My issue with my skin, described here, has made me dive much deeper into the underlying cause of my problems, which I’ve been struggling with for quite a while. The well-intended dermatologist who recommended Nivea cream to alleviate my eczema symptoms did me an injustice by not telling me the whole story of why it works.
THE LIPID BARRIER AND WHAT IT DOES
Apparently, your skin has a really neat defense system called the lipid barrier, which protects it and enables it to retain moisture. If the lipid barrier gets damaged, your skin will become inflamed, sensitive, and unable to retain water. This can make it susceptible to bacterial infections; it can also cause your skin to go into hyperdrive producing oil to make up for the water loss, which in turn can lead to acne. This is often why people complain of simultaneously having acne and dry, flaky skin.
In my case, towards the beginning of my struggle with dry skin and eczema, I had gone to the dermatologist because I got a bacterial infection from using coconut oil on very dry skin, and I now suspect that the underlying problem was a damaged lipid barrier which made me more susceptible to infection. My skin got super inflamed, red, dry, itchy, and broken out. It sucked.
LIPID BARRIER DAMAGE
So how did my lipid barrier get damaged? A lot of things can cause lipid barrier damage, but among them are:
- Using skincare products that have an alkaline pH; skin has a naturally acidic pH and using products that are too alkaline can damage the lipid barrier (foaming cleansers are especially guilty)
- Washing with water that is too hot
- Poor diet and/or inadequate hydration
- Very hot, cold or dry weather
THE BACTERIA LINK
I’ve read and been told that bacteria and eczema are linked, which I have found to be true, and have had some luck in the past alleviating symptoms of eczema by including pro-biotic foods in my diet, like yogurt and kombucha, and eliminating sugar, which bacteria feeds on.
While pro-biotic foods are definitely beneficial to skin, you may not need to call up such a ferocious army of them if your lipid barrier is healthy and less-susceptible to bacterial attacks in the first place. My dermatologist had actually recommended that I stay on a low-dose antibiotic… forever. This should have been my first clue that I needed a second opinion. But I trusted him because he introduced me to Nivea cream, and the Nivea cream worked. So why did it work?
WHY SYNTHETIC MOISTURIZERS WORK... SORT OF
Nivea cream does actually contain lipids, like lanolin, which help to calm down the inflammation reactions of damaged skin. The problem is, the lipids in Nivea cream and other synthetic moisturizers are not naturally found in human skin. So instead of helping to repair the skin’s natural moisture barrier, they only mimic it. And they do a damn good job.
After my first visit, I left the derma’s office and went straight to Duane Read and bought a tub of Nivea cream, went home, washed my face, and slathered on a thick layer of the stuff. I immediately felt relief from the dryness and itching that had been my personal hell. I thought it was a miracle cure.
But I found that the second I stopped using it, the second I took those fake lipids away, my problems returned because my skin’s moisture barrier was still not repaired. And a moisture barrier left damaged and untreated leaves you open to problems. This explains why any time I go off the Nivea cream, my skin flares up almost immediately, especially if I wear makeup, which no doubt further irritates my already damaged skin.
THE BODY IS REALLY GOOD AT FIXING ITSELF
Now that I’m thinking about it, why did I think that this product was the only thing that could keep my face from looking like hell? Ancient humans didn’t need Nivea cream just to keep their skin from cracking off every time they smiled. I’m disappointed in myself for not trusting my body to repair itself and just getting out of its way.
How do you repair the lipid barrier? By avoiding the causes listed above, and by using plant oils to moisturize, which do contain the lipids found in skin, and will serve as the building blocks to get your lipid barrier back to health. Staying protected from the sun is also crucial to maintaining a healthy lipid barrier.
It can take two to four weeks for your lipid barrier to come back to life, and right now I’m on day two of abstinence from the Nivea cream, using almond oil to take off my mascara and to moisturize, and staying away from all other makeup completely, lest it interfere with my lipid barrier’s repair. My skin does feel dry, itchy and a little irritated, but I’m doing all I can to keep It from flaring up while that lipid barrier patches itself up: washing with tepid water, gently patting my face dry rather than rubbing, using almond oil, eating healthily, and drinking plenty of water.
I'm hoping Skincare Experiment Part III will be all about my success. Stay tuned.