. 

Specific oils and mixtures of lipids are discussed in the section below,¬†Best Skin Barrier Ingredients. Mixtures of triglycerides, fatty acids, waxes, and squalene similar to lipids in sebum are used to mimic lipids naturally coating the skin. And mixtures of ceramides, fatty acids, and cholesterol‚ÄĒmimicking the composition of lipids in the stratum corneum‚ÄĒ are also used in moisturizers and for barrier repair.¬†

Emulsifiers keep water and oil layers from separating. They are also called surfactants. Examples of clean emulsifiers are:

  • Lecithin
  • Stearate
  • Palmitic acid
  • Cetearyl alcohol (cetyl alcohol plus stearyl alcohol)
  • Betaine

Emulsifiers to avoid include:

  • Polyethylene glycols. The EWG has some concern that any ingredient based on polyethylene glycol (PEG) may contain dioxane, a carcinogen, formed during manufacturing.

Antioxidants are included to maintain freshness of skin care products and to promote skin health by helping to prevent the formation of damaging free radicals. Free radicals called reactive oxygen species (ROS) are formed in the skin upon exposure to sunlight, environmental chemicals, and air pollution, and also as a byproduct of everyday metabolism. Left unquenched, ROS damage lipids, DNA, and proteins in the skin including collagen, contributing to thin skin, loss of elasticity, and a weakened skin barrier.  

Vitamin C (ascorbate), tocopherol (vitamin E), and niacinamide are three valuable antioxidant ingredients, and plant extracts provide a wide range of additional antioxidants. 

By reducing free radical damage, vitamin C may help prevent damage to collagen and signs of photoaging. Vitamin E contributes photoprotective and skin-barrier-stabilizing properties. Topical niacinamide is used to target wrinkles, hyperpigmentation spots, and red blotchiness. 

Plant extracts have been used traditionally for many years for their skin benefits including soothing irritated skin, long before scientists identified the bioactive components. We now know that olive oil and olive leaf extracts contain the antioxidants hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein, and luteolin. Rosemary extract contains flavonoids, terpenes, and polyphenols. Grape seed oil (Vitis vinifera) contains procyanidin antioxidants.

These plant extracts and antioxidant ingredients are meant to complement, not replace, sunscreen. 

Preservatives are necessary to prevent microbial growth, since we touch creams and lotions with our hands, introducing bacteria and molds, and we store products at room temperature for long periods of time. 

  • Phenoxyethanol¬†is an effective and non-irritating¬†preservative used in cosmetics. Europe‚Äôs Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) has concluded that it is an effective preservative, and safe for consumers‚Äďincluding children of all ages (at concentrations of up to 1%).

Preservatives that may be potential skin irritants include:

Related Posts

https://skinfix.com/blogs/news/skin-barrier-101-what-it-is-and-how-to-keep-it-healthy

https://skinfix.com/blogs/news/how-to-know-if-the-skin-barrier-is-damaged

https://skinfix.com/blogs/news/childrens-skin-barrier-101

https://skinfix.com/blogs/news/what-weakens-the-skin-barrier

https://skinfix.com/blogs/news/best-skin-barrier-ingredients

https://skinfix.com/blogs/news/skin-barrier-clinical-trials

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This article is for informational purposes only, and is designed to supplement, not to substitute for, consultation with medical professionals. Content is based on scientific research published in peer-reviewed journals, publications from the National Institutes of Health and other medical and scientific organizations, and communications from scientists and licensed healthcare practitioners.

April 22, 2024