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Suffer with stinging, burning or sensitive skin? You could have damaged your skin barrier. We spoke to skincare guru Matt Huxley, to find out what signs to look out for, and what you can do to repair it.

Words by Matt Huxley @infirmofpurpose

Has your skin been feeling different lately? Is it looking more red? Have you experienced stinging, tingling, or heat with products that wouldn’t ordinarily give you that response? The chances are, you’ve damaged your skin barrier. Here's everything you need to know. 

What is a skin barrier?

Your skin barrier (or stratum corneum to be exact) is the very outer layer of skin. It serves as a protective barrier to anything that might permeate the skin and harm it, such as bacteria or toxins. Alternatively, it also stops materials that are essential to your health, such as water, from leaving. That’s why the oft-mentioned “fact” – 60% of all topically applied skincare reaches your bloodstream – is a fallacy.

Think of your skin barrier as a brick wall; the bricks are toughened skin cells called corneocytes, and the mortar is lipids like cholesterol, ceramides and fatty acids. If the mortar in your garden wall was absent, the wall would be weakened and easily penetrated. It’s the same with your skin. Your skin barrier is also slightly acidic to inhibit bacterial growth – a phenomenon known as the acid mantle.

A compromised barrier means that your skin will become irritated far more easily. It may be sore, tight, red, blemished, oily, dry, or any combination of the above.

To be clear, I’m not intending this article to provide recommendations for those suffering with acne, rosacea, folliculitis, psoriasis, ichthyosis, or any other skin condition or disease. If you suspect that you have a skin condition like this or the reaction is very severe, immediately see a doctor or dermatologist. If, however, your hyaluronic acid serum is stinging when it doesn’t usually, or you’ve had a reaction to a moisturiser infused with essential oils, then this is the place for you.

My skin has had a reaction — what do I do?

The first thing to do when you have a reaction is to immediately wash the offending product off your face. A simple cleanser will do this. Look for something that will emulsify and wash off instantly – no, this is not the time for that luxuriously rich balm cleanser!

Avène Antirougeurs Clean Soothing Cleansing Lotion is my pick for this. It has the famously soothing thermal spring water as a base and lots of triglycerides for nourishment. It will gently melt any product from your face, leaving you with a clean canvas to soothe your skin.
Avene Antirougeurs Clean Soothing Cleansing Lotion 200mL

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Immediately after a reaction it’s important to not pile too much onto the skin. I would also avoid a facial oil at this stage too – if your reaction involves your skin heating, then the oil will trap that heat next to your skin. A spritz with a facial mist like Avène Thermal Spring Water or La Roche-Posay Serozinc, will serve to hydrate the skin, and keep it nice and soothed.

La Roche-Posay Serozinc Toning Mist 150mL - $19.99Shop Now

Invest in a calming moisturiser

If the skin around your eyes become puffy or inflamed, something like the La Roche-Posay Toleriane Eye Contour Sensitive Cream would be a great option to calm any irritation around the eyes.

La Roche-Posay Toleriane Ultra Eye Contour Sensitive Cream 20mL - $26.99Shop Now


Then you need a nice moisturiser that will soothe and calm. My personal favourite for this is Avène Cicalfate. Don’t be shy, slather it on. You need that skin to calm down to help see off any issues caused by inflammation.

Avene Cicalfate Restorative Skin Cream 40mL - $15.99Shop Now

If the thought of a thick layer of zinc-based cream on your face makes you uneasy, then reach for something lighter like the Bioderma Sensibio range — it won’t feel as heavy on the skin. Your skin should start to feel better within 45 minutes or so. If it’s the same, or worse, then it’s a sign this could be something a little more serious. At this point, you should see a specialist.

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One week later

For the week following, stick to this routine in the evening (do a double cleanse if you’re wearing makeup or SPF). In the mornings wash your face with cool water and then mist. Depending on your climate, use a face moisturiser again.

If you live in a hot climate and you know that your cream will sweat right off, then go for a moisturiser and SPF all-in-one — something like the Natio Daily Defence Face Moisturiser SPF 50+. Otherwise use a cream followed by an SPF, like the La Roche-Posay Anthelios Invisible Fluid SPF 50+.

Natio Daily Defence Face Moisturiser SPF50+ 100mL - $13.99

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Support your skin

After a week of this you can start adding in more skin supporting products. Patch test first and if no irritation occurs then start integrating into your morning and night routines. Cemoy Hyaluronic Acid Repair Ampoule Serum is a great place to start. It comes in two 5ml applicators so if you have any issues, you won't be stuck with a full bottle of product you can’t use.

CEMOY Hyaluronic Acid Repair Ampoule Serum 5mL 2 Pack - $26.99

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Ingredients-wise, it contains a wonderful blend of lipids to help repair the skin, panthenol, collagen, sorbitol, sodium hyaluronate and allantoin for hydration, and a variety of peptides to nourish the skin and plump fine lines. This cocktail will give your skin everything it needs to start repairing itself properly.

You can also start switching to a lighter cream if you need; The Jojoba Company Overnight Renewal Cream is a good option and comes loaded with nourishing oils like jojoba and argan, plus humectants for hydration like hyaluronic acid, panthenol and glycerin.The Jojoba Company Overnight Renewal Cream 50mL - $52.99Shop Now

A facial oil is also a good option here. My preference would be jojoba or squalane, as they’re similar to your skin’s natural oils and thus will be readily accepted. The Jojoba Company Australian Jojoba is a good option. A few drops under your moisturiser will go a long way.

The Jojoba Company Australian Jojoba 85mL - $29.99

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Build up your actives

Four weeks after the reaction I would start re-introducing your actives. Go slow, however, start off with one a week and then build up. Start with a gentle vitamin C like the Avène A-Oxitive Antioxidant Defense Serum, or the Neostrata Restore Bionic Face Serum. These contain a vitamin C derivative in ascorbyl glucoside and tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate respectively, which will be much more gentle on your skin than an l-ascorbic acid product.

Vitamin C helps prevent free radical damage so that your skin can repair itself more effectively. It can however, be quite irritating to the skin, which is why I personally prefer a derivative. Always patch test, and if you’re in doubt, mix it with a little bit of moisturiser to buffer.

Neostrata Restore Bionic Face Serum 30mL - $ 53.99

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Take your time

It’s important to note that a compromised barrier will take time to repair. If you go in too soon with your usual products, or something that could contraindicate like an acid, you run the risk of putting your skin right back to the start. It’s not worth risking another reaction. Go slow. Your skin knows how to repair itself, all we’re doing here is giving it scaffolding so that it can repair and restore.

Loved our expert skincare advice on how to repair a damaged skin barrier? We've got plenty more women's health and beauty advice on our Health & Wellness Edit, guaranteed to give your body a well-deserved boost. Suffer with breakouts? Here are 11 skincare mistakes that could be seriously damaging your skin. Considering moving over to a menstrual cup? Here are ALL your questions answered.

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