Preserving the ‘skin barrier’ is the principal aim of skin care, especially for people with dry or sensitive skin. Damage to the skin ­barrier also contributes to a range of skin disorders including eczema and psoriasis.

The skin barrier is the thin, protective outer layer of skin. It can be visualised as a brick wall with layers of cells (the bricks) surrounded by fatty substances (cement). The bricks are swollen with water and held tight by the surrounding fats and other bonds between the cells.

A damaged barrier has shrunken, loose bricks and broken, crumbly cement. Cracks open up allowing germs and irritants to get in, causing inflammation, itching and scratching. Water escapes through the cracks leading to dry skin, especially in the cooler months.

How to care for your skin barrier

If you have dry, sensitive or damaged skin:

1.  Avoid soaps and detergents as they strip the natural fats from the skin and reduce the skin’s acidity. Instead, use a soap-free emollient (moisturising) cleanser such as colloidal oatmeal-containing bar or liquid. Also use emollient-containing washes, shower or bath products and continue them long-term to keep the skin healthy and prevent relapse.

2. Avoid other triggers such as chlorine pools, wool or nylon clothes, scratching, hot baths.

3. Use emollients (moisturisers) regularly. A good emollient adds fats to the barrier layer, keeping it intact and helping it to retain water. Use a ‘leave-on’ emollient cream once or twice a day, especially after bathing. Useful ingredients in emollients are colloidal oatmeal, glycerol and urea. Some of the most effective preparations are more greasy and less popular but can be useful in more severe cases.

Emollients are safe and cheap. Find a range that suits you and use it long-term.


  • Please note this information was correct at time of publication.
  • For up to date information, speak to your doctor.
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