Your ‘lipid barrier’ is essential when it comes to protecting and fortifying your dermis - but what exactly is it and what is its function? We’re breaking down the science behind this complex system, and letting you know exactly what you can do to support a properly functioning, healthy lipid barrier.
The lipid barrier is the outermost part of your epidermis, working as the external safeguard preventing UV rays, pollution, microbes and infection from entering into the skin. The outermost section of the lipid barrier is known as the stratum corneum. Made out of a network of proteins and oils, the stratum corneum forms a physical barrier that is partially permeable, depending on the chemical structure of the product being applied. If it’s functioning healthily, it will retain adequate amounts of both water and the skin’s naturally occurring lipid (sebum).
If this outermost skin barrier becomes compromised, skin becomes prone to infection and inflammatory conditions. From a cosmetic perspective, skin will also appear dry, dull, and loose. A healthy lipid barrier equals an elastic and resilient outer layer and a smooth appearance. Remember that the lipid barrier is never not working – it’s constantly functioning like a bouncer for your skin, preventing toxins, dirt, dust and bacteria from entering into your deeper epidermal layers. And when there are toxins that are able to penetrate into your pores, due to pollutants or chemicals from conventional cosmetics, the lipid barrier works to filter them out.
Weakening Your Lipid Barrier
However it’s important to remember, the lipid barrier isn’t immune to weakening. If you’re using products that strip the natural oil balance in your skin (such as alcohol based products or lab synthesized salicylic acid), the lipid levels will become too low, and the lipid barrier won’t act as a protective shield as effectively. Moreover, using chemical exfoliants without adequate protection, such as a high-concentration glycolic acid peel, can result in a thinning and weakening of the lipid barrier. Hydration is also key: our skin become drier as we we age, and this translates to a lipid barrier without adequate H20, which in turn throws off PH balance as well as lipid balance.
Lipid Barrier Absorption
While the lipid barrier keeps the bad stuff out, it also exists as a mechanism of absorption. This means that if we are using nourishing and skin-loving, plant-based skincare, a healthy lipid barrier will absorb vitamins and nutrients deep into the epidermal layer (and if anything is ultimately absorbed into the bloodstream, it will be completely non-harmful if a product is crafted without chemicals). To maintain a healthy lipid barrier, steer clear of overly astringent products with alcohol bases, detergent filled foaming cleansers, and ultra hot water, which will strip the skin. A go-to for promoting a healthy lipid barrier is Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3 that boosts ceramide production, thereby improving lipid barrier function.
While absorption of plant-based ingredients is beneficial, skin-absorption can become a concerning issue if you are using products that contain harmful chemicals. Some products contain “chemical enhancers” like ethanol, acetone and sodium lauryl sulphate, which function to break down the skin barrier and allow for the penetration of the product. While they are designed to enhance effectiveness, what they also do is deliver potentially dangerous chemicals into your bloodstream.
One example: a chemical called 1,4-dioxane. It is present in many conventional shampoo formulas, and has been cited as a probable carcinogen. It’s also small enough to enter into your bloodstream when applied topically. Similarly, women are discouraged from using retinol during pregnancy, as the retinoids will permeate the lipid barrier and absorb into the body, resulting in a baby potentially having central nervous system defects, among a long list of other abnormalities.
What Else Can Get Through Your Lipid Barrier?
We can also look at mechanisms like transdermal drug delivery as an example that illustrates the extent to which topical application of chemicals results in absorption into the skin. Transdermal drug delivery refers to “patches” like nicotine or birth control patches, which deliver medication through the skin and into the bloodstream. Lipid soluble drugs are typically used in this sort of delivery method, meaning drugs that can readily pass through a lipid-based membrane (yous skin), for faster delivery into the bloodstream. These technologies, which have been developed for the delivery of medication, are also popping up in cosmetics, with potentially harmful results.
A new wave of skincare has been developed using “nanotechnology,” which essentially allows chemicals to be covered in a lipid layer that mimics the body’s lipid barrier. Because these “nanoparticles” trick the skin into thinking they are chemically identical, they are able to penetrate deep into the dermis. This can be dangerous if the products you are using contain carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, like mercury, parabens, and Formaldehyde, which many conventional formulas do.
The takeaway on your lipid barrier? Use products that bolster your natural lipid barrier, instead of ones that can weaken it. Remember that products you apply topically will ultimately end up in your body – so stick with plant based organic cosmetics and ingredients that you can understand. The lipid barrier is an essential component of healthy skin functioning, and with the right care and nourishment, will help your skin filter out the bad stuff, while absorbing vitamins and minerals that will keep you radiant.