Dry, Irritated Skin Got You Down? Your Moisture Barrier May Be To Blame

Here’s how to reverse the damage.

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Fall brings with it more than just a dip in temperature, pumpkin spiced lattes, and knee-high boots. Where your skin is concerned, the seasonal shift can also cause flaking, dryness, irritation, redness, and sensitivity as you part ways with your summery golden glow. Tired of the colder weather sucking the life and hydration out of your skin? It turns out that keeping your skin's moisture barrier intact is a sure-fire way to send parched skin packing. The problem? Not many people know what that means.

Think of your moisture barrier as your skin’s knight in shining armor. It’s the first layer of defense against the outside world, protecting your skin and body from things that could cause harm, such as UV rays, toxins, pollutants, and irritants. Medically speaking, the skin’s moisture barrier is found in the outermost layer of the skin, also known as the stratum corneum. According to Dr. John Paul Tutela, your moisture barrier not only keeps the bad stuff out, but it keeps the good stuff (read: moisture) in.

Proper skin barrier function “prevents dehydration and also helps maintain the integrity of your skin so that it can continue to act as an efficient barrier to the outside world,” notes Dr. Tutela. Bottom line: Your moisture barrier is responsible for two things — protecting from external factors and maintaining moisture.

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What Causes Damage To The Moisture Barrier?

Generally speaking, any type of external stressor can cause damage to your skin’s moisture barrier, but there are four main categories to keep in mind.

Weather Conditions

Your skin is the only organ that’s exposed to the elements 24/7, 365 days a year. Needless to say, it’s susceptible to a slew of factors that could cause damage — one of them being colder weather. “Cold temperatures are generally dry and have less water in the air, which makes it harder for your skin to maintain its own moisture,” notes Dr. Tutela. This compromises the overall integrity of your skin, as dehydration can lead to premature aging as well as conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, says celebrity aesthetician Joshua Ross of SkinLab.


Pollution is another culprit. Your moisture barrier is especially vulnerable to the damaging effects of pollution if you live in a high-traffic city, as this can expose your skin to fumes, smog, and other harmful irritants in the air. Additionally, board-certified dermatologist and medical director of Pacific Skin and Cosmetic Dermatology Dr. Tracy Evans explains that pollution can cause oxidative stress on the moisture barrier of the skin, which inevitably leads to extrinsic aging, or when environmental factors speed up the aging process. This can present itself as fine lines and wrinkles, dryness, and an overall loss of collagen and elastin.

UV Rays

Just when you thought there couldn’t be yet another reason to slather on the SPF, Dr. Evans reminds TZR that your moisture barrier is dependent on it, as UV rays can weaken the cell bonds within the stratum corneum. This not only compromises your skin’s barrier function (meaning it won’t be as well-equipped to take on the outside world), but some studies say that a compromised skin barrier may also allow more UV rays to penetrate the skin and therefore cause more damage.


Finally, while exfoliating is an essential part of most people’s skin care routines, over-doing it can have its drawbacks. “By using acid-based exfoliators, the outer protective layer of the skin is removed, allowing the skin to become dehydrated and exposed to pollutants and the harsh environment,” explains Dr. Evans. When in doubt about whether or not your exfoliating routine is the culprit for your recent skin sensitivity, it’s best to err on the side of less is more.

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Signs Of A Damaged Moisture Barrier

So, how can you tell if your moisture barrier is compromised? Besides dryness and flakiness (which are signs that this layer of skin is quite literally falling apart, says Dr. Tutela), redness, itchiness, and hyperpigmentation are other indicators. The dryness, as well as the increased exposure to UV rays and environmental pollutants associated with a compromised skin barrier, can lead to inflammatory acne, which, according to Ross, is another sign your moisture barrier needs some attention.

How To Strengthen Your Skin’s Moisture Barrier

To make up for the loss of moisture in the cold fall and winter air, look for emollient- and humectant-rich ingredients that draw in moisture such as glycerin, shea butter, and hyaluronic acid. Ceramides are also key, says Dr. Evans, and they have a domino effect in keeping your moisture barrier intact. Not only do they help your skin retain moisture, but they strengthen your barrier, which can protect against harmful pollutants and environmental stressors from damaging your skin. As Dr. Ted Lain, board-certified dermatologist and Chief Medical Officer at Sanova Dermatology, previously explained to TZR, “the [skin] barrier itself is made up of dead skin cells (the bricks) that are held together by a lipid bilayer (the mortar). Ceramides make up 50% of this mortar, hence their importance.” By using products with ceramides, you will help to hold the healthy skin cells together and minimize water loss.

Also, always make sure to apply an SPF of 30, rain or shine, and reapply throughout the day (or every two hours if you’ll be sweating or swimming). In many cases, using exfoliators with AHA’s and BHA’s can lead to irritation and further dryness, so limit their use to one or two times a week, and always make sure to replenish your skin’s moisture level with a hydrator afterwards. Finally, highly active ingredients such as vitamin C and retinol should be used sparingly, says Dr. Tutela, as these can lead to more irritation with overuse. Like most everything in life, your most active skin care products are best used in moderation — that will

We only include products that have been independently selected by TZR's editorial team. However, we may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

Quench your skin’s thirst with this ultra-hydrating pick from Tru Alchemy. It’s made with skin-firming bakuchiol (aka a more natural, less irritating alternative to retinol) and hyaluronix (to help your skin attract and retain moisture).

Relieve itchiness and eczema with this soothing repair balm, which is formulated with colloidal oatmeal to gently hydrate and ceramides to repair the skin barrier.

Ceramides and French sea water in this lightweight serum douse your skin with hydration for a dewy, illuminated complexion even the cold winter air can’t compete with.

Not only does this mineral-based sunscreen ward off the damaging effects of the sun, but it contains antioxidant-rich green tea, olive leaf, and rosemary extracts to shield against free radicals.

Now, there’s no excuse not to reapply your sunscreen thanks to Supergoop!’s mineral powder, which offers SPF 35 and a double-duty formula that’ll set your makeup as it protects your skin.

For sensitive skin types and a compromised moisture barrier, vitamin C can pose irritating side effects. Cue this brightening serum from Ranavat — it uses precious saffron threads as its brightening agent, which is loaded with carotenoids that also help soothe inflammation.

The skin on your body can also fall victim to a compromised moisture barrier. Combat parched elbows, knees, and legs with Hand in Hand’s Body Lotion, which uses organic, fair trade shea butter as its hero hydrator.