I had a bit of a 'mare with my skin recently, so I thought I'd walk you through how your skin barrier can be compromised, what might help if this happens to you, the products and ingredients that got my skin back on track and how I transitioned into my normal routine again...
Effectively, your skin barrier keeps all the good stuff in and all the bad stuff out! The outer layer of your skin is in a delicate equilibrium and a number of things can upset this, leading to dry, red, irritated, itchy, bumpy skin. Overusing strong skincare products is usually the way this happens around these parts: too much exfoliation, diving into a retinoid that's too strong for you too quickly or using a harsh Vitamin C are all common culprits. I know my skin pretty well by this stage, so seasonal changes are usually the source for me. Additionally, other things that come into contact with my face sometimes cause problems, including enzyme-based detergents and the continual chafing contact of wearing face masks.
This time what actually happened was: my skin wasn't in the best shape, likely due to the transition from winter to spring, and one day I was cleaning with bleach and I rinsed my hands but apparently not well enough because I absent-mindedly scratched the top of my cheek and it burned! I immediately splashed water over the area but the damage was done and I was left with a red mark. The following day I woke up with the hive reaction I usually get if something has upset my skin with lots of tiny swollen bumps all over my skin. They were itchy, irritated and it took all my strength just to leave it alone! I was breaking out but also experiencing dryness and tightness in my skin. This eventually evolved into an almost mask-like layer of dry skin over my cheek and on my chin. The irritation had subsided but my skin was beyond dry and I was sometimes moisturising twice a day just to regain some movement.
- INGREDIENTS TO LOOK OUT FOR -
The first thing I did was to cut all active ingredients out of my routine. This meant no retinoids, no Vitamin C, no high-percentage niacinamide and absolutely no exfoliating acids (glycolic, salicylic, lactic etc.) In terms of hyaluronic acid; it's not an exfoliating acid but it's an ingredient you can overdo; personally I'd avoid using individual serums containing it if your barrier is compromised, however I wouldn't find it problematic if it was just added to a cleanser or moisturiser. However, what's going to be good for your skin barrier? Generally keeping it simple, to be honest, and sticking to your tried and true products. I'd say overall: 'the shorter the ingredient list, the better' is a good rule of thumb. Personally, I don't find one or two fragrant essential oils in a formula to be a massive issue but I'd steer clear of anything that contains parfum or is overly fragrant. However, if you want to be on the safe side or know you have problems with fragrance: I'd avoid it in any form.
In terms of what you should look out for: I have a few suggestions...
Ceramides are a fundamental part of the skin's natural barrier, so if it's been compromised, it makes sense to top up this lipid so you can get things back on track as quickly as possible.
Squalane is the plant-based version of squalene, which is the oil our skin naturally produces, so it's super-safe if you're feeling sensitive and your skin is really dried out.
Omegas and other fatty acids are amazing for replenishing the moisture levels of the skin and get rid of any of that surface flakiness.
Niacinamide* can actually be great for the skin barrier but it has to be in very low concentrations (if my barrier is damaged, I look for 5% or less). The serums on the market are generally going to be too strong, but you can get it from toners and moisturisers in a safe dose that will support your skin's return to health.
- MY SKINCARE DIARY -
Stage 1: Days 1-7
Ok so this is the stage where I was experiencing itching, irritation and extreme dryness, so it was all about calming and nourishing my skin. My go-to cleansers when my skin is acting up are always going to be the Ordinary's Squalane Cleanser | £13.90 | full review | and the Kate Somerville DeliKate Soothing Cleanser* | £34 | full review. I didn't wear much makeup during this time but I did wear sunscreen (which we'll get to) so I used the Ordinary's formula to remove it. This is a sort of creamy balm that melts into an oil and emulsifies with water to break down whatever's on your skin. It's a really simple formula with squalane being its main ingredient, so I can trust it to work whilst being very gentle. I struggle to not cleanse in the morning so it's also a great non-stripping option for that. My second cleanse would always have to be the Kate Somerville; it's a gentle, non-foaming emulsion-like cleanser. It's full of gentle hydrating and replenishing ingredients like peptides and ceramides.
At first, I didn't use any type of toner, mist or essence at all, to keep things simple, but I did introduce one in the morning after about a week for extra hydration. The product that worked for me (applied to damp skin straight after cleansing) was the Apothaka Skin Quenching Essence* | £32. This is fragrance-free and formulated with natural moisturising factors (like urea), a damaged-skin-friendly concentration of niacinamide, soothing cucumber extract, Vitamin B5 (which helps your skin retain moisture) and lactic acid. 'But I thought you said not to use exfoliating acids?!', I hear you cry. Sometimes you will see lactic acid or PHAs lower down on an ingredient list and they're actually primarily there for their humectant (water-attracting qualities), or to aid penetration as opposed for exfoliation. This is gentle, it leaves my skin hydrated and it offers immediate calming relief.
I'd follow this with the Glow Recipe Avocado Ceramide Recovery Serum* | £38 | so, I really like this product but I do have a problem with it (besides the fact that it seems to be disappearing very quickly!) This is marketed as 'fragrance-free', however Fragrance is not 'fragrance'? What do I mean by this? They seem to be saying it does not contain Parfum / Fragrance, which are complexes of potentially hundreds of fragrant ingredients and the brand using it doesn't have to tell you what's in there, because it's considered a 'trade secret'. However other ingredients can be fragrant, namely essential oils; true, you know what you're getting and they're all listed individually but I find it a little disingenuous to say something is 'fragrance-free' when it contains lavender, sandalwood and jasmine extracts, which will naturally contain volatile essential oils. I thought I'd try this regardless, because what better opportunity was there going to be to try a 'recovery serum'? This has a light lotion texture that's super-moisturising and contains lots of ceramides, moisturising avocado oil, allantoin for hydration and lots of antioxidant extracts. I used this AM and PM throughout my skin meltdown and it really helped with moisture levels and calming my skin, so despite the fragrance-related confusion; I do rate this product.
In terms of moisturisers, my saviour during the daytime was the new Indeed Labs In-Ceramide Daily Moisture Cream* | £24.99. This is a little more expensive than your typical drugstore foundation (and I can't lie; 30ml feels a bit stingy!) but it's so worth it, delivering nourishment and ceramides in what feels like a gorgeous, lightweight lotion-cream. It's not thick, it's not too rich but it helps with dryness, tightness and skin healing. The formula is really elegant and works beautifully layered. For the evening, I defaulted back to my beloved Biossance Squalane + Omega Cream | £49 | full review | which I'm now almost out of. It has this gorgeous melting buttery formula that just makes my skin happy. Instant calm, instant nourishment. It's not thick or greasy either. I love it and will definitely repurchase.
Lastly, in the morning I obviously used a sunscreen. Personally, I find chemical formulas can be a little irritating when my skin feels reactive, so I switched to a mineral formula. My favourite is the Skingredients Skin Shield SPF 50 PA+++* | £41 | full review. This is a super-lightweight, elegant, peachy-toned formula with zinc oxide, a little bit of niacinamide and soothing, nourishing Vitamin E. This didn't irritate my skin at all when it was delicate but still gave me that broad spectrum protection. In the evening, I topped things off with the Zelens Power D* | £95. I don't normally rush in to try something new when my skin is freaking out, but I'm so glad I took a chance on this (and I will do a full brand review when I've eventually worked my way through the Power Vitamin line). It's a light oil and sometimes I wore it during the day. I did try it both under and over moisturiser and both worked fine, though I do default to the latter these days. This is full of fatty acids, replenishing lipids, Vitamin E, cholesterol, Vitamin D, squalane and Vitamin F. This just restored my skin; it was incredible for the dryness and I loved how it just seemed to get right into the deeper layers of my skin. It was honestly everything my face needed when it went through the 'insanely dry' stage.
Lastly, when I was getting localised burning towards the start of the reaction, I found the Dermalogica Barrier Repair | £45 | really helpful. This is such an interesting product; it comes out as a clear gel, almost like a primer, so it sits really nicely under makeup. You can apply it under moisturiser or on its own. It contains oat oil to soothe the skin and some moisturising oils (though there are a couple of fragrant essential oils in there too). I honestly don't know what's in here that works so well for my skin but this product has an instant calming effect on my skin and also insulates it from the elements.
As hard as it was with these under-the-skin breakouts I was getting; I didn't do anything about it because I really didn't want to use anything active or potentially drying due to the sensitivity and desert-like conditions.
Stage 2: Day 8
After the first week, the itchiness and irritation had subsided, as did the bumpy rash, however there was a mask-like layer of dry skin on my cheeks and it felt like my skin would be ready for me to do something about it. I cautiously applied the Medik8 Press & Glow Daily Exfoliating PHA Tonic with Enzyme Activator* | £25 | to the affected areas. The reason I chose this product is because PHAs can have hydrating benefits and they have a large molecular size, so exfoliate on a surface level, making it a perfect option for my specific issue. It's fragrance-free and is also formulated with soothing aloe. I was really happy with how this worked; it significantly took down the flakiness and my skin felt more mobile and far smoother. This was my first foray back into actives and I thought it was a great product for this. If you have sensitive or compromised skin but want some mild exfoliation; try introducing this (or something similar) into your routine.
Stage 3: Days 9-14
After my success with the exfoliator, I decided to transition back into using the day serum I had been on before my reaction: the Emma Hardie Midas Touch Super Serum* | £58. This was actually a really good choice for me; quite often I'll be using a standalone Vitamin C in the morning, and they can be a little irritating, so I really wouldn't have wanted to go down that route when things were only just starting to get back on track. This product is touted as a single-step serum that covers off pretty much all your bases. You have your niacinamide, your squalane, shea butter (which gives it this really moisturising quality), aloe, hyaluronic acid, bakuchiol (sometimes called a 'natural retinol'; it's promising but it's important not to get too carried away when the research is in its infancy) and ascorbyl glucoside, which is a Vitamin C derivative, offering a gentle alternative to l-ascorbic acid. I will do a full review reporting back on long-term benefits but this is a really gentle formula that still has some amazing ingredients. There's nothing too strong, it's not remotely harsh and I'm really enjoying it so far!
Around about the 10 day mark, my breakouts had started to clear up but I still had a lot of red scabbing over and marks, so I decided to clear out the congestion using my beloved Sunday Riley UFO Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil* | £68. This is a product that works for me in just one use, so I reach for it on an 'as and when' basis. Why did I pick it? This is an oil with 2% salicylic acid, which can penetrate deep into the pores and clear out debris, as well as help with blemish scarring. Actives in the form of oils, as a general rule, are a lot gentler on the skin than other delivery systems so coming out of a skin freak-out, this seemed like a good option. Additionally, my skin was really dry, so this gives me the anti-blemish treatment whilst also feeling moisturising (but not greasy). I'm so glad I reached for this, it helped clear my skin overnight with no irritation.
The last thing I reintroduced was the Sachi Skin Ursolic Acid & Retinal Overnight Reform* | £72. I will be doing a full review on this, and I also want to chat about retinal in general at some point (it's a more direct form than retinol, but is still cosmetic, getting you those anti-acne and anti-ageing benefits fast), but (as a seasoned retinoid user) I'd been using this product happily with no dryness and irritation for 4+ weeks before my reaction, so I knew my skin liked it. However, this is still the most 'active' part of my skincare routine so I was cautious. The first time I tried it, I decided to apply it after my moisturiser. This didn't irritate my skin so 48 hours later I decided to try it under my moisturiser and my skin was fine with it. My core actives were all back in my routine!
Stage 4: 15 days +
This is where I am now, slowly transitioning back into my usual routine and testing schedule. I'm being very careful with introducing products, so my skin doesn't freak out and take 5 steps backwards. It's really important to do this gradually so it's obvious what's causing a reaction if you have one, rather than going back to your old routine overnight. I started by alternating the Glow Recipe serum with the Emma Hardie in the morning and then with the Sachi in the evening, gradually moving back to using those types of products every single morning and evening. And my face is back!
Have you suffered with a compromised barrier recently? How did you get it back on track?