Surfactants have multi-fold effects on skin barrier function

Eur J Dermatol. Sep-Oct 2015;25(5):424-35. doi: 10.1684/ejd.2015.2587.


Background: The stratum corneum (SC) is responsible for the barrier properties of the skin and the role of intercorneocyte skin lipids, particularly their structural organization, in controlling SC permeability is acknowledged. Upon contacting the skin, surfactants interact with the SC components leading to barrier damage.

Objective: To improve knowledge of the effect of several classes of surfactant on skin barrier function at three different levels.

Methods: The influence of treatments of human skin explants with six non-ionic and four ionic surfactant solutions on the physicochemical properties of skin was investigated. Skin surface wettability and polarity were assessed through contact angle measurements. Infrared spectroscopy allowed monitoring the SC lipid organization. The lipid extraction potency of surfactants was evaluated thanks to HPLC-ELSD assays.

Results: One anionic and one cationic surfactant increased the skin polarity by removing the sebaceous and epidermal lipids and by disturbing the organization of the lipid matrix. Another cationic surfactant displayed a detergency effect without disturbing the skin barrier. Several non-ionic surfactants disturbed the lipid matrix organization and modified the skin wettability without any extraction of the skin lipids. Finally two non-ionic surfactants did not show any effect on the investigated parameters or on the skin barrier.

Conclusions: The polarity, the organization of the lipid matrix and the lipid composition of the skin allowed describing finely how surfactants can interact with the skin and disturb the skin barrier function.

Keywords: contact angle; infrared spectroscopy; lipid extraction; skin barrier function; surfactants.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biopsy / methods
  • Humans
  • Permeability / drug effects*
  • Sampling Studies
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Skin / drug effects*
  • Skin Absorption / drug effects*
  • Surface-Active Agents / pharmacokinetics*
  • Surface-Active Agents / pharmacology
  • Tissue Culture Techniques


  • Surface-Active Agents