A quick perusal of medical journals, dermatology blogs and the top Google search hits quickly reveals that skin inflammation is nothing short of an epic battle of soapbox proportions fought on the frontlines of your skin. There are sudden sneak attacks and long-lasting sieges. Defense strategies and misdirected retaliations. Cycles of self-destruction and a not-so-clear line between helping and hurting. Like a lot of tales of human heroics, inflammation is more complicated than a simple good guy vs. bad guy narrative. Turns out, inflammation isn’t exactly a villian with malicious intent. It’s your red alert system warning you that not all is well on home turf — your body’s SOS if you will. Trying to rid your skin of inflammation without understanding the underlying cause(s) for the onslaught is kinda like shooting the messenger — over and over and over again. And yet, over 35 million Americans spend a collective $2 billion to fight it every year (1). Probably because irritated, hypersentive, red, itchy, scaly or swollen skin is unpleasant at best, downright painful at its worst. It’s no wonder that most of us would rather not have to deal with it, but deal with it we must if we don’t want it to return with a vengeance (2, 3, 4). To help you navigate your defense strategy, here’s a rundown of what inflammation is, when it’s on your side and when you need to pull rank to do something about it because it’s gone too far.
Know What Inflammation Is (And Isn’t)
Inflammation is a defense mechanism employed by your personal bodyguard: the immune system. On a broad level, inflammation means your skin recognizes an attack — like an infection or a sunburn
— and sends its first responder, an inflammatory response. Blood flow increases, fluids and proteins transport between blood and cells, white blood cells disperse with tiny sacs of enzymes to kick start the healing process.
This is probably when you start to notice something is up.
Skin inflammation fits into two camps: acute inflammation or chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is a rapid response and generally lasts only a few days to six weeks, ending in healing or turning chronic. Chronic inflammation has a slower onset, can lasts months to years and can having damaging results for skin tissue (5
Read the Symptoms
Rashes, redness and irritation are easy-to-recognize signs of inflammation, but knowing the root cause of inflammation is harder to decipher and depends on a lot of factors (which we’ll get into momentarily). To decipher when your symptoms have crossed the line from a harmless step toward healing to a big backstep toward damage is often a matter of time. Acute inflammation is associated with things like acne, sunburns and allergic reactions and can cause redness, swelling, sensitivity or pain, and might even be warm to the touch due to the increase in blood flow and fluid buildup in that area (7
) For the most part, acute inflammation isn’t something to get up in arms about…just stop touching that pimple and let it heal already. But if it lasts more than six weeks, it’s getting into chronic territory and likely doing more harm than good for your skin’s overall health. Chronic inflammation is more often a sign that an unwelcome disease like eczema, rosacea or psoriasis (to name only a few of the most common offenders) has taken up indefinite residency. And this is where we link inflammation to that word-that-must-not-be-named (I’m gonna say it anyway): aging. More specifically, premature aging (everyone ages, it’s fine) because chronic inflammation eventually leads to a breakdown in collagen if it’s not dealt with (9
). If you read our peptide piece
a couple of weeks back you already know that collagen is the number one protein responsible for your skin’s strength and structure. If you haven’t read it just know that a breakdown in collagen is bad news for your skin’s appearance as much as its health.
Understand the Causes
Some form of inflammation, whether acute or chronic, accompanies most skin issues and diseases. But the foundational cause of that issue can be a host of things both internal and external. Things you have control over, like skincare choices and diet, play a role. But so do things that, to be honest, can’t be immediately fix with a magic potion, like having an autoimmune reaction. Stress can trigger psoriasis (so can spicy foods). The temperature might aggravate eczema (or the detergent in your cleanser
). And hormones, duh, can cause acne
(so can too much sugar) (11
). Bottom line, decoding the root cause of your inflammation takes paying attention to everything from your sugar intake to the weather, being patient as you sort through potential triggers and sticking to good practices when you find what works. And, by all means, if your inflammation isn’t clearing up after months or becomes really, really painful...see a dermatologist! Your body really might be trying to tell ya something.
Do Something About It
One thing’s for sure, resting on your laurels definitely isn’t going to reduce inflammation whether your symptoms point to acute or chronic. Prevention is the pro-active anti-inflammatory strategy. The easiest way to figure out if something is bothering your skin? The same way you figure out if something is bothering your gut. Remove it for a while and see if your inflammation gets better. One of the most common culprits of inflammation in topical treatments is fragrance. Because the concoction of chemicals (and, yes, sometimes natural essences) that make up a fragrance are considered a trade secret, brand’s aren’t required to label the assortment of ingredients that go into a particular fragrance on their products. So you never really know what’s lurking inside a moisturizer that includes “fragrance” in its ingredient list (12
). If a fragrance is your trigger for inflammation, and you’re slathering it on your face everyday...how likely do you think your skin is to “heal” from it? Same goes for harsh detergents (looking at you, sodium lauryl sulfate) and preservatives. As important as elimination of trigger ingredients from your skincare is, including anti-inflammatory ingredients in your routine is kind of a no-brainer. Opt for soothing moisturizers and gentle cleansers with relevant percentages (so, not at the very end of the ingredient list) of ingredients that have scientifically supported anti-inflammatory properties (13
). Our list includes willow bark, chamomile, colloidal oatmeal, green tea, licorice and aloe vera. No matter your approach to reducing inflammation, don’t forget that inflammation is part of your skin’s healing process and not necessarily harmful to your skin unless it turns chronic. The goal isn’t just to reduce inflammation, but to take steps toward understanding your skin’s triggers so you can prevent inflammation from happening in the first place. Oh, and even if an overload of sugar isn’t the thing throwing your skin on inflammatory bender, rethinking your intake isn’t a bad idea (speaking from the experience of an addicted sweet tooth).