Just like some people’s skin is more sensitive than others, some people’s acid mantles are more sensitive than others. In fact, you might have a sensitive acid mantle even while you don’t think you have specifically sensitive skin.
Making sure you have healthy skin barrier function is one of the most important and beneficial things you can do for your skin.
What is the Acid Mantle?
The acid mantle is your skin’s moisture barrier that keeps moisture in while keeping harmful things out.
It’s composed mostly of fatty acids which create a protective slightly acidic layer on the surface of the skin that prevents bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens from penetrating while also keeping moisture from evaporating.
The problem is that unlike sensitive skin which can show sensitivities right away in the form of redness or dryness, a sensitive skin barrier may not show up immediately.
Oftentimes a sensitive or damaged skin barrier is a long term problem that many people begin to think is just the way their skin is. This can take the form of acne, dullness, slow healing, clogged pores or just an overall congested appearance.
Unfortunately, a lot of the steps people take to improve the appearance of skin can in fact contribute to damaging an already compromised moisture barrier.
The following are 14 factors that can damage your moisture barrier and the solutions that can fix it. If you struggle with problem skin healing moisture barrier could be a simple solution to your skin problems.
Washing with Bar Soap
Problem: Bar soap is typically highly alkaline, usually a 7 or more on the pH scale.
Besides the alkalinity, bar soap is also a very strong surfactant or detergent so it’s very effective at stripping a lot of the fat from the surface of the skin. The fat or oil is where the acid mantle lives and stripping it significantly compromises the skin barrier.
Solution: Switch to a gentle pH balanced bar soap specifically formulation for skin like CeraVe Hydrating Cleanser Bar, which has a slightly acidic pH of 5.5 that perfectly matches the skin’s preferred pH zone.
Stripping Liquid Cleansers
Problem: Besides bar soaps, liquid cleansers can also wreak havoc on your acid mantle.
Even if you are using a cleanser specially formulated for problem skin or acne prone skin, it may still be much too alkaline to support healthy barrier function.
This was my exact experience with Vichy Normaderm. Switching to a gentler cleanser solved a lot of my skin problems like the overall congestion and dullness I was dealing with.
Solution: Switch to a gentle cleanser specifically formulated to support healthy barrier function like:
You might also like my post on 5 Cleansers That Can Restore Your Moisture Barrier.
Cleansing Too Often
Problem: For some people cleansing even twice a day can be too taxing on their acid mantle.
Solution: If you’ve tried other barrier repair fixes and aren’t seeing results, try only using cleanser at night. In the morning just splash water on your face.
Plain Old Tap Water
Problem: As if skin care wasn’t complicated enough already now water could be standing between you and good skin.
The pH of water is naturally more alkaline than that of skin. Water ranges from 6.5 to 7 whereas skin is happiest between 4.5 and 5.5. For some people applying water too often can disrupt the acid mantle.
Solution: The oil cleansing method is a good option if you’ve exhausted other potential causes of your skin issues.
It’s usually said that the best oil to start with is mineral oil as it’s non-comedogenic and generally not reactive.
Problem: Mechanical exfoliation in the form of facial scrubs or harsh brushes isn’t great for your skin in the best of cases. If you happen to also have a sensitive acid mantle, it can be really disastrous.
Mechanical exfoliation strips the skin of natural oils that support the acid mantle while also leaving microscopic tears that create a perfect environment for bacteria to thrive unencumbered by the skin’s protective acid layer.
Few processes do more to promote inflammation and acne than scrubbing the skin.
Solution: Stop all mechanical exfoliation and switch to chemical exfoliants like BHA and glycolic acid.
BHA, also known as salicylic acid, is an exfoliant that works primarily on excess oil, which it targets and clears from pores without damaging the skin or acid mantle.
Glycolic acid helps to exfoliate the upper layers of skin and speed up cellular turnover, again without damaging the acid mantle.
Problem: Isopropyl or rubbing alcohol is very stripping for the skin since it removes virtually all oil from the surface of the skin. In one swipe you could effectively be wiping away your acid mantle.
Solution: Stop using rubbing alcohol on your skin. It’s way too harsh even for spot treatments.
Problem: Cleansing wipes aren’t immune from the problems affecting other types of cleansers. They can have an unfriendly pH and very commonly they contain a lot of alcohol.
Case in point Neutrogena Deep Clean Oil-Free Cleansing Wipes formulated with water as the first ingredient and alcohol as the second ingredient.
As a general rule if cleansing wipes leave your skin feeling tight or taut, they are too harsh for your skin.
Solution: Switch to a cleansing wipe without alcohol specially formulated for sensitive skin. Don’t always trust what the package says make sure to read the fine print (i.e. the ingredients list.)
Some good options include:
Problem: A lot of acne medications are formulated with ingredients that can compromise the skin’s acid mantle like benzoyl peroxide and alcohol.
Solution: Avoid acne treatments that contain alcohol as that isn’t good for skin anyway.
When using products containing benzoyl peroxide make sure to only apply to the exact spot being treated and not a larger area since that can just cause acne bacteria to spread.
If that doesn’t work, consider switching to a salicylic acid (BHA) based acne treatment since it’s naturally more acidic and thus much gentler on the skin overall.
Problem: Topical antibiotics are often used to treat severe acne, but they’re also known to compromise the skin’s acid mantle, which means they may be contributing to the problem they’re intended to solve.
Solution: If you’ve eliminated all other factors consider speaking to your skin care professional about eliminating topical antibiotics from your treatment plan.
Problem: Toners are like the fondant of the skin care world. They’re generally not necessary and usually do more harm than good. Yet for some reason people keep using them.
Solution: If you like the feeling of using a toner opt for a very gentle, pH balanced and alcohol free version.
Although it’s easy enough to find out if a toner has alcohol, finding out the pH of cosmetics is much less transparent. If you can’t find information on the pH of a toner, your best bet is to not use it.
Good toner options include:
Apple Cider Vinegar (actually restores skin barrier function)
Alkaline Moisturizers and Serums
Problem: Although moisturizers don’t have the same issues as cleansers as far as stripping the skin goes, they can still disrupt the acid barrier if they have a pH that’s too high for skin.
A surprising number of moisturizers and serums have a pH of 7 and higher.
Solution: A pH balanced moisturizer, ideally with ceramides which help to repair skin’s moisture barrier.
Good options include:
Makeup Remover & Makeup Remover Wipes
Problem: It should go without saying (but just in case you were wondering) that makeup remover can disrupt your acid mantle like any other cosmetic that’s too basic.
Solution: A gentle makeup remover specially formulated to be good for skin and not just to remove makeup.
Clinique Take Off The Day Cleansing Balm (one of my absolute favourite products ever)
Mineral oil (unscented & food-grade)
Long Hot Showers or Baths
Problem: Unfortunately, it’s pretty well established in the skin care literature that hot water and healthy skin don’t mix.
This applies to hot showers and baths as well as hot tubs, saunas, and all manner of hot and wet environments.
Solution: Adjust water to as cool as is comfortable for you.
Problem: Diet can have a huge impact on skin’s acid mantle but the exact mechanisms aren’t well documented yet.
We know that a very low fat diet can affect the moisture barrier since the acid mantle is supported by fatty acids. Dairy is also implicated in disrupting the moisture barrier since it can cause imbalanced in sebum production.
Solution: This one is a lot trickier than the rest. If you’ve tried everything and you still don’t see improvement, it may be time to really look into your diet.
Functional assessment of a washing emulsion for sensitive skin: mild impairment of stratum corneum hydration, pH, barrier function, lipid content, integrity and cohesion in a controlled washing test. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15691260