These 3 Common Skin Care Habits Are Pro-Inflammatory — Are You Doing Them?
We spend a lot of time talking about the various ways you can temper inflammation in the skin. Why? Inflammation not only leads to temporary irritation (like rashes, breakouts, or flare-ups), but will actually lead to premature aging if left unchecked. Inflammation can break down collagen and elastin, compromise the skin barrier, make skin more vulnerable to dryness, trigger dark spot formulation, and so much more. A good skin care routine will help halt this process—and better yet, stop it from happening in the first place.
But did you know that some skin care habits are actually pro-inflammatory? That's right — many common rituals can actually lead to inflammation in the skin, and all the damage that comes with it. And your skin doesn’t need to be visibly irritated or angry for the inflammation to be there. In fact, inflammation is often more insidious and sneaky than that: Chronic inflammation in the skin may present itself as tiny, microscopic stress that’s invisible to the naked eye, but wreaking havoc under the surface.
Here, three sneaky habits that are likely leading to inflammation in the skin.
Exfoliation is the act of removing the top layer of the epidermis (the stratum corneum). It’s actually a film of dead skin cells whose duty is to act as a protective buffer from environmental stressors—so the functioning skin cells underneath don’t have to deal with being bombarded with free radicals.
When this layer experiences buildup, it may lead to dullness or clogging of the pores, which is when exfoliation can come in to help by sloughing off the dead skin cells. But when done too much, you’re essentially removing your skin’s natural shield against inflammation and stressors.
I’m not anti-exfoliation—I am, however, very much against how pervasive it’s become in conventional skin care routines. Exfoliation is a helpful skin care step in the pursuit of glowing skin, but it needs to come with a heaping dose of restraint. So if your routine includes nightly scrubs, AHA serums, daily peel pads, and more—chances are you’re overdoing it.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so: "The most important tip is that 'less is more.' You want to exfoliate just enough to increase cell turnover and reveal fresh new skin," says Ife Rodney, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Eternal Dermatology. "But be sure to not scratch or damage your skin by overusing these devices or products."
Evaluate your skin care routine for how much exfoliation is actually happening: You may be exfoliating more than you realize, especially if you’re using acids in multiple steps of your routine, utilize manual exfoliators of any kind (even rough towels can exfoliate the skin), and do regular treatments like peels or scrubs. Once you’ve taken stock, tone it down to 1-3 a week for the face and 2-3 times per week for the body.
Always, always, always pair exfoliation with a barrier-supporting hydrator. Since you’ve just removed some of that protective barrier, it’s really important you nurture the skin so it doesn't get inflamed. For the face, I like SkinFix Barrier+ Triple Lipid Peptide Cream and for the body, mindbodygreen’s postbiotic body lotion.
Skipping sun protection
Unprotected sun exposure can trigger inflammation and damage in the skin, even if you don’t see any telltale signs of burns.
UV radiation has the ability to penetrate the epidermis and wreak havoc. The inflammation caused by UV radiation can degrade collagen, trigger the formation of dark spots, and affect the skin cells' DNA. This all leads to what we call photoaging. "Skin photoaging is a result of the oxidative stress from UV radiation," board-certified dermatologist Kautilya Shaurya, M.D. previously told mbg.
Despite the reminders to use sunscreen every single day, surveys indicate that only 11% of Americans do so. And about half of Americans report they never wear sunscreen. That’s a lot of entirely preventable inflammaging in the skin.
I’m certainly not telling you to avoid the sun at all costs: Sunlight impacts our mental health, regulates our circadian rhythm, and helps our bodies’ produce vitamin D. All things that are as equally important as your skin health.
However, there are very reasonable sun care habits you can adopt to protect your skin while getting your dose of sunshine. First and foremost, apply sunscreen daily on areas that will be exposed to the elements. Some days, like when you’re going to the office, that’ll be just your face and hands. Others, like if you’re heading out for a hike, it might be much more real estate. (And don’t forget to reapply, especially if you’re getting wet or sweaty!)
But sun care also means how you spend your time in the sun. Don’t allow your SPF application to be a hall pass for an all day, uninterrupted tanning session. SPF can certainly block UV radiation, but it’s not perfect protection.
And when you’re out of the sun, be sure to hydrate your skin with anti-inflammatory topicals to help calm skin retroactively. Aloe vera is often hailed as an apres-sun superstar, and it is for good reason. One antioxidant protein, in particular, called metallothionein, has been found to have a protective effect on skin1 that's been exposed to and damaged by UV rays.
Using harsh cleansers
From face cleansers to body soaps to hand washes, cleansers are a criminally overlooked step in skin care. Because they’re wash-off formulas (i.e. they’re not made to stay on the skin and penetrate the epidermis), folks think they don’t need to use a quality product.
Cleansers, especially those that use harsh and irritating cleansing agents, do a number on your skin barrier. They strip the skin of its natural oils, disrupt the biome, and may cause microcracks in the epidermis, all of which can lead to inflammation of the skin.
The cleanser is the backbone of your entire routine—all the steps that follow it essentially mean nothing if you’re not using a high quality option.
Look for cleansers that use gentle, plant-derived surfactants and are buffered with hydrating ingredients. For the face, I prefer milky cleansers like Exquisite Soothing Cleansing Gel, as I have sensitive skin and don’t like foaming options for the area. For the hands and body, I like softening gel formulas that have a soft lather, like our postbiotic hand wash.
Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, our skin care habits work against us. This is especially true of these common issues that are actually pro-inflammatory. Want more advice on how to calm the skin? Check out these ingredients to support your skin barrier.
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com. In her current role, she covers all the latest trends in the clean and natural beauty space, as well as lifestyle topics, such as travel. She received her journalism degree from Marquette University, graduating first in the department. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.