Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted–work has been crazy. While I would much rather be writing about Korean skincare, student papers aren’t going to grade themselves. If you want more frequent updates, I’m more consistently active on Instagram; I try to post at least once a day. My handle is @Snails4eva–go follow me!

Since the last time I posted, things have changed majorly in my skin and routine. About two weeks ago I finally realized that I did what I had been so afraid of doing: weakening my moisture barrier due to over-exofliation. Gah!

I’ve been working diligently for the past two weeks to build it back up, and I realized that I should probably talk about what it looks/feels like to have a weakened moisture barrier and what you can do if it happens to you.

What is a moisture barrier?

I have to link to Kerry from Skin & Tonic’s excellent post on this topic. Here’s the executive summary: your moisture barrier is the outer, protective layer of skin. It’s comprised of dead skin cells held together by ceramides, lipids, and fatty acids. This layer keeps bacteria and harmful things out while keeping precious moisture in.

When your barrier is weakened or compromised, it can lead to trans epidermal water loss (TEWL). This leaves your skin irritated and prone to dryness, sensitivity, and acne.

This is bad. Very bad.

Most people who come to Korean skincare often have a damaged moisture barrier from the intensive Western products full of harsh exfoliants and high ph cleansers. This is actually why I recommend starting out with just those four basic products and then working in more moisture to your routine before even attempting chemical exfoliation.

Just to give you some perspective, here was my actives routine:

  • alternate Vitamin C (20%) and Cosrx BHA every other day, once a day
  • Cosrx AHA twice a week.

Even when you’re very careful, thinking you have a routine that is gentle enough for your skin, you can accidentally weaken your moisture barrier.

Symptoms

The following are symptoms that I only retroactively realized were pointing to a weakened moisture barrier. I had assumed–based on my reading–that it would be obvious through flaking skin. Of course, this can happen, but there are other symptoms as well.

The first was itchy, angry red closed comedones. These are angry red bumps that don’t have a “head” like pimple. I’ve had these for awhile. The itchiness clued me in that my skin was dry, but usually a few extra layers of hydrating toner kept these at bay for the most part. Or, they only appeared in the evening, when I was already ready to wash off my sunscreen and makeup and start slapping on layers of hydration. I assumed that my skin was just dry from the harsh heating at work.

But more recently, I started to have that irritation and loss of moisture by midday. Since the moisture barrier helps keep moisture in your skin, if your skin is irritated by midday, and you’ve put lots of hydration on in the morning, that’s a sure signal something is wrong.

I also started noticing a few weeks ago that my forehead was shiny but not oily. I didn’t think much of it, just that it was strange. When I tried to use powder on it, it didn’t help with the shininess. It wasn’t until I started reading more about moisture barrier issues that I learned this is definitely a sign of a weakened barrier.

When your barrier is weak, it leads to breakouts (hence the red closed comedones). I finally realized that the issue was with my barrier when my forehead exploded with red comedones and pimples. Overnight, I went from fairly clear skin to a forehead of red bumps.

And it hurt. My forehead was extremely tender. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture to show you; to be honest, I was so freaked out, I didn’t think to document it for posterity.

What’s more–and this was the final DUH moment for me–products I had used previously were now stinging on my face. That’s right: hydrating products hurt. my. face.

It was then, finally, that I realized what was going on. I didn’t have any flaking, but my skin was dehydrated, sensitive, and irritated. It was very uncomfortable.

If you have any of these symptoms, please be smarter than me. Play it safe. See below for how to deal with it.

How to Strengthen Your Moisture Barrier

So, what do you do? How do you help your poor skin?

Immediately stop using all actives. This includes Vitamin C, retinoids, AHAs, and BHAs. I even stopped using my fairly innocuous Cosrx Natural BHA Returning A-Sol. This will only hurt your skin more. I also stopped any manual exfoliation.

Take out any products with a lot of fragrance or potential irritants. I had a couple of nice but fragrant products–my Miss Flower & Mr Honey toner–that I have pulled from my line-up for now.

I have been focusing on using gentle products for sensitive skin. But more importantly, I began consciously using using products with high amounts of ceramides, fatty acids, and niacinamide.

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These creams have been in my constant rotation.

Ceramides

Ceramides are naturally occurring chains of lipids (fats) in your skin. They help keep water in your skin. There are nine different types of ceramides, so you may see it listed as a number of different things. Naming, I found, was actually the most confusing part of trying to understand ceramides. This post from Beauty Brains was extremely useful. I want to quote from this article at length (all in bold) about ceramide naming simply because it would be foolish to try to paraphrase or summarize all of this:

“Understanding which ceramides are used in cosmetics is confusing because there are three different ways they can be named:

1. The original INCI [Internal Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients] name which simply refers to each ceramide by a number.

2. The revised INCI name (sometimes called the “Motta” system) which uses a three letter designation. The first letter is the type of amide-linked fatty acid. (N stands for Normal Fatty acid. A stands for Alphahydroxy fatty acid and O stands for Omega hydroxy fatty acid.) The second letter is the type of base. (S stands for Sphinogsine base, P stands for Phytosphingosine base and H stands for Hydroxysphingosine base.) If there’s an “E” in front of the two letters then that means it’s an ester linked fatty acid.

3. Some times the chemical name of the ceramide is used (which doesn’t include the word ceramide at all.)

What to look for on the label:

  • Ceramide 1 = Ceramide EOS
  • Ceramide 2 = Cermamide NS = N-stearoyl sphinganine
  • Ceramide 3 = Ceramide NP = N-stearoyl phytosphingosine
  • Ceramide 4 = Ceramide EOH
  • Ceramide 5 = Ceramide AS
  • Ceramide 6 = Ceramide AP = α-hydroxy-N-stearoylphytosphingosine
  • Ceramide 6 II = Caproyl sphingosine
  • Ceramide 7 = Ceramide AH
  • Ceramide 8 = Ceramide NH
  • Ceramide 9 = Ceramide EOP
  • Ceramide E = Cetyl-PG Hydroxyethyl Palmitamide and Hexadecanamide”

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You can practically see these products rebuilding my barrier.  

Essential Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids are components of the lipid film that coats your skin’s surface. You can find essential fatty acids in many plant-based oils. There are many, many types of fatty acids; two of the most commonly found in facial oils are oleic acid and linoleic acid.

To be brief, oleic acid is found in heavy, rich, occlusive oils that seal in moisture really well. Many are also high in anti-oxidants. These types of oils are great for very dry skin, but may not be good for people with acne prone or sensitive skin. Examples of these oils include olive oil, safflower oil, almond oil, avocado oil, rose hip oil, argan oil, camellia oil, and seabuckthorn oil.

Linoleic acid is found in thinner oils, which is great for people with sensitive skin; however, they may not provide enough hydration for people with very dehydrated skin. Examples of these oils include maracuja oil, safflower oil, sesame seed oil, pumpkin seed oil, hemp seed oil, and evening primrose oil.

Niacinamide

I love niacinamide (Vitamin B3). I’ll give it its own post soon, but for now, know that this miracle ingredient increases the production of ceramides, and increases protein synthesis (e.g. keratin).

Niacinamide is a common ingredient in many Korean skincare products since it’s used to brighten skin and promote cellular turnover. It just so happens that it also helps to strengthen your moisture barrier.

Products

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These are the main products I’ve been using to help rebuild my moisture barrier.

A’pieu Pure Medic Lotion: $15

Full of ceramide and pro vitamin B5, which is a humectant–humectants attract and retain water–this is a thick lotion is an excellent pre-cream step.

Stratia Liquid Gold: $25

Created by a small company based on scientific research about skin, this product is formulated specifically to help repair moisture barriers. It’s incredibly effective and I will absolutely continue purchasing it.

Klairs Rich Moist Soothing Cream: $25

Made for sensitive skin, this fragrance-free cream is soothing, as the name implies, and is also full of ceramide. It is an excellent day cream and layers perfectly over the A’pieu Pure Medic lotion. It is rather pricey for the size of the tube, but you don’t need much and it has lasted me awhile.

Mizon Hyaluronic Acid 100: $11

Hyaluronic acid is a powerful humectant, able to retain up to 1,000 times its weight in water. This formulation also includes ceramide.

Mizon Black Snail AIO Cream: $10

Snail mucin is excellent for calming irritated skin; this particular snail cream also contains ceramide.

Shark Sauce: $29

Another powerful product from a small company, Shark Sauce (contains no sharks!) is made by blogger Chel from Holy Snails. It contains 5% niacinamide, 3% N-Acetyl Glucosamine, and Panthenol (Vitamin B5), which work together to improve your skin barrier.

Blossom Jeju 100% Camellia Seed Dry Oil: $30

A powerful dry oil, this absorbs quickly into the skin and is perfectly fine to use in your morning routine as it sits well under makeup. While it seems pricey, you only need a few drops for your whole face. This small bottle will last me awhile.

 

It’s been almost two weeks, and I won’t be using acids for several more weeks at the earliest. I have no intention of setting my progress back.

Since focusing ceramides, niacinamide, and fatty acids, my skin has already cleared up. Within three days of stopping actives and upping my ceramide, niacinamide, and fatty acid products, my forehead completely cleared up.

In fact, my whole face looks healthier than it had in a couple of months: fewer pimples, fewer itchy red comedones, and my skin looks more hydrated. It’s actually incredible how quickly my skin has bounced back.

Have you had to strengthen your moisture barrier? If so, which products worked best for you?

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