Skin Inflammation: The Good, the Bad, & Everything In Between

If there were ever a perfect villain for your skin, it might just be inflammation. It’s gotten a bad reputation as being the source of all skin concerns, be they premature signs of aging, breakouts, sunburns, or skin redness that won’t quit.

But have you ever considered that inflammation might actually be a good thing? Hear us out: Inflammation serves an essential purpose both on skin and throughout the body — in fact, it’s a key part of how your immune system responds to threats, such as open wounds and bad bacteria. So, why are we trying to fight that?

If you’ve spent all your time trying to figure out how to best minimize, calm, or treat inflammation in the skin, you’re not alone. Far from it, in fact — many powerful ingredients out there, including those we know and love, have an anti-inflammatory effect. And that’s not a bad thing, either. Here, a breakdown of the pros and cons of skin inflammation.

What is skin inflammation?

Skin inflammation is part of the response by your immune system to some sort of adverse event, like inflection or an allergic reaction. “In ideal circumstances, inflammation is actually a good thing,” explains Karen Hammerman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology in Garden City, NY. “It’s the body’s built-in defense system, providing protection from invading bacteria, viruses and injuries. When your body recognizes that something is wrong, the immune system can trigger a response to begin the healing process. Your body would not be able to heal itself without it.”

Think of it as your skin’s way of waving a flag so your immune cells know where exactly to go. For that reason, it’s not always subtle. “Inflammation in the skin often causes a rash to form,” says Hammerman. “Symptoms of inflammation in the skin can include rashes, itching, burning, redness, blisters or pimples, or cracked or bleeding skin.” Once the offender in question is dealt with, the inflammation fades — or it’s supposed to, at least.

What causes skin inflammation?

Not to sound dramatic, but a lot of things could trigger inflammation. The most common causes include infection (bacterial, fungal, and viral), an immune system dysfunction such as psoriasis, allergic reaction, an imbalance in your gut microbiome, surgical wounds, or other wounds like cuts, burns, and scrapes.

And that’s only the half of it. “There is no one culprit when it comes to inflammation. The cause could be coming from within your body or from external or environmental factors,” says Hammerman. “Stress, lack of sleep, unhealthy diet, pollution, secondhand smoke, sun exposure — these can all lead to skin inflammation.” The constant stream of triggers are what tips inflammation from being beneficial to damaging.

Good inflammation versus bad inflammation

A good example of healthy, normal inflammation is a mosquito bite. The area around the bite may temporarily get red, swollen, and itchy while your immune system scopes out the situation and your body repairs. It usually resolves in a few days, and bam — you’re healed.

“Inflammation is supposed to go away once the response is triggered for your body to fight the infection or the cause of the inflammation and heal,” explains Hammerman. “But sometimes the system gets out of whack, leading to chronic inflammation that can linger and become chronic.” The chronic inflammation, particularly within skin, can wreak all sorts of havoc by spiking levels of cortisol (a.k.a. the stress hormone).

“Acne breakouts, rosacea, and visible signs of aging, such as wrinkles and sagging skin, are signs of internal inflammation and elevated cortisol levels,” Hammerman says. “The higher the cortisol, the more wound healing slows down — and the more breakdown of collagen there is.” Since collagen is the fiber responsible for keeping skin smooth, firm, and elastic, its breakdown (not surprisingly) leads to sagging and wrinkles.

How inflammation can be good for skin

While inflammation gone wild can indeed harm collagen, small amounts of it can actually help create collagen. “When it comes to wound healing and anti-aging, some degree of inflammation is actually considered important for tissue repair and regeneration,” explains Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

Fun fact: Scars are primarily made of collagen, demonstrating the close connection between wound healing and collagen production. And since collagen is as important in wound healing as it is for firm, youthful skin, “we think about wounds and anti-aging similarly, in that by promoting some inflammatory reaction — as can occur in the wound-healing process — collagen synthesis is often triggered,” says Garshick. “Various procedures we do in the in-office setting rely on creating controlled micro-injury or wounds to the skin to stimulate inflammation and collagen production. That helps with acne scarring, fine lines, wrinkles and general facial rejuvenation.”

Even topical ingredients can offer controlled inflammation — such as hyaluronic acid. “In tissue injury, high molecular weight hyaluronic acid is broken down into low molecular weight hyaluronic acid, which then binds to receptors to elicit a proinflammatory response to help facilitate healing and repair,” says Garshick.

In fact, research has found that inflammation spurred by low molecular weight hyaluronic acid may actually help heal certain skin conditions. “One study looked at it in the treatment of seborrheic dermatitis and although it was a small study, it did show a reduction in redness, itch and scaling, suggesting multiple effects of low molecular weight hyaluronic acid,” says Garshick.

The bottom line

Ultimately, there’s no quick fix for inflammation — nor should there be. “Inflammation happens in everyone, whether you’re aware of it or not,” says Hammerman.

A good course of action is to manage chronic inflammation. “Chronic inflammation can occur even when there’s no obvious injury and has been linked to prolonged stress,” Hammerman explains. “Since stress is one of the main reasons for inflammatory skin damage, anything you can do to reduce stress can help. Getting more exercise and better sleep definitely help. Exercise boosts endorphin release which are anti-inflammatory hormones. Endorphin levels also rise during sleep and cortisol levels are at their lowest, giving your skin a chance to heal and repair.”

Then, tackle your topicals. “If you suffer from irritated skin or are prone to eczema, look for gentle, mild cleansers,” she says. Both our Papaya Sorbet Enzyme Cleansing Balm and Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser are gentle and non-drying, melting away makeup without elbow grease. (We recommend using both for a thorough double cleanse.)

Hammerman also recommends antioxidants such as vitamin C, which “can have a protective effect,” as well as ceramides and hyaluronic acid. The Pineapple-C Bright Serum offers three potent forms of vitamin C, whereas Plum Plump Hyaluronic Serum delivers five molecular weights of HA, including a low molecular weight hyaluronic acid.

More good news: You can find anti-inflammatory properties among a number of moisturizing ingredients. For one, avocado oil has been shown in studies to both decrease inflammation and increase collagen synthesis, offering a win-win for skin. It takes a starring role in both Avocado Melt Retinol Sleeping Mask and Avocado Melt Retinol Eye Sleeping Mask, where it soothes and nourishes overnight.

You might have also heard of a little herb called centella asiatica, or cica. Cica, which is a mainstay in the Banana Soufflé Moisture Cream, has long been used for its powerful anti-inflammatory benefits; evidence shows that it can actually inhibit the inflammatory process to soothe stressed, irritated skin. The Banana Soufflé Moisture Cream also contains magnesium, which has been linked to a reduction in chronic inflammation throughout the body.

Together, this can help you let your skin’s natural inflammatory response do its thing — without it getting out of control.

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