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Barrier cream

Matthew Nicol, final year medical student, Queen’s University of Belfast, United Kingdom. DermNet New Zealand Editor in Chief: Hon A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand. July 2017. Copy editor: Gus Mitchell. September 2017.


What is the skin barrier?

The skin barrier serves to protect the body and prevent water loss. It is formed by the outermost layer of the skin, called the stratum corneum, containing the protein keratin and corneocytes (dead skin cells) held together by a lipid intercellular matrix. 

Damage to the skin barrier; for example, due to dermatitis, leads to transepidermal water loss, increased sensitivity to contact irritants and allergens, and inflammation.

What is a barrier cream?

A barrier cream is a product applied directly to the skin surface to help maintain the skin’s physical barrier, providing protection from irritants and preventing the skin from drying out. Barrier products can also be formulated as pastes, ointments and sprays. They can also make it easier to remove paint, glue, or sealant from hands during or after industrial or occupational work, without necessitating the use of harsh solvents. They persist on the skin for several hours, even after gentle washing. They are applied sparingly and reapplied as necessary.

Barrier creams are particularly useful in the management of:

Irritant contact dermatitis

What are the ingredients in barrier creams?

Conventional barrier cream

Ingredients in conventional skin barrier creams can be classified as either occlusives or humectants. Some products have a combination of occlusive and humectant ingredients.

  • Occlusive ingredients are insoluble in water. They include petroleum jelly, silicone/dimethicone and zinc oxide.
  • Humectants increase the skin’s ability to hold onto water. They include glycerine, sorbitol, urea, seaweed extract, hyaluronic acid and alpha hydroxy acids.

Petroleum-based products are more effective at reducing transepidermal water loss and keeping the skin hydrated. Silicone/dimethicone barrier creams are less greasy and may be preferred aesthetically. Small amounts do not decrease dressing adhesion, hence their usefulness for stoma dermatitis. 

Novel barrier cream

Novel barrier creams contain additional ingredients to promote healing of the skin barrier, such as ceramides and vitamin B3.

  • Natural ceramides are an important component of the intercellular matrix of the stratum corneum. Creams containing synthetic ceramides are thought to be particularly useful in the management of atopic dermatitis.
  • Vitamin B3 (also known as vitamin PP or nicotinamide) reduces trans-epidermal water loss and keeps the skin hydrated. It promotes repair of the skin barrier by stimulating the production of lipids in the skin.

What are the risks and contraindications to barrier creams?

Barrier creams are usually very well tolerated. Although uncommon, some people may suffer from allergic contact dermatitis to components such as preservatives, fragrances, and other ingredients in barrier creams.

Some occlusive barrier creams may also aggravate acne when applied to the face. Most barrier creams should not be applied directly to broken skin.



  • Draelos ZD. New treatments for restoring impaired epidermal barrier permeability: Skin barrier repair creams. Clin Dermatol. 2012; 30(3): 345–348. DOI:10.1016/j.clindermatol.2011.08.018. PubMed
  • Crowther JM, Sieg A, Blenkiron P et al. Measuring the effects of topical moisturizers on changes in stratum corneum thickness, water gradients and hydration in vivo. Br J Dermatol. 2008; 159(3): 567–577. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2008.08703.x. Journal

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