I have my fair share of skin-care products, and like most beauty obsessives, I’m haunted at night if I forget one part of my multistep skin-care routine. But nothing could prepare me for the past year and a half, during which I suffered from periodic breakouts and dry rough patches. After months of testing products, I finally achieved healthy skin: My face was baby soft and 98% clear, and I swapped all my products for ones made for sensitive skin. But despite my best efforts, there remained one section of my face that would flare up from time to time. No matter how many anti-redness serums or calming sprays I applied, my T-zone would always remain red.
Fed up with my incurable redness, I did some digging and chatted with cosmetic chemist and Acaderma founder Shuting Hu, PhD, who introduced me to the term inflammaging. You may have seen the word on TikTok, where it has flooded feeds with explainers and tips and tricks on how to prevent the skin condition. Sure enough, I suffer from inflammaging, a.k.a. chronic redness, and it turns out I’m not alone. Despite inflammaging being something that typically targets mature skin, I was surprised to learn how simple things such as my diet and lifestyle changes (thanks, COVID) can contribute to inflammation in my skin.
Dr. Hu and immunologist Ebru Karpuzoglu, PhD, explain everything you need to know about inflammaging, including causes, how to combat it, and what steps you can take to prevent it.
What is inflammaging?
“Inflammaging is known as a chronic, low-grade inflammation that is a crucial contributing factor to various age-related pathologies and natural processes in aging tissues and skin,” says Dr. Hu. In simpler terms, inflammaging is a term used to describe aging induced by chronic inflammation. “In the dermis, which is the thickest layer of our skin, inflammaging will break down the architecture of the skin,” Hu explains. “[It can] lead to the loss of collagen, hyaluronic acid, and other glycosaminoglycans (antiaging molecules) including chondroitin, which causes wrinkles and loss of elasticity in the skin.”
Maybe you’re thinking this is no big deal. Everyone’s skin ages over time, right? But here’s where inflammaging is different. “The micro chronic levels of inflammation (inflammaging) can damage skin cells and collagen, and weaken the skin’s barrier functions resulting in more senescent cell accumulation than normal,” says Dr. Karpuzoglu. “As the skin is battered with more and more damage, the skin barriers and microbiome are weakened and our immune system has to work harder to defend the body as well as repair the skin barriers. This also means that we will have less protection against inflammation-causing invaders like bacteria and viruses as the skin immunity is overwhelmed with this process.”
In other words, your skin is stressed to the max and in desperate need of some TLC. Similar to the way a muscle would become sore and form a bruise after an injury to notify you something’s wrong, inflammaging is your skin (and its cells) saying, “Hey, there’s something wrong here.”
How does inflammaging affect my skin?
Inflammaging inflicts damage to our skin at a foundational level, which in turn results in changes like faster aging, wrinkles, and a weak skin barrier. While some skin changes are normal over time, such as collagen reduction, inflammation speeds up the process and makes it worse. For example, collagen reduction typically begins during your late 20s and is at a steady decrease of 1% to 2% per year afterward. Inflammaging causes it to start earlier and makes you lose collagen at an increased rate.
What causes inflammaging?
I was surprised to learn I suffered from inflammaging—I take good care of my skin, use a gentle cleanser every night, never go to bed with makeup on, and wear sunscreen every day. But when it comes to inflammaging, there are a plethora of factors that can cause it. Lifestyle and increased stress are two significant factors that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.