Fixing ‘facial freakouts’: expert advice on your skin’s barrier

Dr Ranella Hirsch explains how to heal compromised skin barriers

Balanced skin is skin with a functioning barrier. This is the natural protective mechanism of our skin, keeping essential moisture in and irritants out. When it becomes compromised by products, seasonal changes, allergies, friction or even stress, it will let you know with breakouts, redness or irritation, and tightness or soreness. When this happens to my face, I refer it as a “facial freakout”, and that is because I’m not a dermatologist.

Thankfully, Dr Ranella Hirsch is. She's also former president of the American Society of Cosmetic Dermatology and Aesthetic Surgery, and one of the best expert follows on Instagram for anything related to skin (@ranellamd). This week, I contacted her for advice on recognising when your skin's barrier is freaking out (not the medical term), and what to do about it.

So how do we know we have a barrier issue? Hirsch says, “What I tell my patients is, ‘When your barrier is doing well, you don’t think about it.’ Should you find your skin red, itchy, feeling tight, stinging when you wash or apply products, that suggests a barrier concern.”

When this happens, the key is to pare everything back. “First and foremost, stop what you are currently doing” to your skin, Hirsch advises. “You would be amazed how many people think it’s wise to ‘soldier on’” with a skincare routine that might be exacerbating or even creating the issue.


Hirsch confirms what we all suspected – that yes, one of the most common ways to sensitise and imbalance the skin is through overuse of skincare active ingredients. This has “amplified greatly with lockdowns and the pandemic” in tandem with skyrocketing skincare sales and less ready access to expert advice.

Hirsch advises that when it comes to ingredients we should be careful not to overuse, “the primary culprits are acids and other exfoliants”. When you experience a barrier issue, ditch all the active ingredients – acids, retinol and retinoids, and go back to basics. Hirsch says a compromised barrier needs “the skin equivalent of bland toast for an upset tummy – gentle cleanser and a bland, rich moisturiser only, with SPF as needed”.

Skin should start to feel more comfortable within a couple of days, though your barrier function may take longer to return to optimal working order. If things aren’t improving, there may be something more complex going on, and checking in with a doctor is a good idea.

Once balance has been restored, Hirsch advises that we can maintain it by using fewer active ingredients and fewer products. If you’re tempted to change your skincare routine, “add in only one new product at a time. This is also practical as it helps to identify the culprit when things go awry”. That way, you can identify the aggressor right away and prevent any damage before it has a chance to really set in.


Alpha H Melting Moment Cleansing Balm (€42 at

Dr. Jart+ Ceramidin Cream (€35 at Brown Thomas)

CeraVe Facial Moisturising Lotion SPF25 (€14 at selected pharmacies nationwide)

La Roche Posay Lipikar Baume AP+M (€17 at

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Tiffany & Co. Rose Gold Eau de Parfum (€98 at stockists nationwide)