'Inflammaging' Could Be the Sneaky Reason Your Skin Looks Older Than It Should

If you're dealing with chronic inflammation, your skin cells don't have the time or energy to do the processes that give you a youthful glow. Enter: inflammaging.

Shar Pei inflammaging concept
Photo: GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty

In particularly stressful times, we're all at risk for suffering from what experts call inflammaging: chronic, low-grade inflammation that ages our skin. To be clear, some inflammation is OK. In fact, our bodies respond to injuries with a short burst of it. And many anti-aging treatments—lasers, peels, retinoids—work by damaging skin just enough to incite an inflammatory response.

When it's properly regulated, it serves us well and we heal quickly. "A normal inflammatory process clears out bad stuff and stimulates collagen production," says Tom McClellan, M.D., a plastic surgeon in West Virginia and a co-founder of the Serucell skin-care brand.

But as we get older, and when we're stressed (from anxiety, poor diet, pollution, and UV exposure), our bodies can't maintain control and get stuck in a pro-inflammatory loop, or chronic inflammation, which speeds up skin aging. "If your cells are constantly putting out fires, they have no time or energy to turn over dead cells or build the collagen and elastin that creates a youthful-looking complexion," says Barbara Close, the founder of Naturopathica holistic skin care. (

"Chronic inflammation is like having the radio on really loud, giving your skin a proverbial headache that it can't quell," says Shape Brain Trust member Ellen Marmur, M.D., a dermatologist in New York. "When inflamed, your skin may show it in the form of redness, sensitivity, acne, or rosacea." But it may not be this obvious—it may be quietly aging rapidly and prematurely. That's why everyone can benefit from adopting a non-inflammaging lifestyle and skin-care routine.

How to Calm Inflamaging

The foods you eat can go a long way in offsetting chronic inflammation and inflammaging. "The best thing you can do is avoid processed foods filled with carbs and sugar," says Close. "Eating sugar is like throwing gasoline on the fire."

It's no surprise that an anti-inflammatory diet includes whole foods, lots of vegetables, healthy fats, and lean protein. These give you the nutrients your cells need to promote healthy skin upkeep. "I aim for five to six cups of veggies a day," says Close. She also drinks tea made with adaptogens like ashwagandha, which helps stop the free radicals that cause inflammation.

Tempering emotional stress is your next priority to stop inflammaging. "Anxiety and worry raise cortisol levels, which manifest in the skin and cause acne, rosacea, and eczema to flare up," says Rita Linkner, M.D., a dermatologist in New York. Sleep, exercise, meditate, and connect with friends—the solutions themselves are simple, but being habitual about them is key to keeping calm. (See: 5 Skin Conditions Made Worse By Stress)

Find a Balance In Your Skin-Care Routine

If your skin is behaving normally, take the on-off approach: Use intense anti-aging treatments like lasers, peels, and retinoids (ask your dermatologist for a customized plan), but offset them with protective, restorative, and soothing ingredients. "That means a daily topical antioxidant and sunscreen to combat aggressors like UV rays and free radicals in the morning," says Dr. Linkner. Try La Roche-Posay 10% Pure Vitamin C Serum (Buy It, $40, amazon.com).

A good before-bed arsenal is Naturopathica Manuka Honey Cleansing Balm (Buy It, $62, amazon.com), followed by your anti-aging treatment, like BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz Tetrafoliant 10% Peel Pads (Buy It, $70, amazon.com) or Neutrogena Rapid Wrinkle Repair Serum (Buy It, $15, amazon.com). Finish with MMSkincare Repose Serum (Buy It, $85, mmskincare.com) and Seiso JBeauty Water Velvet Cream (Buy It, $65, shikobeauty.com).

"But skin that's visibly inflamed needs a different approach," says Dr. Marmur. "Avoid fractional or ablative lasers, peels, and retinoids." Instead, in-office treatments such as intense-pulse light or LED therapy will encourage your skin to heal, as will the soothers mentioned above (minus the peel and retinol) for day and night.

Bring in Some Heavy Hitters

Two formulas that actively reduce inflammaging can help you stave off long-term damage.

Skin-care brand Heraux has a Heraux Molecular Anti-Inflammaging Serum (Buy It, $250, herauxskin.com) containing a biomimetic lipid, called HX-1, that shields skin stem cells from the distracting and exhausting impact of chronic inflammation. "This gives stem cells the chance to recover and support the production of collagen and elastin," says Heraux founder Ben Van Handel, Ph.D.

On the flip side, Serucell KFS Cellular Protein Complex Serum (Buy It, $225, serucell.com) contains an inflammatory protein called IL-6 that may kick-start an anti-inflammatory response and heal skin faster. "We believe IL-6 triggers the immune system to produce IL-10, the protein that initiates the anti-inflammatory phase," says Dr. McClellan. Apply either of these serums after your anti-aging treatment (or if your skin is irritated, in place of it) to promote smoother, plumper, firmer skin.

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