What Is and How To Restore The Skin’s Acid Mantle Barrier
The skin's acid mantle is often overlooked or even ignored in our pursuit of flawless and line-free skin, yet it is crucial for overall skin health in terms of function and appearance. The acid mantle is the skin's first line of defense and when compromised, it can lead to irritated, red, flaky problem skin lacking in resilience. Many people have experienced acid mantle disruption and it's very easy to do if using badly formulated products or over-using too many products.
What is the Acid Mantle and why is it Important?
The acid mantle is a fine layer of natural oils, amino acids, fatty acids, lactic acid, urocanic acid, sebum and sweat that cover the outermost layer of the skin. It is the body’s first line of defence against bacteria, viruses, pollution particles, and other foreign agents. It prevents transepidermal water loss and keeps skin soft and supple.
The skin’s pH is created by the acid mantle and it is on the slightly acidic side (ranging in pH from about 4.5-5.5) which helps to ward off infection and maintain resilience of the top layer of the skin. Slightly acidic pH provides the right environment in which our skin’s natural flora can thrive. The skin’s pH can be changed by skincare products, diet, hormones, ageing, and environmental factors.
If the skin’s acid mantle is compromised, not only does it leave the skin more vulnerable to bacterial and viral infections, but essential lipids cannot be synthesized. This leads to transepidermal water loss and skin becomes more sensitive to environmental triggers. Water is a catalyst for many enzymatic functions in the skin and when it loses too much water, important enzyme activity is impaired which impacts the desquamation (natural shedding) process of the skin.
Signs of a Damaged Acid Mantle
A damaged acid mantle can be described as sensitive and sensitized skin. Symptoms can include inflammation, irritation, redness, and patchy, flaky skin. When the skin reaches this point, it becomes a vicious cycle because the barrier is less able to protect skin from topical ingredients that lead to further irritation and inflammation. This likely leaves the person reaching for more products in an effort to help the skin, which potentially exacerbated the cycle of irritation and sensitization.
Skin with a damaged acid mantle can appear dull, irritated and flaky, but can be oily at the same time. In response to the irritation and dryness the skin produces more oil to protect itself which increases breakouts and acne. If the acid barrier is chronically weakened and disrupted, it can lead to other skin issues with studies showing a disrupted acid mantle can be partially responsible for eczema, contact dermatitis, psoriasis, rosacea, acne.
Common Skin Irritants
Below is a list of common skin irritants that can damage the skin's acid mantle.
Sun exposure without sun protection
Biological age: women's skin grows more alkaline and able to hold less water with age
Drying alcohols in products
Tools with a rough texture
Overuse of acids and peels
Changes in temperature and humidity
Too frequent washing
Once the acid mantle is weakened, skin sensitization can be exacerbated by external stressors such as air pollution, excessive sun exposure without sun protection, hormones, a diet lacking in essential fatty acids, and dehydration.
How to Restore the Acid Mantle
When repairing a weakened and compromised acid mantle, remember the less is more. It's not a simple “buy this shiny new miracle product” solution. Layering on more products or using too many products in the hopes of a quick fix will not do the job.
The key to effective skin barrier repair is using a few quality products with no irritating ingredients and using these products consistently over four to six weeks. The skin has its own regenerative rhythm and needs time to adjust and repair. This is not the time for quick fixes and miracle treatments.
Over the course of four to six weeks, focus on rebuilding the health and resilience of the skin. Keep skin clean, hydrated, moisturized and protected from the sun. All active serums, exfoliators, vitamin C and retinoids should be left until the skin has healed. Finally, ditch the 10-step routine and bring skincare back to basics. Use a minimal number of products, focus on cleansing the right way, and work on replenishing and fortifying the skin.
The first step to repairing the skin's acid mantle is to get cleansing right. One can do more harm than good if choosing the wrong cleanser. Harsh, foaming cleansers and soap are all damaging to the acid mantle because they strip away the natural oils and sebum in the skin, leaving it vulnerable to bacteria and external stressors such as pollution and potentially irritating ingredients in products. If after washing, skin feels tight, dry, or “squeaky clean,“ then the cleansing product was too harsh and it likely compromised the skin's acid mantle.
Oil cleansing is the best way to clean the skin while keeping the acid mantle intact because oil gets rid of grime dirt and excess oil but doesn't strip the skin of natural oils and sebum. Oil also breaks down makeup. If skin is sensitized, then washing once a day (at night) is enough.
Replenish and Fortify
Skin barrier fortifying ingredients such as ceramides, plant oils high in fatty acids such as evening primrose, chia, and rosehip, as well as vitamins A, B3, B5 and the plant boswellia (Boswellia serrata) all help to strengthen the skin barrier through preventing water loss and increasing ceramide production. Ceramides are lipids that help the sklin retain moisture and protect the skin from irritants.
Lactic acid, one of the alpha-hydroxy acids helps to stimulate ceramide production and improves barrier function. The only other exfoliators gentle enough to be used at this time are the fruit enzymes, such as papaya and pineapple, which can help to very gently exfoliate.
Its important for skin to remain hydrated and moisturized so that there is enough water in the skin to act as a catalyst for key enzymatic functions.
An omega-rich protecting and essential-oil free face oil like our Phytonutrient Recovery Face Oil can help repair and strengthen the skin's barrier. Products with ingredients like glycerin and hyaluronic acid can also help with repair and replenish lost moisture. one thing to remember with humectants is that in places with low humidity they can draw moisture from the dermis and contribute to water loss in the skin.
It can take weeks or even longer for the skin’s acid barrier to fully repair itself. To maintain a resilient skin barrier, proper cleansing and replenishing and fortifying the skin need to be followed in continuity.
When ready to build back a skin care routine, add serums, active products, exfoliators, or treatments back in one at a time. Wait for a few weeks, give the skin time to adjust to the new product and then add another. Less is more and be gentle with your skin.