Skin is at the interface between the complex physiology of the body and the external, often hostile, environment, and the semipermeable epidermal barrier prevents both the escape of moisture and the entry of infectious or toxic substances. Newborns with rare congenital barrier defects underscore the skin's essential role in a terrestrial environment and demonstrate the compensatory responses evoked ex utero to reestablish a barrier. Common inflammatory skin disorders such as atopic dermatitis and psoriasis exhibit decreased barrier function, and recent studies suggest that the complex response of epidermal cells to barrier disruption may aggravate, maintain, or even initiate such conditions. Either aiding barrier reestablishment or dampening the epidermal stress response may improve the treatment of these disorders. This Review discusses the molecular regulation of the epidermal barrier as well as causes and potential treatments for defects of barrier formation and proposes that medical management of barrier disruption may positively affect the course of common skin disorders.