You May Not Have Heard of Inflammaging, But It’s Probably Affecting Your Skin

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“Inflammation is the root of all evil.” It’s something my mother has said to me a handful of times. I’d always dismissed her comment as melodramatic, but recently I learned that she might just be on to something, specifically with regards to skin health. It’s called “inflammaging,” and it’s making its way into the skincare lexicon for good reason.

The word — a meld of “inflammation” and “aging” — describes the theory that chronic, low-grade inflammation leads to fast skin aging and disease. (Google the word and you’ll find studies suggesting its culpability in age-related metabolic diseases, including diabetes, cardiovascular issues, and even some forms of cancer.)  It’s a theory that was discovered in 2000 by Italian researchers. And according to Dr. Jenny Liu, MD, a Minnesota-based dermatologist, it’s still a hot topic among medical researchers today. “Inflammaging is a complex network of molecular reactions that leads to proinflammatory reactions,” she says. “Ultimately, it cause[s] cellular stress, oxidation, and damage.” 

According to an article in the Journals of Gerontology®, “There is overwhelming evidence that a state of mild inflammation . . . is a pervasive feature of . . . aging tissues.” This includes skin tissue: Inflammaging can accelerate wrinkle formation, exacerbate age spots, and is correlated with compromised skin barrier function. For these reasons, the term has trickled down from medicine to cosmetics, notes  Edouard Mauvais-Jarvis, Environmental & Scientific Communications Director for Dior® Skincare. (He acts as a communications liaison between consumers and the brand’s scientists, many of whom have been researching the complexities of inflammaging as it relates to skin.) “We need to control this chronic inflammation and we need to temper it.” 

To do so, it’s important to understand the cause of inflammaging. In some ways, it’s similar to when you have a cut that becomes infected. “It can become red, swollen, and painful; it’s an inflammatory reaction,” Mauvais-Jarvis notes. This reaction triggers a biological repair system in which the body releases pro-inflammatory cytokines, a type of peptide that’s necessary for healing. 

When this repair system is activated regularly, though, proinflammatory cytokines become overly abundant. This can lead to a state of chronic inflammation (inflammaging). Ultimately, excess proinflammatory cytokines can trigger a specific pathway that negatively affects cell DNA.

As you may have guessed, injury is not the only trigger of proinflammatory cytokines. Certain lifestyle factors — or “daily aggressions,” as Mauvais-Jarvis calls them — can trigger them, too. Unprotected sun exposure is one such factor. Skimping on sleep — something that far too many of us do — is another contributor. “Lack of sleep has been studied and it triggers some inflammatory mediators quite significantly,” Mauvais-Jarvis says. Tension is another common trigger. “We know stress plays a huge role in inflammation and cellular distress,” Dr. Liu notes. She also cites smoking and excess sugar consumption as contributors to inflammaging. “Accumulating these little stimulations on a daily basis can trigger [a negative] skin reaction [over time],” Mauvais-Jarvis says. 

The good news is that you can help stave off inflammaging. One way is to use topical products designed to protect against environmental stressors. Dr. Liu recommends applying antioxidant-rich products — worn under daily sunscreen, of course. You could also look for products labeled “anti-pollution,” which can thwart a host of skin stressors. (Try the Dr. Barbara Sturm® Anti-Pollution Drops, $145, or the Naturally Serious® Skin Warrior Anti-Pollution Repair Cream®, $46). You should also seek out products containing zinc, which can also help to reduce inflammatory cytokines. We like the Dior Prestige® La Micro-Lotion ($150), which is spiked with a zinc-rich rose extract and designed to fight microinflammation. (Not to mention, it smells like a dreamy Parisian garden.)

In addition to applying topical products, maintaining a healthy lifestyle has also been linked to lower rates of inflammaging. “We know that some foods tend to trigger more inflammation,” Mauvais-Jarvis says. Sugar and processed foods are two of the biggest offenders, according to Dr. Liu. (She advises avoiding both.) Instead, beeline for anti-inflammatory foods such as blueberries and salmon. Dr. Liu also cites turmeric as an excellent anti-inflammatory choice, as well as antioxidant-rich green tea. And, as much of an inconvenient truth as it is, alcohol can be inflammatory

If nothing else, my awareness of inflammaging and its effect on skin has inspired me to pay more attention to my overall lifestyle habits. As Mauvais-Jarvis explains: “It's not a matter of only protecting yourself by applying ointments and lotions — It's also a matter of taking care of your capital as soon as possible. Look at the skin in a sustainable way. What you do today will have consequences tomorrow.” 

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