One of beauty’s biggest buzzwords as of late, “inflamm-aging” represents the visible signs of aging we experience as a result of inflammation in our bodies that results from a variety of factors. “Getting older is still inevitable, and while there is no cure, how we age and the trajectory of visible signs are a combination of genetics, environment, lifestyle, and how we mitigate or control damage and inflammation,” explains Beverly Hills, CA facial plastic surgeon Raymond Douglas, MD.
Additionally, we know inflammation in the body is linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more. “Inflammation is the root of all evils, and as it turns out, it’s also the lead culprit in aging,” says Beverly Hills, CA dermatologist Ava Shamban, MD. But what causes it and how do we stop it from getting worse? Leading experts answer all of our burning questions below.
Why Inflammation Occurs
According to San Diego, CA dermatologist Zenovia Gabriel, MD, in the body, inflammation stems from an increase in oxygen free radicals that subsequently lead to a cascade of downstream cellular effects. “The toxic oxygen radicals trigger inflammatory signals that lead to a host of negative cellular responses,” she explains. “Skin inflammation is a result of the immune system’s response to stimuli or triggers, serving as a defense mechanism to protect your body against injury, infection or cancer.”
There are two types of skin inflammation: acute and chronic. “Acute inflammation is your body’s immediate response to a physiological insult such as an infection, trauma, stress—anything that disrupts your immune system,” says Dr. Zenovia. “The body expresses inflammation by tissue swelling, warmth, pain or redness, as well as systemic symptoms like fever, aches and fatigue.”
Acute inflammatory symptoms generally minimize after several days and eventually normalize, but chronic inflammation implies a longstanding issue that is often caused by underlying conditions such as autoimmune disorders or chronic infections. “Chronic inflammation can be worsened by environmental stressors or unhealthy lifestyle habits,” Dr. Zenovia adds. “As we age, our bodies become less efficient at managing the inflammatory response. In addition, chronic low-grade inflammation is common as we age because our bodies and cells are less efficient at regulating this process.”
Our diets play a role, too: High blood sugar and poor diet can result in a process called glycation. “This leads to protein malfunction in the cells, causing a disruption to normal function,” says Dr. Zenovia. “In effect, if your body is inflamed and can’t handle the level of inflammation, then there are consequences at the cellular and then tissue levels—this is what we see and feel.”
How It Impacts Our Skin
“As we age, there is an imbalance in our inflammatory pathways, leading to chronic low-grade activation of our immune system that contributes to accelerated cellular and visible aging, as well as age-related diseases,” says Dr. Douglas. “Our skin is our first line of defense and serves as a gauge to how we are aging and the aging process—it’s also a reflection of our overall health.”
Dr. Shamban adds, “Inflammation incites changes to the skin structure and cells, leading to a cycle of reactive damage and defenses within the dermal cells. This presents the physical signs of advancing or premature aging known as inflamm-aging.” Signs that show up on the skin can include redness, swelling, itching, sensitivity, and conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. “Additionally, it can present as wrinkles and fine lines of laxity and loss of dermal structure,” she explains.
Sun damage also plays a significant role in the inflammation process. “Inflammation is thought to be one of the main causes of skin aging, and the constant exposure to UV radiation from the sun can cause inflammation and DNA damage in the skin, leading to fine lines, wrinkles and spots,” says Fort Lauderdale, FL dermatologist Dr. Matthew J. Elias. “The single most important product we recommend for skin aging is sunscreen, and while any sunscreen will help protect skin from the untoward effects of chronic UV exposure, the only sunscreen I know of that can actually repair the DNA damage done by the sun is ISDIN Eryfotona Actinica, which actually contains DNA repairsomes that can repair the damage caused by the sun and lessen inflammation.”
New York dermatologist Doris Day, MD agrees that sun protection is key. “If you do nothing but stop insulting your skin, it will do a lot of the repair on its own,” she says. “It can also help to add in products that contain retinol, vitamin C, niacinamide, and hyaluronic acid or ceramides to support your skin’s own natural abilities to rejuvenate and repair itself.”
Dr. Zenovia says an inflammatory cascade can also cause the body to produce more hyaluronidase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down hyaluronic acid (HA), which is critical to skin thickness and health. “Fibroblasts—collagen-producing cells—are also affected by inflammation, and can become damaged and produce less collagen,” she explains. Dr. Day says this can also lead to collagen breakdown and wrinkle formation.
How to Minimize the Effects
Antioxidants and other actives that specifically target inflammation in the skin are a new frontier for anti-aging. “It’s not just moisturizers, retinols and hydroxy acids—we need anti-inflammatory support for our skin too,” says Dr. Zenovia.
The first brand to put “inflamm-aging” skin care on the map, Heraux created a patented molecule called HX-1 that gently exfoliates the skin while helping to prevent inflammation, which is the key ingredient in its Molecular Anti-Inflammaging Serum. “HX-1 works directly on skin stem cells to support their peak performance and shield them from stressors that can promote irritation,” says Ben Van Handel, PhD, cofounder of Heraux and stem cell biologist at the University of Southern California. “Clinical studies of HX-1 have shown significant improvements occurring in the first four weeks without any skin irritation. Daily use of the serum will enable youthful function of skin stem cells longer, increasing the health span of the skin.”
Dr. Amir Nobakht, cofounder of Heraux, says it’s an alternative to retinol without the potential side effects. “Retinols historically have had good results but also cause irritation, redness and sun sensitivity, making them unusable for many people. HX-1 on the other hand can accomplish the same goals of a retinol without the harsh side effects. Even those with sensitive skin or who are prone to sunburns can get results without worrying.”
Dr. Shamban also recommends low-level red light therapy—it’s offered at many skin clinics and dermatologists’ offices; there are also at-home devices—and topical carboxy therapy. “The Carboxy Mask based on the Bohr Effect will offer instant improvements,” she says. Other skin-care ingredients to look for are niacinamide and antioxidants. “As long as the product focuses on ‘damage control’—both repair and prevention of future damage—it’s a win.”
One of Dr. Zenovia’s bestsellers in her Essentials line, Inflam-Aging Night Repair Treatment specifically targets inflammation and is clinically formulated to combat key signs of aging. “Everyone could benefit from this product: acne, aging, young and old,” she says. “This powerhouse night repair treatment features a highly potent triple antioxidant blend of green tea polyphenols, medical-grade resveratrol and caffeine to help reduce inflammation while reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and enhancing the look of firm, plump, even-toned skin. Sleep is also really important. It’s one of the most restorative things we can do for our bodies and our skin. It decreases stress, lowers inflammation and regenerates our cells.”
And lastly, Dr. Shamban says we can also help mitigate the effects of inflammation through our diets. “Internal nutrition is important. Eat fatty acids, like fish—salmon, mackerel, sardines and some trout. Blueberries, strawberries and cherries are good, too.”
“While there is no cure for ‘aging,'” Dr. Douglas says, “we can affect change in how we age by addressing inflammation within our bodies. As far as our skin is concerned, it’s smart. It has memory and it can adapt. The dermis is dynamic. Our skin will respond to what it is exposed to internally and externally. With change, we can age slower and better while improving our health. Because our skin is the mirror for health we can take a look and see how well we are managing the inflammatory responses; when the grade is low, we make changes accordingly and see significant improvements as we downregulate the inflammation response.”