Skin inflammation gets a bad rap, but it’s a natural and common response in our bodies. If your skin is inflamed, it is usually a sign that it’s fighting something to protect your body from irritations, allergic reactions, invaders, and other types of harm. “In its acute state, it’s not harmful, but exists to let you know something needs to be addressed,” says Nadir Qazi, D.O. It’s when inflammation becomes prolonged and chronic that several health problems can result, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, per research published in the journal Nature Medicine. It’s also a significant cause of aging, Dr. Qazi points out.
As the body’s largest organ and the only one that exists on the outer part of the body, the skin plays an integral role in protecting the rest of the body from harm. “When the skin is inflamed, the inflammatory cells in the body are activated and recruited to stop whatever event is ongoing, i.e., an infection or trauma,” explains Mary Alice Mina, M.D.
When the skin is inflamed, the small blood vessels surrounding the area begin to dilate and cause those blood vessels to become more apparent in the external region of the skin. In a sense, the inflammation starts a domino effect. The more the skin is inflamed, the more cell systems try to heal the irritated area. With that comes the irritation of nerves attacking the dilated blood vessels, triggering a nerve reaction that can cause pain or heat with the inflammation.
In the medical community, chronic skin inflammation is most often associated with dermatitis — a condition that is not contagious but can be troublesome and unsightly for patients, explains Dr. Oazi. “Contact dermatitis is caused by direct contact with an irritant, either internally or externally, which causes the skin to react by becoming inflamed, swollen, reddened, and may produce bumps and an itchy rash,” he says. “Acute inflammation is a bit different — it comes on rapidly, typically lasts two to six weeks, and is often triggered by an allergic reaction to new foods, a new environment or new products, plants like poison ivy or poison oak, heat rash, photosensitivity, or from a bacteria, such as cellulitis, impetigo, and Staphylococcus.”
To stave off these illnesses, it’s a good idea to incorporate lifestyle habits that can help keep your inflammation in check. Here, dermatologists share some key ways your skincare routine can help fight inflammation.
Meet the Experts
Mary Alice Mina, M.D. is an Atlanta-based dermatologist and Mohs surgeon.
Nadir Qazi, D.O. is a board-certified physician, cosmetic surgeon, and owner of Qazi Cosmetic Clinic located in Irvine, California.
Dendy Engelman, M.D. is a cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at the Shafer Clinic in New York City.
Keep away from harsh chemicals
To prevent inflammation in the skin, it’s important to be choosy when it comes to the skincare products you’re using. Dr. Mina recommends avoiding harsh chemicals and products and, instead, looking for fragrance-free, sensitive skin formulations which are gentle on the skin. “While natural products are very popular right now, it’s important to remember that just because it says ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s safe or recommended to use on the skin,” she adds. The best skincare products for people with skin inflammation are fragrance-free and formulated without harsh ingredients (phthalates, parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate) that can strip the skin of its natural oils.
Don’t pick at your face
When you look at the mirror and see a big blackhead or whitehead staring back at you, it’s tempting to want to pick it away, but doing so is more likely to cause trauma and trigger inflammation than anything else, warns Dr. Mina. “At times, when your skin is inflamed, a topical corticosteroid may be necessary to calm down the inflammation,” she says. She recommends using trusted, acne-fighting ingredients like salicylic acid (Sunday Riley U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Acne Treatment Face Oil contains gentle yet fast-acting 1.5% salicylic acid) and benzoyl peroxide and scheduling a visit with your board-certified dermatologist who can help you formulate a skincare plan that will ward off acne.
Wear sunscreen daily
Even on cloudy days, sunscreen is still important to protect your delicate skin from the sun’s harsh UV rays. This is especially true for those more susceptible to inflammation, as free radical damage can heighten skin inflammation, explains Dendy Engelman, M.D. She also recommends adding antioxidants into your skincare routine, as they ward off skin-harming free radicals lurking in the environment and can significantly contribute to skin inflammation. Sunday Riley Light Hearted Broad Spectrum SFP 30 Sunscreen protects skin in more ways than one with a lightweight formula that blocks skin-burning UV rays and antioxidants turmeric and xanthophyll (lutein) that provide a shield against environmental aggressors.
Exfoliate (but don’t overdo it!)
Exfoliation can work wonders for the skin, from preventing breakouts and unclogging pores to evening out skin tone and boosting blood circulation. However, Dr. Qazi warns not to over-exfoliate. When you have inflammation, “exfoliating the skin too often — more than two or times per week — can lead to raw or red skin and cause the skin barrier to become weak and damaged as the cells try to heal the broken skin and redness,” he says. “Exfoliate lightly, either in the morning or before bedtime, to allow the skin time to repair.” A super-gentle formula like Sunday Riley Good Genes Lactic Acid Treatment might be appropriate daily but chat with your dermatologist on the best game plan for you.
Toners, used directly after cleansing, can help balance the pH level of your skin and maintain oil balance to help reduce skin inflammation. Sunday Riley Martian Mattifying Melting Water-Gel Toner instantly morphs from a cooling gel to a mattifying water formula to clarify skin, remove excess oil, and reduce the appearance of pores. “Using toners that are non-alcoholic will leave the skin barrier with the correct amount of oil and rejuvenation after exfoliating.” To tone the skin properly, he recommends placing a few drops of the toner on a cotton round and then applying it evenly to the skin. “This will help to avoid leaving too much oil in one spot and can remove dirt and dead cells,” he says.
If you’re experiencing skin inflammation that won’t subside or are unsure if your routine is working out for you, reach out to a board-certified dermatologist who can help you determine the severity and treatment plan. If it comes on suddenly, Dr. Qazi recommends seeking medical attention to ensure you’re not experiencing an allergic reaction.
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