How To Repair Your Skin Barrier When You Have Acne

I have numerous posts on treating a damaged skin barrier. However, the most difficult part of treating a damaged skin barrier involves trying not to cause breakouts while treating the skin barrier. Since many people are sensitive to different skin care products, it can be hard to find ingredients that work for your skin while having acne. The good news is that treating the skin barrier will ultimately improve your acne by reducing inflammation and irritation.

To repair the skin barrier while experiencing acne, you must carefully choose the products you put on your skin. This is done by avoiding common pore-clogging ingredients, but still ensuring that the product will benefit your skin barrier. 

While it may seem like a daunting process to find skin care products that are right for you, I have put together a step by step plan to get you the clear skin you deserve. Let’s start with exploring how a damaged skin barrier can cause acne, and then I will explain the steps needed to repair it. 

Does a Damaged Skin Barrier Cause Acne?

A damaged skin barrier is characterized by inflamed skin, dryness, tightness after cleansing, flaking, irritation, and acne.

This can be caused by harsh skin care products, excessive use of hot water on the skin, constant use of abrasive clothing/towels on the skin, UV rays, pollution, and not moisturizing adequately.

All of these causes are preventable and can be avoided to ensure that the skin barrier remains intact and healthy.

Due to all of these factors, it makes the skin vulnerable to acne-causing bacteria. A damaged skin barrier also prevents normal exfoliation of dead skin cells which leads to clogged pores, inflammation, and acne.

A damaged skin barrier contributes to overall dull skin that lacks defense mechanisms against acne. 

How Do I Rebuild My Skin Barrier? A Step-By-Step Process

Dry and scaly skin

Step 1 – Ditch The Fragrance (and Other Irritating Ingredients)

The first step to rebuilding your skin barrier involves ditching products that are ruining your skin barrier.

This requires taking a hard look at your current skin care routine and making the necessary changes needed for optimal skin health.

Take a look at the ingredients of each of your skin care products. You want to avoid the following ingredients:

  • Fragrance (irritates the skin and causes inflammation)
  • Myristyl myristate (clogs pores)
  • Essential oils (can cause contact dermatitis)
  • Excessive amounts of alcohol (usually found in toners – contributes to skin dryness and dehydration) 
  • Olive oil (damages the skin barrier)

This is not a comprehensive list. However, it is a good place to start. You can also take a look at this post to find a lengthier list of pore-clogging ingredients to avoid.

It is important to keep in mind that there are many fragrance additives in skin care that often disguise themselves as other ingredients.

These ingredients include linalool, limonene, and geraniol. These are all fragrances that can irritate the skin and cause inflammation.

When fragrance makes contact with the skin, it increases your chances of having a breakout.

Once you have identified any products that contain the above ingredients, you need to immediately find a replacement for these products.

If the product is a toner or additional treatment or serum that won’t completely interfere with your skin care routine, stop use immediately. You can use the remaining product on your body.

Step 2 – Find a Basic Skin Care Routine

Skin care products to repair the skin barrier

Even if you think you have a solid skin care routine in place, I encourage you to start from scratch. As in, get rid of everything you are using and only use a cleanser, moisturizer, and sunscreen for at least a period of 4 weeks.

This might sound crazy to you, especially if you are someone that feels they have tried everything and going back to square one may seem daunting.

However, trust me – In order to repair your skin barrier and clear your acne, you have to start from the very basics and get your skin hydrated and moisturized without the interference of acne treatments and harsh active ingredients. 

CLEANSER

For your cleanser, find a gentle foaming or cream-based cleanser that includes gentle surfactants.

Surfactants are cleansing agents present in face washes. Gentle surfactants include cocamidopropyl betaine, sodium lauryl sulfoacetate, and sodium lauroyl sarcosinate. Avoid harsh surfactants like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laurate. 

In addition, avoid the ingredients stated above (such as fragrances and essential oils). For now, choose a cleanser that has no active ingredients.

Active ingredients refers to things that affect the cell turnover rate of your skin. These include acids and some acne treatments like retinoids. Stick with a basic and bland cleanser.

MOISTURIZER

Next, you want to search for a moisturizer that works for your skin. I want to warn you that during this process, you will continue to break out. Why? Because your skin will be experiencing changes in your external environment and your acne is not being treated directly right now. This is completely fine. We want to set up a foundation in which your skin barrier is repaired and healthy, so that when you do end up adding an acne treatment in a few weeks time, your skin will actually react properly to this treatment and it will actually work.

I wrote an in-depth blog post about the ingredients you should look for in your moisturizer. To sum it up simply, you need to look for a bland moisturizer that is fragrance-free, preferably has minimal ingredients, and has a couple of good hydrators and moisturizers in its ingredient list. I enjoy the Avène Tolerance Extreme Moisturizer or the Differin Restorative Night Moisturizer. If you want to go extremely bland and to the point, try the Cliniderm Facial Moisturizer

SUNSCREEN

The last step of formulating a basic skincare routine is to find a decent sunscreen that provides broad UVA and UVB protection, doesn’t pill, doesn’t leave a white cast and doesn’t burn your eyes.

It sounds like a lot of points to hit – Which they are. Sunscreens are notoriously difficult to find a good one that works for your skin.

I recommend European-made sunscreens as they have advanced filters, good UVA protection, and often don’t have a white cast.

The most affordable sunscreen are ones by L’Oreal that contain Mexoryl, which provides great protection and has no white cast, and spreads smoothly across the skin. 

Once you have curated a small skincare routine, start using it. Remember to only use sunscreen in the morning, not at night.

If you can, avoid wearing makeup during this time. If you can’t avoid wearing makeup, do not use makeup wipes to remove the makeup. Just use your cleanser twice.

In the future, we will incorporate a double cleansing routine in which you use an oil cleanser first and a foaming cleanser second to remove all excess makeup and sunscreen. But for now, just stick with cleansing your skin twice with the same cleanser to remove makeup and sunscreen at the end of the day.

Use this routine for at least 3 weeks. Preferably 4 – 6 weeks. It will be difficult, as your skin may continue to breakout at this time. However, you are slowly repairing the skin by using these products. 

Step 3 – Perfecting Your Basic Routine

Now, you might be asking – What if my skin doesn’t like the cleanser I chose? Or the moisturizer? Or the sunscreen? This is exactly why we need to start with a very small routine.

This way, you can switch out one product at a time to find ones that better suit your skin.

If you begin to use a cleanser, moisturizer, or sunscreen that is causing irritation or redness, stop use and try something else.

But try your very best to not change more than one product at a time. This is because, if you end up breaking out or having a reaction after changing more than one product at a time, you won’t know which one is breaking you out or causing a reaction.

Skin care is all about trial and error. It may feel like you’ve tried everything, but you have not. There are products that are out there that will work for your skin. Once you feel you have perfected a basic skincare routine and have used it for at least 3 weeks consistently, then you can add in one acne treatment. 

Step 4 – The Acne Treatment

Tube of Acne Treatment Gel

Now that your skin barrier should be in tip-top shape, your skin will be able to adequately make use of an acne treatment without making it worse. There are a multitude of acne treatments that you can incorporate into your routine. 

SALICYLIC ACID

If you have oily skin, consider choosing salicylic acid as your acne treatment. You can use this in the form of a toner (which I do not recommend, as toners tend to have high amounts of alcohol). You can also use a salicylic acid acne treatment in the form of a serum. Salicylic acid is a desmolytic agent that breaks up skin cells to encourage proper shedding of dead skin and reduction of clogged pores.

BENZOYL PEROXIDE

If you have very red, inflamed acne, try using benzoyl peroxide. You can buy an over-the-counter gel and use it once at night, for 2 – 3 nights to start with. Here is an in-depth post on benzoyl peroxide and how it combats inflammatory acne.

When you incorporate any acne treatment into your routine, it is important to patch test the product on a small section of your skin to see if you are allergic to it.

If there is no reaction, you must start using it slowly (only a few times per week) before working up to daily use. Then, once you begin using the treatment daily, you must use it for at least 4 weeks to decide whether your skin is improving or not.

If it is not, try a different acne treatment, but do not change anything else in your routine. This is a process that could take months, but it’s worth it.

Other acne treatments include sulfur, retinoids, and acids like mandelic acid or azelaic acid.

How Do You Know If Your Skin Barrier Is Healing? 

This is the grand question – how do you know if your skin barrier is healing? Look out for the following skin improvements to ensure you are on the right track during this journey:

  • Skin feels less tight after cleansing
  • Skin dryness has improved
  • Skin no longer has fine dehydration lines
  • No flaking or peeling is seen
  • Skin looks and feels plump
  • Complexion is clearer and acne has improved
  • Less redness and irritation is seen

And there you have it. It’s a 4 step process. Then you can think about adding serums, oil cleansers, and oils into your skincare routine. Maybe even an eye cream or a face mask for fun. But these are the essential steps to repairing the skin barrier and improving your acne. The issue that many people face is that they don’t stick to it for long enough to see the results. Stick with it and keep going. 

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