Skin balms, salves, ointments; Barrier creams go by many a name, but they’ve all got the same goal in mind—to keep your skin hydrated and protected. They can be useful if your skin’s natural barrier function isn’t working as it should, whether it's because of a skin condition (think: eczema, dermatitis, rosacea, and acne) or just an effect of the cold, dry winter.
Still, no matter the cause of your skin woes, one thing's for sure: Dry and/or damaged skin can be a real drag. That's why our ears perked up when we heard about a product on the market promising us healthy and hydrated skin. But what are barrier creams, exactly? How do they even work, and what are the best ones to use? To find out what skin barrier creams are all about, we turned to board-certified dermatologists. Dr. Alicia Zalka and Dr. Annie Gonzalez.
Meet the Expert
What Is Barrier Cream?
"Barrier creams are used to aid the skin in its most vital function: to keep what's good in and to keep what's bad out," says Zalka.
Gonzalez explains: "Barrier creams maintain and protect the physical barrier of the skin and prevent the skin from drying out. They stop transepidermal water loss and skin breakdown by providing a topical barrier on the skin. These creams can also heal skin tears and existing wounds." By acting as a shield against potential irritants, they are designed to create the ideal environment for damaged skin to restore itself.
So if barrier creams work by forming a protective layer over the surface of your skin, locking vital moisture in, are they essentially the same thing as, say, moisturizers? Not exactly. According to Gonzalez, "A moisturizer hydrates the outer layer of the skin while barrier creams restore the skin barrier itself. Barrier creams repair damaged skin, allow the skin to heal itself, and are usually thicker, while moisturizers enhance skin hydration." Zalka compares barrier creams to "adding a tarp over a leaky roof" and notes that common ingredients in barrier creams include petrolatum, wax, ceramides, dimethicone, zinc oxide, nicotinamide, hyaluronic acid and glycerin.
How to Use Barrier Creams
According to Zalka, barrier creams have a number of uses, including:
- Reducing friction and irritation
- Retaining moisture and suppleness of the skin (aka reducing transepidermal water loss)
- Soothing burns and other injuries
- Softening dry skin (think: chapped lips and nostrils in the winter)
- Protecting from chemicals or environmental insults (can be used on hands as an invisible glove)
- Helping wound healing
- Sealing cracks or fissures in the skin
Since they act as a protective seal on the skin—face and body—and therefore, prevent anything you apply on top from being absorbed properly, you’re likely best off using a barrier cream last in your daytime routine or slathering it on over your serum at night for an intensive hydration session. "You can use a barrier cream every 40 to 72 hours, and I recommend using it as your final step in your skincare regime and after you moisturize. You should apply barrier cream last because any other product you apply afterward will not penetrate the skin," recommends Gonzalez.
Certain products work especially well with barrier creams, encouraging them to perform better. For example, "If you use anti-aging serums or peptides for your skin, the barrier cream may help these products penetrate the skin more easily (but remember to apply barrier cream last)," says Gonzalez. She also warns: "When using barrier creams, avoid sodium lauryl sulfate to avoid irritation of the skin." Fortunately, most barrier creams can be used safely and effectively with no side effects; however, if you experience any irritation after using a barrier cream that persists or worsens, it's best to stop use immediately and consult a medical professional.
The Best Barrier Creams
The key to finding a good barrier cream is looking for breathable formulations (you’ll want to avoid those 100 percent petroleum salves—we don't want any clogged pores here), and come packing reparative ingredients such as ceramides, glycerin, nourishing plant oils, and our new favorite ingredient, vitamin F. Keep scrolling for an edit of our top picks.
Unlike traditional, goopier barrier creams, this Estee Lauder moisturizer features a luxe texture that soaks seamlessly into skin and layers well under makeup.
This cult balm has a celebrity following that includes the likes of Beyoncé and Emily Ratajkowski. The paraffin-based formula also contains glycerin, panthenol, and bisabolol, meant to soothe and condition skin that's feeling a little raw.
Formulated with zinc oxide and dimethicone, this moisture barrier cream is Gonzalez's pick for those of us who have damaged skin. "This product can reduce redness of the skin and repair cuts. It also provides hydration and protection to the barrier of the skin," she says.
Royal jelly is a term used to describe creamy white secretions that come from the throat glands of honeybees. It hydrates, increases collagen production, promotes wound healing, and fights inflammation.
A favorite among dermatologists, Cetraben's richly moisturizing ointment is ideal for eczema or dermatitis sufferers in need of a head-to-toe slathering.
Formulated with 100 percent lanolin, this natural balm promises to work wonders on cracked and chapped skin that needs a break from the elements.
A skincare icon, the famous Eight Hour Cream is a blend of petroleum and lanolin meant to help heal any chapped skin ASAP.
Another product that Gonzalez highly recommends? Cavilon 3M Durable Barrier Cream. "This fragrance-free cream protects the skin from body fluids and acts as a shield against potential irritants. It also resists wash-off, meaning it does not require reapplication, and this product also assists with skin healing," she says.
It may have been formulated for babies, but if your skin is in full freak-out mode, this gentle formula is exactly what you need to restore some balance.
MOA has your organic option with their cult Green Balm. Yarrow and tea tree oil tag-team to try to replenish dryness, fend off any infection, and protect for speedy healing.
Danby SG, Andrew PV, Brown K, Chittock J, Kay LJ, Cork MJ. An investigation of the skin barrier restoring effects of a cream and lotion containing ceramides in a multi-vesicular emulsion in people with dry, eczema-prone, skin: the RESTORE study phase 1. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2020;10(5):1031-1041. doi:10.1007/s13555-020-00426-3
Lin TK, Zhong L, Santiago JL. Anti-inflammatory and skin barrier repair effects of topical application of some plant oils. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;19(1):70. doi:10.3390/ijms19010070