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Inflammaging & The Skin: What It Does & How Antioxidants Can Help

Young woman with glowing skin holding a lily
Image by OHLAMOUR STUDIO / Stocksy
March 16, 2021

I hesitate to call inflammaging a trend—because, well, it's certainly not. It's also a word that has long been used in well-being and health spaces. But for skin care and beauty? It seems to be making the rounds. And when I start getting pitches and products market for it, I take that as a clear signal that the phrase might be entering "trendy" territory and, therefore, is worthy of a moment of pause to understand what we're actually talking about.

And here's the thing: Inflammaging is just a fact of life, and unfortunately, it's increasingly so. It's something all of us will likely deal with at some point, and so the best thing to do is to tend to the factors that cause it—be they external or internal. 

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Here's what you need to know about inflammaging and skin care. 

What is inflammaging in the skin? 

Inflammation affects our bodies and skin in a variety of ways. A little inflammation can be good, in fact: A classic example is when we use glycolic acid, the alpha-hydroxy acid stimulates a minor wound response in the skin (inflammation), which then spurs collagen production. This is a good thing.

But when our bodies are under chronic stress—be it from diet, lack of movement, harsh external factors like sun and pollution, irritating skin care products, or actual mental stress—they have to deal with regular low-grade inflammation, which results in free radical damage.

See, under optimal circumstances, our skin and bodies are pretty good at keeping inflammation tempered and tending to free radicals, but when the inflammation is too regular, too common, the body no longer has the capacity to manage it. This is when inflammation can work against us—and notably, our skin. 

This steady stream isn't always noticeable on the skin in an immediate way, like in the form of rashes, tone, breakouts, and rough patches. However, it is still contributing to premature aging, board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., explains to us. This consistent inflammation is breaking down collagen, elastin, ceramides, and other parts of your skin's structure. And because we don't see the immediate effects, we may not feel the same urgency to deal with it. But that doesn't mean it's not there and doesn't mean we should be actively helping our bodies.

How can you help your skin with inflammaging? 

There are several ways to tend to inflammation in the skin. Most notably, it comes down to living a healthy lifestyle. You'll want to make sure you are able to manage stress (like via breathing exercises), move your body in ways that work for you, avoid environmental stressors (like unprotected UV exposure and pollution), eat an anti-inflammatory diet, and just generally treat yourself kindly. 

As far as skin care is concerned, it all comes down to balance. Of course, a little superficial inflammation occasionally is fine (like in the case of exfoliation), but overall you'll want to make sure you're using topicals that deal with free radicals. Namely? Antioxidants. "People often ask how many antioxidants you should be using regularly; the answer is: the more the better," says board-certified dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group. "The more you can help neutralize unstable molecules caused by free radical formation, the longer you can salvage the health of your cells and skin. There's really no limit to how much you can protect and repair your body!" Look for antioxidant-packed washes, vitamin C serums (to help promote collagen), and hydrators with things like coenzyme-Q10, vitamin E, niacinamide, and polyphenols. 

You should also be mindful to make sure you're ingesting enough antioxidants. We're particularly fond of astaxanthin, a carotenoid that is five times more potent than beta-carotene and a whopping 6,000 times more potent than vitamin C.* Plus, unlike its carotenoid counterparts, astaxanthin does not act as a "pro-oxidant" at high concentration.* Other carotenoids, under certain conditions, such as high concentrations, can turn against you, acting as a pro-oxidant rather than an antioxidant, triggering the damage they are supposed to block1. In fact, in a 16-week clinical trial2, participants who supplemented with astaxanthin saw improvements in skin elasticity, while those who did not supplement saw worsening wrinkles.* Research points to a potentially protective role of astaxanthin against sun-exposure-induced skin damage.*

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The takeaway. 

Chronic, low-grade inflammation can cause serious harm to the body and skin. In the skin, specifically, it can cause premature aging—even if you don't notice the immediate effects of said inflammation. Regardless, it's important to live a well-balanced lifestyle and load your skin and body up with antioxidants.*

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.
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Alexandra Engler
Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director

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 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.