Why does my skin get tight, dry and sensitive?
If your skin is feeling dry, tight and irritated, there is one underlying cause to all of this. Your skin’s protective moisture barrier is damaged, and simply layering on a rich moisturiser isn’t going to fix it. Chances are, you are doing something day in and day out that is causing your skin to get damaged, and the moment you take out the culprit, your skin’s barrier can naturally repair itself.
In this post, I’ll explain what exactly your skin barrier is, what might be causing it to get damaged, and some easy ways to fix it so you can get back to having moist, supple and healthy-looking skin with less tightness, dryness, and sensitivity.
What is a moisture barrier in the skin?
Your barrier is the outermost layer of the skin that provides protection to help retain water and moisture, and defend against external irritants like bacteria and environmental debris from penetrating through and causing sensitive reactions. (Think of it as your skin’s own bodyguard to keep the good in and the bad out.) The barrier is made up of lipids (oils) that bind your skin cells together, and when it’s intact, it’s responsible for keeping it feeling soft, and acting calm and healthy. An example of a perfectly intact moisture barrier can be found on a baby. Plump, smooth, radiant and soft to the touch.
What happens when a moisture barrier gets damaged?
When the skin’s protective barrier gets damaged, it creates small, invisible cracks in the skin. Through these cracks, moisture can easily escape and irritants can enter more easily. Essentially, your skin lost its protective bodyguard and can get tight, dry and sensitive.
How do I know if my skin barrier is damaged?
A damaged skin barrier can be caused by a number of things. First, there’s genetics — these include certain conditions like atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, which is an inflammatory skin condition accompanied by a weak skin barrier. That keeps it from functioning properly, which in turn leaves skin dehydrated and vulnerable to infection. Age is also a contributor, since your ability to produce oil wanes over time. This makes it harder to replenish the lipids that are so essential to the integrity of the skin barrier.
Up next are the external factors — basically, self-sabotage.
A common offender is over-cleansing. By cleansing too often or with ingredients that are too aggressive, you can strip the skin of its natural oils. (An easy way to tell is if your skin feels squeaky-clean or tight after you rinse.) That could damage the lipid matrix in your skin barrier.
The more intense counterpart to over-cleansing is over-exfoliation, in which — you guessed it — you exfoliate too frequently or with too-harsh materials.
Chemical exfoliants, while excellent at removing dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, could potentially damage the live, healthy cells in your skin barrier if the concentration is too high. (And don’t even get us started on products that exfoliate via some types of alcohol or essential oils — they’re a recipe for disaster.) Meanwhile, mechanical exfoliants, such as scrubs or other abrasives, can create micro-tears in the skin, which, not surprisingly, also harms the skin barrier.
Finally, there’s the environmental factor. Dry air in the winter or created by indoor air control (like your AC unit or heating system) can sap moisture from the skin barrier.
On top of that, anything that spurs the release of free radicals, such as sunlight and pollution, can also impact the integrity of the skin barrier. Free radicals, for the uninitiated, are unstable molecules that wreak havoc on the skin, damaging cells, lipids, collagen, and even DNA in the process and ultimately accelerating the ageing process.
Symptoms of an impaired moisture barrier include:
Dryness (from lack of oil)
Dehydration (from lack of water).
Tightness (dehydration from lack of water)
Skin feels sensitive and gets easily irritated
Rough skin to the touch
Stinging or burning sensation when products are applied
Crepiness and fine lines
Skin rashes like eczema (atopic dermatitis)
If you have any or all of these symptoms, no matter what your age, this might be a sign that your moisture barrier has been compromised and is in desperate need of fixing.
Note: Sometimes a damaged moisture barrier can just appear on the nose and cause only this area to get dry and flaky.
What causes a moisture barrier to get damaged?
Exfoliating too often (this is the #1 culprit of a damaged barrier that I see all too often)
Overly-drying, harsh cleansing products (bar soaps and high-foaming gel cleansers)
Topical prescription acne medications
Not keeping the skin protected from the sun
Daily use of acidic ingredients like ascorbic acid and L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
High concentrations of citrus essential oils
High concentrations of any essential oils
Washing the face with water that’s too hot
Synthetic fragrances used in skincare products
Dry climate (low humidity and lack of moisture in the air, such as in the winter)
Long airplane flights (generally anything over 5 hours)
Chemical peels (when performed too often)
Home skin devices like micro-needling dermarollers
Skipping the use of moisturizer
Allergic reactions to skincare products
Medications that have dryness as a side effect (such as antihistamines)
Genetics (Some skin types will naturally be prone to a weaker barrier)
Ageing (the barrier starts to get more vulnerable after the age of 45)
If I know my barrier has been damaged, have I done permanent damage? Can I repair it?
If you’re someone who has just been overdoing it with too many exfoliating products for a short period of time, you haven’t done permanent damage and it can easily be fixed. However, for those with years and years of using harsh products and exfoliating too often along with excessive smoking, alcohol consumption and unprotected sun exposure, yes, some damage has occurred. The good news is that it’s never too late to get the skin back into a healthy place, and if you’re making positive changes, you will most definitely see a big improvement.
Oyetakin-White, P., Suggs, A., Koo, B., Matsui, M. S., Yorosh, D., Cooper, K. D.,Baron, E. D., 2015. Does Poor Sleep Quality affect skin ageing? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25266053