Continuing my current obsession with Lush, I recently started to frequent the /r/LushCosmetics subreddit on reddit. However, I was mildly shocked to find that countless users sought solutions for their skin care issues in Lush face products.
Now, as much as I adore Lush, I would absolutely not recommend switching to an all-Lush routine for the face: Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, essential oils, abrasive scrubs, tons of perfume… what might work on the body and hair will inevitably leave persistent damage on the generally more sensitive and delicate skin of our face.
Unfortunately, brand loyalty or strong inclinations to “natural” beauty often leave followers deaf to arguments based on scientific research. Instead, users reinforce each others’ beliefs through anecdotal evidence and stories.
It’s a free world, though, and I will not condemn anyone for their beliefs, and I don’t plan to convert anyone. Science doesn’t know it all either. But browsing through the forums has shown me that the majority of people still understands very little about skin and how it works. While I don’t claim to be a studied expert on this either, I do find it important to explain the basics again once and for all. Because most of our skin’s issue really boil down to just one simple thing.
Contents of this post:
- The skin’s acidic lipid barrier
- How to tell your acidic lipid barrier is compromised
- What weakens the skin’s lipid barrier?
- How to restore a damaged lipid barrier?
The skin’s acidic lipid barrier
The skin’s outermost layer, called epidermis, is made from a horny layer of skin cells as well as lipids = cholesterol, ceramides, fatty acids. It is furthermore covered by an acidic lipid or moisture barrier, also called acid mantle, with a natural acidic pH between 4 – 6.
This acidic lipid barrier serves various functions:
- It protects our bodies’ “insides” from the outside: think water, wind, weather, harmful bacteria, germs, toxins, and so on.
- At the same time, it prevents trans epidermal moisture loss through the skin, or TEWL, and thus keeps it moist and supple.
- The slightly acidic pH allows ideal living conditions for the good bacteria on our skin while preventing contamination by harmful or acne bacteria at the same time.
- By protecting the skin from acne bacteria responsible for inflammation of clogged pores, it thus also banishes acne.
An intact moisture barrier within the right range of pH is therefore vital to well hydrated, clear and content skin.
How to tell your acidic lipid barrier is compromised
The skin’s protective acid mantle holds a multitude of functions. Similarly, however, damages to it can result in a multitude of consequences. A few common examples.
1. Dry and/or dehydrated skin
Your skin feels dry and tight, gets flaky, red, is sensitive. Or your skin feels dry and tight, but gets oily at the same time.
Dry skin means your lipid barrier is compromised and lacks the required lipids to prevent water loss through the skin. The moisture in your skin evaporates into thin air, leaving it dehydrated, dry and itchy.
The dryness, in turn, can irritate the skin which then sends chemical signals to your brain, which among other things controls your hormonal system. And to make up for the water loss, it activates the specific hormones that increase sebum production, resulting in oily skin.
2. Acne outbreaks
Whether dry or oily or combination, you experience regular breakouts, acne, zits. These are also clear signs of a compromised lipid barrier!
Due to the increased sebum production triggered by irritated, dry and/or dehydrated skin, it gets easier for pores to clog due to excess sebum. Add to that the fact that a compromised acid mantle cannot protect the skin from bacterial contamination, including that of acne bacteria, as well as it should. So clogged pores attract acne bacteria, which in turn cause them to inflame, leading to redness, swelling, pus and sometimes slight pain.
3. Sensitivities and allergies
Your skin is irritated and red, or even reacts allergically to specific skin care ingredients.
Some people’s skin is more sensitive or allergic to certain things naturally. But some substances can actually turn the skin more sensitive or even allergic over time following repeated exposure to them. Fragrances and fragrant essential oils are a common example.
As part of the skin’s barrier defense system, a damaged acid mantle simply can’t prevent more irritating skin care ingredients to “leak” through by and by. So substances your skin has shown no reaction to at first begin to penetrate the lipid barrier and slowly sensitize the skin.
4. Signs of aging
Already observe premature signs of skin aging? Fine lines? Age spots? Increasingly thin, maybe even sagging skin?
A weakened lipid barrier loses its capacity to prevent TEWL and to replenish itself, leaving the outermost layer of our skin weakened and slower to renew itself also. The result is dryer, thinner skin, which becomes more susceptible to fine lines and age spots caused by sun damage. The skin loses its plumpness and starts sagging.
What weakens the skin’s lipid barrier?
There are a number of things in our every day that weaken the skin’s lipid barrier over time.
Our skin’s lipid barrier and its barrier functions also decline naturally with age. The results are visible signs of skin aging. That is normal, and eventually cannot be helped. But we can decelerate the progress and aid our skin’s natural barrier functions through proper skin care.
Dust, dirt, smog and free radicals in the environment can do considerable harm to our skin over time, and so does climate. Think, for example, dry, freezing winter weather and how it dries out the skin and makes it rough and flaky. Much worse is sun damage, though.
Sun damage from sun exposure compromises the skin’s overall health and can cause sun burns, accelerated skin aging, dark spots, even skin cancer. Proper sun protection therefore is recommended throughout the year and for a multitude of reasons.
Apart from that, however, cold and heat in general aren’t great for our skin’s health either. So while we can’t control weather, don’t expose it to hot or cold water, for instance. Don’t steam your face. It won’t “open up” your pores anyway. Tepid water is always best for the skin.
3. Harsh surfactants
But even with tepid water, washing the face is pretty harsh and irritating on the skin by default. Hot as well as cold water aggravate the skin easily, but so do friction, rubbing, scrubbing… and harsh surfactants and detergents!
Harsh, irritating cleansers are measured by how heavily their cleansing agents interfere with the skin’s lipid mantle and proteins.
Irritating surfactants, for example, include
– Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate,
– Sodium Laureth Sulfate,
– Sodium Lauryl Sulfate,
– Sodium Lauryl Sulfoacetate,
– Sodium Myreth Sulfate,
– Cocamidopropyl Betaine,
– Disodium Cocoamphodiacetate,
– Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate,
– Sodium Coco Sulfate.*
Whether or not your cleanser is too harsh, you can also tell by how it leaves your skin after washing: does it feel dry, tight, irritated, gets red, or even itches? Then back off immediately!
4. Alkaline or high pH
Soap detergents such as
– Sodium Palmitate,
– Sodium Cocoate,
– Sodium Tallowate,
– or other “Sodium ____ates” = saponified oils
furthermore come with high pH-levels and are therefore considered irritating, too. They level up the skin’s pH above 7, and will thus leave the skin susceptible to harmful substances from the outside.
But many other skin care ingredients in cleansers or products, including toners, moisturizers, etc., can have high pH, too! Unfortunately, it’s rare for skin care companies to declare the pH of their products. You can either refer to incomplete infos from the Internet for this, like here, or test your products with simple pH test strips available at drugstores or pharmacies. Many toners and essences, however, are specifically geared towards re-balancing the skin’s pH to bring it down to its natural level.
5. Acidic or low pH
Chemical exfoliants like AHA, BHA and Vitamin C work best at pH-levels between 2 – 4, which is lower than our skin’s. Anything lower than a pH of 2, however, poses severe risks of burning and over-exfoliation. Beware of extreme redness, rashes or itching as signs your skin’s lipid barrier is compromised.
6. Harsh scrubs
In a related vein, mechanical exfoliation, too, can deal serious damage to the skin’s health. Sharp, rough peeling agents, such as ground nut shells or seeds, are capable of leaving micro-scratches in the skin, damaging the skin’s outermost layer, and creating ideal breeding grounds for bacteria and dirt particles. Stay clear from scrubs that aggravate your skin as they will harm it more than do good in the long term.
7. Irritating skin care ingredients
Irritation of the skin along with a weakened lipid barrier are the main culprits of breakouts!
Among the most common irritants are alcohols, for instance, although you need to differentiate between alcohols and fatty alcohols. The fatty alcohols, such as
– Cetyl Alcohol,
– Cetearyl Alcohol,
– Stearly Alcohol,
– Behenyl Alcohol,
– Caprylic Alcohol,
– Decyl Alcohol,
– Lauryl Alcohol,
– Myristyl Alcohol,
– Isostearyl Alcohol, or
– Oleyl Alcohol,
pose no risks to the skin. But other forms of alcohol, which are either used as preservatives, astringents, or to aid penetration, weaken the skin’s lipid barrier, dry out, and irritate the skin. They are usually listed as follows:
– Alcohol denat./denatured,
– SD Alcohol,
– Polyvinyl Alcohol,
– Isopropyl Alcohol, or
– Benzyl Alcohol.
You might not experience any reaction to them, at least in the beginning. But the harm is accumulative, or might show in ways you wouldn’t expect.
Then there are fragrances, including essential oils. They irritate, sensitize, and can even cause allergic reactions. In the case of various essential oils, studies have furthermore shown cytotoxic = cell-toxic, as well as phototoxic or photosensitizing effects = inflammation, blistering, redness and burning of the skin upon exposure to UV rays.
Fragrances are identifiable as
– Perfume or
– Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone.
– Citronellol, and
are commonly used fragrances, too.
As for essential oils, it would be difficult to offer a conclusive list. But to at least give a few examples, these are proven allergens according to German regulations concerning cosmetics:
– Tree moss,
– Bitter orange,
– Melissa or lemon balm,
While these have been shown to be phototoxic according to Essential Oil Safety – 2nd Edition by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young:
– Angelica Root Essential Oil,
– Bitter Orange,
– Fig Leaf Absolute,
– Mandarin Leaf,
– Rue and
In addition, Paula’s Choice has a good list of common skin care ingredients to avoid, too.
But again, these lists are not conclusive. However, they will still help a great deal if you are committed to getting by without skin irritants!
How to restore a damaged lipid barrier?
Good news is, a damaged lipid barrier is not completely irreparable. But it will take time.
1. Avoid irritants, be gentle!
Now that you know how vital the skin’s lipid barrier and acid mantle is to content, healthy-looking skin, re-think your skin care routine. Do you use or do any of the things I’ve listed above: harsh cleanser, vigorous scrubbing, steaming your face? Lay off!
I find the most common mistake way too many people make is taking acne outbreaks and oily skin as a sign to go hard at the skin and cut oil at all costs. But more often than not anything “anti-acne”, harsh alcohol-based treatments, astringent toners, tea tree oil, etc., are highly drying, super irritating, and only exacerbate the issue at hand. After all, irritation of the skin directly contributes to excess sebum production thus facilitating acne outbreaks.
If you suffer from acne, it’s a sign your skin is stressed, imbalanced and sensitive. Treat it accordingly: be gentle, and look for mild, non-irritating skin care that soothes and calms the skin.
In short, avoid hot and cold water, harsh surfactants, drying alcohol, irritating astringents, low pH products, abrasive scrubs, over-exfoliation, fragrances and fragrant essential oils.
2. How to pick a mild cleanser
You know which surfactants to avoid in a cleanser now. But what are the alternatives?
Milder to mild surfactants are
– Coco Glucoside,
– Decyl Glucoside,
– Lauryl Glucoside,
– Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside
– Disodium Cocoyl Glutamate,
– Laurdimonium Hydroxypropyl Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein,
– Sodium Cocoamphoacetate,
– Sodium Cocoyl Glutamate,
– Sodium Cocoyl Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein Glutamate,
– Sodium Cocoyl Hydrolyzed Wheat Protein,
– Sodium Lauryl Glucose Carboxylate,
– Sodium Lauryl/Lauroyl Glucoside,
– Sodium Lauroamphoacetate,
– Disodium Laureth Sulfosuccinate,
– Cocoyl Methyl Glucamide,
– Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate,
– Lauryl Lactyl Lactate,
– Sodium Cocopolyglucoside Tartrate,
– Sodium Cocopolyglucoside Citrate,
– Sodium Lauroyl Lactylate,
– TEA Lauroyl Lactylate,
– Potassium Cocoyl PCA,
– Sodium Myristoyl Glutamate,
– Sodium Cocoyl Glycinate,
– Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate,
– Sodium Myristoyl Sarcosinate,
– Triethanolamine (TEA)-Cocoyl Glutamate, and
– Triethanolamine (TEA)-Lauroyl Sarcosinate,*
among others. They strip the lipid mantle of the skin only minimally, barely at all, or even replenish the skin with lipids or protective occlusives and humectants.
The most gentle kind of cleansers, however, are still those without any surfactants at all.
Cleansing lotions or milks, for example, take off make up, sebum and dirt. But as they cater especially to dry skin types, they are often also designed to leave a light protective film on the skin to support its natural barrier functions. Not ideal for oily skin types.
Emulsifying cleansing oils and balms are another great alternative. The emulsifiers added to these products mean that everything from oils to waxes, including sebum and make up, gets rinsed off the skin with water completely without leaving residue. Following up with a second water-based cleanser afterwards to double-cleanse is not necessary. In case of taking off make up with a non-emulsifying oil-based cleanser, however, it is highly advised.
3. How to replenish the skin’s lipid barrier
Our lipid barrier is composed of cholesterol, ceramides, and fatty acids, such as oleic acid and linoleic acid.
Innumerable plant-derived oils and butters are rich in essential fatty acids, like
– Illipé butter,
– Baobob oil,
– Passionfruit seed oil,
– Shea butter,
– Coconut oil,
– Jojoba oil,
– and many more!
Some are especially high-oleic oils, such as
– Olive oil,
– Safflower oil,
– Almond oil,
– Avocado oil,
while the following are high-oleic and anti-oxidant rich:
– Argan oil,
– Rose hip oil,
– Camelia oil.
Oily and sensitive skin types, however, will find some high-oleic oils to be problematic as they tend to be comedogenic (= clog pores, for example olive!) or to exacerbate sensitivity.
High-linoleic oils suitable for oily and sensitive skin include
– Passion fruit or Maracuja oil,
– Sesame seed oil,
– Seabuckthorn oil,
and drying oils, like
– Grapeseed oil, and
– Castor oil,
which need to be mixed with other oils so as to not strip the skin.
Again, these lists are not conclusive. There are hundreds more oils high in fatty acids and with similar benefits.
What research has shown is that topical application of fatty acids and ceramides, regardless of their origins, aid our skin’s barrier repair and can reinforce its barrier functions.
4. Add antioxidants to your routine
Protecting the skin from damage by free radicals in our environment also helps maintaining a strong and healthy skin barrier system. For this, complement your skin care routine with a cocktail of antioxidants, such as Green tea extract, Vitamins A, B, C and E, Pomegranate extract, Camomile extract……
5. Seal in everything with an occlusive
To prevent moisture loss and evaporation of your antioxidants into air, use an occlusive at the end of your skin care routine to seal in everything you’ve applied up until that point. I like to use a light oil for this, and I recommend oily skin types to do the same. But some with dry skin swear by good ol’ Vaseline or other similarly thick creams. For skin with an already weakened lipid barrier unable to keep moisture, this will help make up for the damages to the skin.
! Please note that none of the info here is exhaustive or claims to be !
You could write books on this topic, while this post is meant as signpost and quick reference.