6 Factors That Can Damage Your Skin Barrier

From stress to sun exposure, find out which six environmental factors cause skin barrier damage.

A partial view of a woman holding her face and looking shocked while staring at a small round mirror.

Your skin barrier might not be something you think about often but if you don’t take care of it properly, it will show in the form of symptoms such as skin dryness, acne, sensitivity and fine lines.

As the topmost layer of the epidermis, the skin barrier is your body’s first line of defence against external pathogens like germs and bacteria. Though it plays a huge role as a strong protector to other layers of the skin such as the dermis and hypodermis, it is also vulnerable.

Since it’s utterly exposed to the environment, the skin barrier is susceptible to irritations. When it’s damaged, your body’s shield weakens and outside factors can harm the health of your skin as a whole. 

It’s important that you know what these environmental elements are, so you can avoid and minimise the effects of infections. Read along as we list the six factors that can trigger a damaged skin barrier and impair its health. 

Six Factors that Damage the Skin Barrier 

Following a study on identical twins, experts have discovered that up to 60% of skin ageing is influenced by genetics. In contrast, the remaining 40% is determined by outside factors like smoking and sun exposure. Both genetics and the environment can affect the appearance of your skin. 

The six damaging environmental factors to your skin barrier are: 

Diet 

Some foods may cause various skin problems. For example, acne is linked to the hormones in dairy products, and high glycaemic index in sugar, white bread and white rice. Sugar and grilled, fried and roasted foods are also responsible for transforming the collagen fibres in skin, which can accelerate ageing. 

Stress 

The brain and skin are more connected than you think. When we’re under pressure, stress hormones released by the brain and adrenal glands can negatively impact skin. 

These hormones can trigger skin conditions such as psoriasis, acne, eczema, patchy hair loss, itching, and rashes. It can also slow the wound-healing process and speed up skin ageing. 

A woman standing while holding bread in one hand and looking at a laptop on a desk.
A diet high in sugar and dairy and a stressful lifestyle contribute to skin barrier damage.

Allergens in skincare products 

Eczema is often treated with skincare or over-the-counter topical creams. Ironically, you can be allergic to those products and suffer from more severe conditions. The allergy can manifest as rashes, hives, itches, peeling skin and swelling. In more serious cases, these allergens can cause breathing problems. 

A 2020 study has discovered how skincare products and allergies are connected. The skin barrier contains the CD1a protein that can bind itself with certain compounds from the products. When it interacts with immune system cells called the T cells, it can set off an immune response and, therefore, an allergic reaction.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are five common allergens in skincare: 

  1. Natural rubber or latex 
  2. Fragrances 
  3. Preservatives 
  4. Dyes or colour additives (for example, in hair dyes or black henna tattoos) 
  5. Metals such as nickel and gold 

Products made from natural ingredients aren’t always safe. For example, Peru balsam (tree oil) is composed of benzyl benzoate and benzyl cinnamate, and rose essential oil consists of farnesol. Each of these chemicals can stimulate T cells. 

Climate change 

Research on women in Beijing and Guangzhou has shown that the more extreme the climate fluctuates, the greater the damage to the skin barrier.

In Beijing, the difference between summer and winter is intense, hence the women in the study have decreased skin hydration. In winter, they also have higher skin pH (water-to-oil balance) and transepidermal water loss (TEWL). Together, these aspects cause dry skin. 

Meanwhile, because the climate difference in Guangzhou is minimal, the amount of sebum secretion in these women is almost the same. However, the skin naturally produces more sebum in summer, causing oily skin.The result of the study proves that drastic climate changes can induce skin barrier damage. 

Air pollution 

Pollutants enter our skin either through direct contact or absorption by hair follicles and sweat ducts.

Cigarette smoke and dirt from city traffic have been known to cause signs of premature ageing like pigment spots and wrinkles to appear. Other skin conditions associated with air pollution are acne and eczema. A study in Seoul has provided evidence that the prevalence of eczema symptoms is in parallel with the increasing levels of outdoor pollutants. 

More recently, a pollutant called cadmium that is usually found in batteries or television sets have been detected in psoriasis patients’ blood. This indicates that cadmium worsens the symptoms of psoriasis.

Sun exposure 

There’s probably no bigger threat to our skin barrier than the sun itself. Its Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR) brings terrible consequences, causing premature ageing, melasma (hyperpigmentation), and skin cancer. 

UVR is divided into three parts based on wavelengths: UVA, UVB and UVC. While ozone layers and oxygen absorb UVC before they reach Earth, UVA and UVB are able to penetrate the human skin, inducing gene alterations or immunosuppression.

As if this isn’t distressing enough, there’s also global warming to worry about. A study has found that with every 1% decrease in the ozone layer, there will be a 2% increase in UVB irradiance. As a result, there is also a 2% chance of a surge in skin cancer patients. 

A woman next to a window with half-open blinds, looking concerned.
The sun may be our skin barrier’s worst enemy.

How to Prevent Skin Barrier Damage 

There are several things we can do to deal with environmental factors that are hurting our skin: 

Consume foods that are good for the skin 

The Mediterranean diet includes foods rich in antioxidants that can counter the impacts of pollutants. Additionally, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believes that seafood, coffee, tea and cold drinks are bad for the skin; so are raw, spicy and fried foods. TCM usually recommends bird’s nest (yan wo, 燕窩) which has been used for centuries to beautify skin. Also, drink plenty of water daily to help dilute the toxin load in the bloodstream. 

Use sunscreen 

Besides sunscreen, applying skincare products with topical antioxidants may work like vitamins A, B3, C and E. Green tea, coenzyme Q10, and resveratrol may help, too. 

Perform a patch test 

If you have sensitive skin or a history of allergies, you might want to get a patch test. This test will indicate the substances that you’re allergic to; that can help you choose the right skincare products. 

Reduce stress factors  

Constant contact with high levels of stress will spoil your skin barrier, leaving you at risk of various diseases and conditions. With the addition of well-balanced meals, high quality skincare products and an active mind, you can obtain a healthy skin barrier that will in turn protect your body.

Follow these steps to ensure you lead a balanced and healthy lifestyle, and your skin will thank you for it. But if you have tried all means to improve your skin and require further advice, seek the assistance of your medical practitioner or TCM specialist so they can recommend the best course of treatment for you. 

This is an adaptation of an article, ”6 Environmental Factors Affecting Skin”, which first appeared on the Eu Yan Sang website. 

References

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2014. Genetic polymorphisms and skin aging: the identification of population genotypic groups holds potential for personalized treatments [online]. [Accessed 20 March 2022] 
  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2014. Diet and Dermatology [online]. [Accessed 20 March 2022] 
  3. National Center for Biotechnology Information. 2014. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging [online]. [Accessed 20 March 2022] 
  4. National Institutes of Health. 2020. Understanding allergic reactions to skincare products [online] [Accessed 20 March 2022] 
  5. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. 2022. Allergens in Cosmetics [online]. [Accessed 20 March 2022] 
  6. Scientific Research. 2017. The Effects of Regional Climate and Aging on Seasonal Variations in Chinese Women’s Skin Characteristics [online]. [Accessed 20 March 2022] 
  7. Science Direct. 2020. Air pollution and skin disorders [online] [Accessed 20 March 2022] 
  8. Frontiers. 2014. Air pollution and the skin [online]. [Accessed 20 March 2022] 

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