For some, it started in high school with a certain anti-acne facial cleanser. For others, it was more recent, with the rise of so-called “glass skin” and close-up selfies blocking up our feeds. Have you noticed just how preoccupied we are with the state of our faces?
It’s no accident. The internet, along with hyper-educational beauty brands, has brought skincare smarts to the masses. Nowadays we’re all off-duty dermatologists. Couple that with the panicky rise of anti-pollution cosmetics—not to mention constant pressure to be selfie-ready at the drop of a derma-roller—and it’s no wonder we’re obsessed with acids, charcoal peels, scrubs, and anything promising the far-off wonder of “purified” skin.
And with acne, rosacea, dermatitis, eczema, and general irritation on the rise, it’s easy to be seduced into trying to scrub away the oil and bacteria we’ve always been taught are so goddamn disruptive to skin health.
But while there’s little harm in Marie Kondo-ing our homes and Hinching our kitchens, the same can’t be said for our stressed-out faces, which are now feeling
the burn from our triple-cleansing and 12-step skin rituals.
Enough is enough. Our overactive cleanliness might not only be causing irritation– it could also be damaging our skin barrier. We need to call time on deep cleaning is done wrong.
Have I damaged my skin barrier?
Whenever you go too far with the scrubs and acids, you wear away the vital, uppermost layer of your skin – the barrier. Your skin’s barrier is like the non-stick coating on your favorite pan.
Nobody’s denying that it’s important to keep that pan clean and hygienic (unless you're Emily in Paris's downstairs chef), and with the right care and attention, it’ll last you a lifetime. But if you don’t clean it correctly – or worse, over-clean it – you’ll end up eroding its protective seal.
When it comes to skin, this can result in itchy redness, rawness, and stingy sensations when you apply skincare or makeup.
How to rebuild your skin barrier
Luckily, your skin barrier can be restored quite easily with a tasty combination of bacteria and grease.
You can keep levels of healthy bacteria (probiotics) topped up by misting your face with prebiotics (which keep the “good” bacteria well-fed) and post-biotics (which are, essentially, bacteria manure –fibrous nutrients that “good” bacteria like to snack on) that build and protect your barrier.
Along with classic mists, these ingredients are also available in many cleansers, moisturizers, and serums.
Topping up the “grease” part of your regime (experts call this “maintaining your lipid ratio”) is also an essential stage, and one which has been championed for decades–and it is especially relevant in a post-Kylie-Walnut-Scrub era.
Greasing up that skin barrier is equally simple–to start, just look for the word “ceramide.” If skin cells are bricks, ceramides are the mortar. You get the picture: Ceramides hold the whole thing together, creating a fortress against the outside world.
Once a pricey ingredient only for the rich and famous, ceramides can now be found in a lot of products, from cleanser to lip balm to SPF. Also, look for omega fatty acids and cholesterol–all wonder ingredients for replenishing your skin.
A regimen that combines those bacteria and grease elements can restore your skin barrier in a matter of days, making your face hydrated, brighter, and better able to tolerate pollution, dirt, and active skincare ingredients like AHAs/BHAs and retinoids.
The moral of the story? Cleaning your face is not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Different skin types tolerate and want for different things, and the quest for ideal skin will and should take each of us down a slightly separate path. You need to tailor your regime to your skin type at every step–including cleansing. Here’s how to do it.
YOUR SKIN BARRIER PRESCRIPTION
MY SKIN'S LOOKING KIND OF...
The situation: “The skin on my face is duller than a desk lunch...”
You're probably: Trying to exfoliate away the dullness with acid toners and distract with glow drops and highlighters.
The solution: Your face needs a tall glass of water, stat. Look for a product full of ceramide, plus glycerine to help your skin grip on to water. Aircon drying your skin out? Spritz a refreshing face mist. In short? Chill out on the exfoliation.
The situation: “My face is scaly, flaky and itchy. I’m not even trying to get my base make-up to sit right.”
You're probably: Not washing in case you sacrifice what little oil your skin has.
The solution: Do cleanse but the right way. Use a creamy hydrating cleanser, followed by a hyaluronic acid serum. Then balance bacteria with probiotic moisturizer.
The situation: “Shiny and oily, my skin is a spot-prone nightmare.”
You're probably: Jet-washing your face and terrified of moisturisers.
The solution: First, deploy a Centella Asiatica cleanser and apply a niacinamide serum. Seal with an oil-free moisturizer.
The situation: “Removing my SPF and high-coverage foundation is a full-time job, before I even start on my skincare regime.”
You're probably: Quadruple-cleansing,multi-masking and feeling the sting.
The solution: Relax–we won’t take away your multi-step ritual, but you need to add barrier-replenishing ingredients. Cleanse with a probiotic cleanser, swap super-active masks for cica or snail mucin mask. And if you’re wedded to nightly retinol, opt for a product with retinol and ceramide.
The situation: “Painful, extra-sensitive and blemish-ridden, my skin’s just awful.”
You're probably: Panicking.
The solution: It's worth seeing a dermatologist, if you can. For now, stick to a gently antimicrobial, antibacterial cleanser, preferably one without sulfates. You could also slather on a product that blatantly says "barrier repair" on the label. Look for formulas full of fatty acids and ceramide precursors, it’s intended for use after aggressive treatments so you should have a barrier back in no time.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.