In all my 30+ years of being an esthetician, I have never seen as many people come to me with concerns over sensitive skin as I have in the last few years. I’m almost certain that we have social media to thank for this, as the term “damaged moisture barrier” has been burned into our collective psyche. There’s no doubt that having a robust moisture barrier is a key component of healthy skin, and on the one hand, I am glad people have a better understanding of this concept. I think it helps prevent skin issues that can be caused by user error, such as over-exfoliation.
But when it comes to damaged skin barriers, I advise everyone to take a step back and calm down. People have reached a bit of a fever pitch thinking their barriers are either damaged all the time or damaged beyond repair (spoiler alert, your skin is resilient and can always bounce back!). Remember, a “damaged barrier” is only a modern-day term for having dry, sensitive skin– it’s nothing to lose sleep over and it’s far from a permanent condition. Our barriers are not as damaged as we think they are. To understand why, let’s take a little trip down memory lane.
Skincare in the ‘80s
Let me tell you, the skincare industry has come a long way since I entered the scene as an esthetician in 1988. The average skincare routine consisted solely of three steps: cleanse, tone, and moisturize. Don’t think this sounds too bad? Let’s take a closer look.
Back in the ‘80s, cleanser options were far and few. You could either use a super drying bar soap or a foaming cleanser that was sure to be loaded with drying sulfates. The binders that are used in bar soap give it a pH that isn’t compatible with our skin, making them notoriously harsh and drying. Even worse, these cleansers were paired with a Buf Puf, or what basically served as a Brillo Pad for your face! Back then nobody knew what a moisture barrier was, leading people to scrub and scrub at their skin– especially if they were acne prone. We now know that acne is an anti-inflammatory condition and that irritating it like this is the last thing we want to do.
When it came to toners, they were entirely astringent back then (anyone remember SeaBreeze or Ten-O-Six?). To get that astringent effect, they usually had drying alcohols in them. One of the most popular cleansers at the time was Clinique No. 2, which contained not only alcohol but also acetone. Anytime I heard that one of my clients was using this toner, I would demonstrate its ability to remove my nail polish right in front of their eyes. It didn’t take long to conclude it’s definitely not something you want on your face!
I’m a big fan of toners for these five reasons, but modern toners are alcohol-free and deliver hydrating, nourishing ingredients into the skin.
Lastly, moisturizers were not something that those with oily, acne-prone skin were concerned about using to keep their skin hydrated. This only contributed to overall dryness.
Skincare in the ‘90s and ‘00s
The ‘90s and early aughts ushered in a new crop of popular products, but most of them were just as bad.
In terms of exfoliation, the Buf Puf was just replaced by Clarisonic. It was advertised that you should use it twice a day and in turn, became the reason I saw so many people rubbing their skin raw.
Facial scrubs also became popular during this time. However, most of them consisted of jagged bits of walnut shells or apricot pits. To the surprise of many, I actually still think facial scrubs can be extremely beneficial, especially for hyperpigmentation. This was an unpopular opinion for a long time because people were scarred– both literally and figuratively– by old-school scrubs. I still believe they can be very beneficial, but it’s all about using a modern scrub with gentle particles.
Proactive was another product that quickly rose to fame, likely due to repetitive TV commercials and illustrious endorsements from everyone’s favorite celebrities. If you had acne, you were using proactive. But their products were heavy on drying ingredients like benzoyl peroxide, and they didn’t provide much compensation in the way of moisture.
They may be one of the most widely used skincare actives today, but let’s not forget how exfoliating acids started! When acids first came onto the scene, no one had any idea how to use them properly. They were sold at incredibly high percentages, and the formulas weren’t very well stabilized because the importance of pH with these products wasn’t yet well understood.
I came to learn this firsthand in 1992 when I got my hands on a pure 2% AHA glycolic acid gel. This was revolutionary at the time because these acids were fairly unknown (even among skincare professionals!). Per the instructions, I kept it on my skin for 10 minutes, rinsed it off, then wiped my face with a damp washcloth. As I wiped, I noticed my skin was peeling off. I was excited, thinking it was just really effective. Come to find out, I was actually wiping off new skin cells. The next day, my skin was oozing badly and I developed scabs on my face. It took a month for everything to fully heal.
I was also around when retinoids went mainstream for the treatment of wrinkles and photoaging. They had historically been used to treat acne, but the FDA eventually approved them for anti-aging (I even met the dermatologist who was instrumental in getting them approved). In 1990, ABC News broke a story about how there was an acne prescription that was being used off-label for the treatment of wrinkles. Everyone rushed out to get it and started using it with little to no education. The next few weeks I was booked solid with all these clients who were running to their esthetician to repair all the dryness, sensitivity, and damage that had been caused. I had a client come in once with super dry skin from using a prescription retinoid, and when she sat down and smiled at me, her nasolabial folds literally cracked and bled right in front of my very eyes. There was only one strength of retinoid available at the time (intended for oil, acne-prone skin) meaning that those prone to dryness were stuck using a retinoid that was way too strong for them.
Where We’re At Now (and Why Your Barriers are Safer Than Ever)
Needless to say, everyone is much more educated about how to use active ingredients now. Exfoliating acids are now available in tons of different strengths, with stabilized formulas, and additional hydrating and soothing ingredients. Astringent toners have been replaced with hydrating essences. Physical scrubs are now gentle and well-formulated. Different types of acids, like lactic and mandelic, are an option for even the most delicate skin types. And retinoids? There are so many different types of retinoids available now. Again, all different kinds of strengths and bases—some more gentle and hydrating than others depending on your needs. With a wealth of education available about how to properly use retinoids, people now know how to mitigate side effects slowly (like applying moisturizer underneath). Even makeup is a lot more nourishing than it used to be! Back when matte was the look, foundation makeup was largely contributing to dryness. Now, a lot of makeup has skincare ingredients in it.
The moral of the story is that products now are far gentler than they’ve ever been before. This means that how people use them and how brands promote their products is very important to focus on. For example, an exfoliating acid serum could have a great, gentle formulation. But, if you’re using it every single day of the week, you’re still going to get a compromised barrier.
Education In Skincare
Consumers are more educated than ever before, and one reason is that brands lean much more heavily into product education, which I’ve always thought was super important. I think the main danger now is that while information is more readily available than ever, there’s so much of it that it can be a double-edged sword. People get information from sources that aren’t reputable, and their skin can become compromised due to user error. (And yes, people are still seeing DIY skincare recipes involving putting lemon juice on their skin. One of the many reasons I’m not a fan of DIY skincare.)
How Products Are More Efficacious Now
Simply put, products are more efficacious now because we understand the skin’s needs a little better and there are more options to choose from. This means you can find products that are suitable for your unique skin instead of everyone having access to the same few products like back in the day. I based my whole brand on the idea that everyone’s skin is unique and has its own needs, that’s why I created the Nine Skin Types. Because products are less harsh we’re working in sync with mother nature. Never go against her, always work with her! It’s all about listening to your skin and not overdoing it.
Wondering what to do if you’ve damaged your barrier? If you overdo it and end up compromising your moisture barrier, here’s how to fix it.