Choosing a Skin Barrier Cream (Lotion)

Advertisements for skin care products can be overwhelming. Turn on your television or open a magazine, and the odds are there will be a multitude of advertisements for creams and lotions. Every brand seems to be touted as the next best thing to help your skin look young and fresh. But is all this fussing really necessary? 

While skin may seem uncomplicated compared to other parts of the human body, it is actually a sophisticated and complex human organ. Understanding and appreciating this organ means more than just tending to it after a sunburn, acne breakout, cut or scrape. To help keep your skin at its best, you need to understand a crucial function of this vital organ -- the skin barrier. 

To understand the skin barrier, start by taking a closer look at the structure of the skin itself. The skin consists of three main layers, each with own unique function and purpose. The subcutaneous layer is the innermost layer. It is made up of fat, which is used as a fuel reserve and for insulating the body. Next, the dermis contains tiny blood vessels, hair follicles and nerve endings that detect pain and pressure. The dermis is very flexible and can detect changes in temperature.

The outermost layer, the epidermis, is the key to the skin barrier. Made up of overlapping layers of dry cells, the epidermis keeps vital nutrients in and damaging substances and elements out. It also helps keep moisture in the body [source: National Geographic].

A healthy epidermis is crucial to your overall well-being. Learning how to protect skin and keep it healthy will not only make you look better, but it will also help you keep your body functioning correctly.

Your epidermis plays a key role as the protector, defender and gatekeeper of your body. Finer and thinner than plastic wrap, the epidermis performs remarkably well as a protective barrier for the human body [source: Healy].

The primary job of the skin barrier is to keep water-rich internal organs from drying out by preventing water loss in dry environments [source: Denda]. Without this protection, the body would not be able to sustain its normal activities, and everything -- from major organs down to the tiniest cells -- would dry out and die. The skin barrier also acts as a sort of dam, keeping too much water from rushing into the body. The barrier provided by the skin allows just enough water to enter the body without flooding it.

The skin barrier also works to keep other things out of the body. Think about all the elements and substances you are exposed to every day, such as chemicals, pathogens and sunlight. The human skin does a good job of blocking out all these undesirable substances and forces. And all this happens around the clock, on a level so small you can't even see it. The skin's processes are highly complex, and most of them are invisible to the naked eye.

There is one instance, however, in which you can actually see how your skin protects you. When you are exposed to excessive sun rays, the skin produces more of a pigment called melanin, which darkens your skin and helps protect the body from potentially damaging ultraviolet, or UV, rays. You see this happen when you develop a sun tan.

Skin Barrier Cream (Lotion):

Now that you understand the structure of the skin, it's time to explore whether you can help maintain this important organ by using skin creams.

Start by considering the purpose of a skin barrier cream. You want a cream that is going to help the epidermis retain water. According to researchers, a good skin cream acts as a sort of short-term shield that helps back up the skin barrier. To get the most out of your moisturizer, apply it just after a bath when you've towel blotted your skin. This will help trap water in the surface cells of the skin.

In choosing a skin barrier cream, pick one that does not contain fragrances, since they can cause skin allergies or irritation. Preservatives, which are found in moisturizers that contain water and oil, can also cause irritation. Beware of skin care products with ingredients that claim to improve skin's flexibility or reduce wrinkles or stretch marks. These types of products have not as yet been proven to work [source: Mayo Clinic].

  • Always bear in mind that it's better to choose a product for its effect on skin's function rather than for its beauty claims. 

Maintaining a Skin Barrier

Now that you understand the skin barrier and know what skin creams can do, it's time to talk about how you can work to support and improve the health of your skin.

The first step in maintaining a good skin barrier is choosing the right type of moisturizer for your skin. Don't let price or brand name be the only factor in your choice. High price tags and familiar brand names do not necessarily mean the product is more effective. 

Follow these recommendations to select a product that best suits your skin type:

  • For normal or oily skin, choose a lightweight, water-based product.
  • For sensitive skin, pick a cream that contains no dyes or fragrances, as these can irritate the skin.

Beyond choosing a good product for maintaining the skin barrier, there are techniques you can use to help boost the power of your moisturizer. An intense moisturizing technique is the wet wrap. Although this process is a bit time-intensive, it has been reported to improve the skin barrier considerably. After a bath or shower, apply your preferred moisturizer wherever dry skin is a problem. Place a wet layer of cotton cloth over your skin where you've moisturized, then follow with a dry layer of cotton cloth [source: Lewis].

Other suggestions include washing with warm water rather than hot water. Finally, look for skin care products that are pH-balanced -- anything with a pH above seven can dry out skin [source: Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology]. 

If skin dryness is a problem, don't despair. Take some time to make a good skin care regimen part of your daily activities, and consult a dermatologist if you feel it's necessary. Your skin and your health are worth it.

Dermatologists recommend using a daily facial moisturizer as part of a skin care routine. Gently cleansing the face removes dead skin cells, dirt and bacteria, but it also strips the skin of needed hydration. Water -- not oil -- in the skin keeps it plump and smooth, whereas dry skin loses elasticity, making it more prone to developing wrinkles. Facial moisturizers, which are usually lipid-based, lock in that water by either blocking it from escaping from the outermost layer of skin (occlusive moisturizers) or drawing water from the inner dermis toward the top the of skin (humectant moisturizers) [source: American Academy of Dermatology].

Selecting the appropriate face moisturizer can be as frustrating as noticing a pimple before a hot date. And since moisturizers stay on the skin for extended periods of time, the wrong ones can wreak pore-clogging, skin-irritating havoc. To avoid unwanted breakouts and excessive skin care expenses, follow these four tips to help you select the right daily facial moisturizer.

  • Don’t let price fool you: In the skin care industry, you don't always get what you pay for. That $200 tonic promising radiance, wrinkle reduction and blemish control may end up leaving you with nothing more than an adult acne flair up. Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies facial moisturizers as cosmetics, they aren't as closely regulated as, say, the cucumbers you slice to cover up your eyes. For that reason, the marketing jargon on packaging can't be entirely trusted. Instead, pay attention to ingredients. If you have sensitive skin, look out for fragrance-free and oil-free options. For oilier faces, keep your eyes peeled for noncomedogenic (non-clogging) formulas [source: Mayo Clinic]. While the FDA doesn't require companies to disclose exactly how much of every ingredient is in each product, they do list ingredients in order of amount. By scanning the fine print, you may find that even generic brands offer the right combination for a much better price.
  • Take note of the weather: The time of year that you shop for a daily facial moisturizer can influence what type you should buy. When the weather turns warm, it may be time to lighten up on your daily skin care routine. With a more humid atmosphere and increased perspiration, thick moisturizers may trigger seasonal breakouts. If your skin suddenly seems like an oil rig, consider switching to a lighter, non-greasy formula. Chilly winter air calls for greater facial skin protection. Unless you have particularly oily skin, a richer lotion may be necessary to prevent the face from drying out. When applying cold weather lotion, also pay attention to areas around the lips and eyes that are particularly prone to winter skin damage.
  • Know your skin type: Before you begin searching for a daily facial moisturizer, you need to know a little bit about your skin. For instance, during the day, does your face tend to stay dry, or does it develop a greasy sheen? Do you have any fine lines or an uneven skin tone? The answers to these questions help determine your unique skin type.

Dermatologists have designated 16 different skin types, based on the following four categories:

  • Dry or oily
  • Pigmented or nonpigmented
  • Wrinkled or tight
  • Sensitive or resistant

Knowing which skin type you fall into makes it much easier to pick the right daily facial moisturizer. Often, skin care companies will label their face lotions with the corresponding skin type. For normal skin, you'll want to choose a non-greasy, water-based variety; heavier oil-based products glycerin better suit drier skin that feels dry and taut after washing

Sunscreen is a must: The most important additive in a daily facial moisturizer is sunscreen. The ultraviolet rays (UVA and UVB) from the sun rob the skin of hydration, leading to wrinkles, skin damage and possibly cancer. By applying a face lotion with sunscreen in it, you can protect your skin from premature signs of aging and maintain a healthier appearance. Dermatologists generally recommend a moisturizer with at least an SPF 15 to adequately safeguard against the sun. If you're out in direct sunlight for an extended amount of time, the American Academy of Dermatologists also advises reapplying sunscreen every two hours.

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