Probably stemming from a combo of the pandemic, staying indoors, self-care, there’s been a lot of different skincare trends on the rise. A recent trend that we’re fully on board with is tackling skin inflammation. A majority of people don’t realize how impactful inflammation can be on skin and happens to be the catalyst for a lot of annoying skin concerns like dry skin, angry acne breakouts, and aging. In fact, a big part of managing skincare conditions such as eczema and psoriasis is managing inflammation - topical steroids anyone?
So what causes skin inflammation and how can we tackle inflamed, angry skin and what can we do about it? Let’s review the biology of inflammation and build a routine focusing on keeping these aggressors at bay and help your skin stay its best self.
*This article aims to provide an overview on the causes of inflammation and some general skincare ingredient suggestions to tackle mild cases of inflammation such as redness, scaliness, sensitivity. It isn’t meant to address chronic conditions such as eczema or psoriasis that might sometimes require prescription care.
These are the Factors that have a hand in Skin Inflammation
UV damage aka. The Sun - ah yes, the root of (most) skin evils… UV rays.
External allergens and microbes - Think smog, car exhaust, cigarette smoke, airborne pollen, etc.
Internal Stress - Which is why our top skincare tip is don’t do a startup.
An unhealthy skin barrier - skin conditions like atopic dermatitis are found to have less well-structured of a stratum corneum (think slightly porous) and as a result becomes more susceptible and reactive to external allergens and microbes.
The Biology! (We’ll try not to make this a snooze fest…)
Inflammation is your skin’s defense response
The factors above can all kick start your skin’s inflammatory response. Before getting into why inflammation is bad, know that your skin’s inflammatory response comes from a good place. It’s part of your normal immune response to foreign and potentially harmful microbes and allergens. However, chronic inflammation can impact your skin’s overall health negatively, making “inflammaging” a very real phenomenon.
So it makes sense to try to tell your skin’s inflammation response to take a chill pill to avoid the negative consequences of prolonged inflammation. However, no big surprise, there’s different types of inflammation for different skin conditions and the mechanism can get very very VERY complicated. Exhibit A & B below. Both show different pathways involved in skin inflammation and it’s pretty daunting (even for us) to wrap your head around.
Pasparakis, M., Haase, I., & Nestle, F. O. (2014). Mechanisms regulating skin immunity and inflammation. Nature Reviews Immunology, 14(5), 289–301.doi:10.1038/nri3646
Bickers, D. R., & Athar, M. (2006). Oxidative Stress in the Pathogenesis of Skin Disease. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 126(12), 2565–2575. doi:10.1038/sj.jid.5700340
But we’ll save you from all of that and focus on the main aspects that are looked at in skincare. Most tests look at the signaling molecules in the inflammation response pathway. You’ll hear about the following:
Pro-inflammatory Cytokines (TNFα, MMPs, & the ILs) - signaling molecules that are responsible for kicking off the inflammatory response.
The NF-kB & MAPK pathways - Once triggered, these interconnected pathways start a web of reactions that lead to inflammation. TNFs & MMPs are also part of the NF-kB pathway. Inflammation response itself can produce free radicals. See how this gets confusing?
- Speaking of free radicals... did you know that it can be a total vicious cycle? They can trigger inflammation, but are also side products of the pathway, leading to a crappy cycle that results in DNA damage and aging *hisss.
Still with us? Good! Skincare ingredients can be screened for these markers but these are typically tested in vitro (in petri dishes). The downside of this means it's hard to know if these ingredients truly bring these results when applied on skin.
Which brings us to clinical studies. To no one's surprise, it's really quite a hodgepodge. There's no one true method of testing for skin inflammation since there's different types of inflammation, which means clinical testing can be quite diverse. It can vary from testing on sunburns, redness reduction, immediate itchiness and irritation relief, to even eczema relief. The truth is, inflammation has so many pathways and there's no formula to which pathways are signaled. So we have to look at the sum of data (both in vitro and the sparse clinical data out there) to get a sense of ingredient efficacy.
So to sum up, because inflammation is a messy, interconnected relationship web more complicated than European royal family trees, you could say it takes a shotgun approach when it comes to your skincare routine. The good news is that it doesn't really stray too far from your current routine.
What can I do to prevent inflammaging?
Prevention! A good defense is the best offense right? Good sunscreen habits prevents UV-induced damage and subsequent inflammatory response. A solid skin barrier focused moisturizer primes your skin for the best defense against other outside aggressors such as pollution. (Click here to read more about what makes a good moisturizer).
Tell your inflammatory response to take a chill pill: soothing ingredients that target IL-6, nf kb, MMP pathways
This is your soothing skincare products… but this category can end up being the dumpster category for ingredients that are new and don’t have a lot of data behind it. *cough exotic plant extracts*. So it’s important to discern which ones are actually helpful and which ones are meh usually via testing data.
Chemist recommended ingredients we’ve found with promising data: allantoin, bisabolol, allantoin, colloidal oatmeal, and madecassoside (think 'cica' and 'centella')
Minimize the damage: This probably feels like it belongs with #1 as a preventative measure but your antioxidants will help target those unwanted free radicals and nip that vicious cycle in the bud.
So let’s target inflammation shall we?
Ready to shop at the anti-inflammation section? Annoying fun fact! Skin inflammation is a claim you’ll rarely find with skincare products because it’s a drug claim and typically requires OTC (over the counter) testing. That means we’ll need to read between the lines a little bit when it comes to this category. On that note, good thing you have us right ?! Despite the convoluted nature of this category, there’s really only a couple key products to focus on and get those so very soothing benefits.
- You’re looking for a moisturizer that can bolster your skin barrier function. This is sort of a no-brainer, but a healthy skin barrier means a better defense to inflammation. Moisturizers that focuses on the upkeep of a healthy skin barrier with ingredients like niacinamide and ceramides are very helpful.
Sunscreen: Just do it.
Since ROS are a culprit for inflammation, antioxidants are a shoe-in for prevention. The gold standard antioxidant we tout is vitamin C. However, it may not work for everyone because of it’s often very high concentration and low pH. Go for lower concentrations of ascorbic acid (just 5%) and alternatives like resveratrol and silymarin.
Inflammation is a normal defense mechanism as part of a healthy immune system.
Chronic inflammation can be the catalyst for a lot of unwanted skin concerns such as dullness, pigmentation, wrinkles, inflamed acne, etc.
Typical inflammation culprits include: pollution, stress, the sun, and cigarette smoke
A healthy skin barrier is important in minimizing inflammation, so a balanced moisturizer is key
General soothing ingredients we’ve found that have decent data is: colloidal oatmeal, allantoin, bisabolol (only the isolated compound, not blue german chamomile), madecassoside, panthenol,
Pillai, S., Oresajo, C., & Hayward, J. (2005). Ultraviolet radiation and skin aging: roles of reactive oxygen species, inflammation and protease activation, and strategies for prevention of inflammation-induced matrix degradation - a review. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 27(1), 17–34. doi:10.1111/j.1467-2494.2004.00241.x
Harvell, J. D., & Maibach, H. I. (1994). Percutaneous absorption and inflammation in aged skin: A review. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 31(6), 1015–1021. doi:10.1016/s0190-9622(94)70273-x
Pasparakis, M., Haase, I., & Nestle, F. O. (2014). Mechanisms regulating skin immunity and inflammation. Nature Reviews Immunology, 14(5), 289–301. doi:10.1038/nri3646
Liu, T., Zhang, L., Joo, D., & Sun, S. C. (2017). NF-κB signaling in inflammation. Signal transduction and targeted therapy, 2(1), 1-9.