Your skin is your most visible organ, and when it's not happy, you know. Pimples, itchy dryness, and reddish skin are tip-offs that there's an inflammatory response going on. Despite its bad press, inflammation is not always bad—it's how the body recovers from threats. But when this process continues unchecked, it can become chronic and do damage to your skin, contributing to everything from accelerated aging to skin cancer.
Now for the better news: There are everyday ways to reduce local and systemic inflammation and protect your skin in the process. The way you eat and take care of your skin helps keep inflammation to a minimum. When our skin is facing an issue (a breakout, a sunburn, a rash, etc.), there's a localized inflammatory response, with puffiness and/or red or purplish skin. This is all part of the natural healing process. "Inflammation in the skin can be good sometimes," says Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., a dermatologist based in Beverly Hills, Calif. "When you have an acute injury or infection, you need the inflammation reaction to help heal the skin and/or fight the bacteria or fungus." In fact, she adds, dermatologists sometimes try to induce mild inflammation to help regenerate the skin's collagen to minimize the appearance of premature aging (this is how microneedling, fractionated lasers and even topical retinoids work).
Ongoing inflammation of the skin—whether due to acne, rosacea, atopic dermatitis, or some other reason—is another story. "Many of the conditions we see in the skin are characterized by inflammation," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., associate director of dermatology at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City. "In acne, there is inflammation within our follicles, leading to blockages and pimples. In rosacea, there is inflammation in our outer skin layer, leading to redness, burning and pus bumps. In eczema, there is inflammation in the skin, leading to disruptions in the outer layer with loss of hydration, dryness and flaking."
Chronic inflammation in the skin from recurrent acne flares or uncontrolled chronic skin conditions (atopic dermatitis, rosacea, psoriasis, etc.), as well as ongoing exposure to UV rays and air pollution, can lead to chronic inflammation, activation of enzymes that damage skin, and the breakdown of structural collagen, which leads to premature skin aging. The technical term for inflammation that accelerates aging is inflammaging, and it harm our looks and health because it makes our cells age faster than they should.
Ongoing systemic inflammation often shows up on the face. "The skin is the largest organ in the body, and so it will manifest any gastrointestinal disturbances, intolerances, and inflammation of the body as eczema, acne and psoriasis, among other skin issues," says Alexandra Salcedo, R.D.N., a clinical dietitian at UC San Diego Health in La Jolla, Calif.
But it's a two-way street. Your skin problems can trigger whole-body inflammation and put you at risk for other health issues. When the skin barrier is compromised and your body gets the message to heal it with an inflammatory reaction, there's a cascade effect that can set up a bigger inflammatory response. It may prompt your body to pump out cytokines and put your body in inflammatory mode. In fact, one study of older adults found that applying a simple moisturizer to itchy, dry, inflamed skin lowered their levels of cytokines.
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So what steps should you take if you're suddenly seeing red (as in inflamed skin)? Here are a few ways to calm the irritated skin cycle:
Stop using new products
Have you started a new face wash, anti-aging serum, or mask? "Redness, tingling, pain and itch do not mean that it is working," says Dr. Shainhouse. "It means that it is probably not the right product for your skin."
Soothe your inflamed skin
Try gentle moisturizers (such as Cerave, a perennial derm favorite), an over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone cream for a few days, or a non-sedating oral antihistamine like Zyrtec if it's allergy-related, advises Dr. Shainhouse. If this isn't enough, see your dermatologist for the next steps.
Simplify your routine
Stick to a gentle cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen. "If you see flaking, listen to what your skin needs and apply a moisturizer," Dr. Zeichner advises. And be sure to toss your face scrub. "Exfoliating already dry skin can make matters worse," he adds.
It's also wise to skip anti-aging ingredients and trendy products until your skin is back to normal. "Then slowly add in one at a time, to make sure that your skin can handle them," Dr. Shainhouse says.
Eat to beat inflammation
Turns out, what we pile on our plates may show up on our face. Some research suggests that low-fat dairy (skim, 1% and 2%) but not full-fat dairy may be associated with acne in teens and adults who were already predisposed to developing it, Dr. Shainhouse says.
Along those lines, foods high in added sugars (cakes, cookies, sports drinks), may also spell trouble for people already prone to acne. And there's some evidence that "simple sugars can lead to glycation of the collagen and elastin fibers in the skin, making them stiffer and less flexible, leading to premature skin aging and wrinkling," Dr. Shainhouse says. Thankfully, a skin-friendly diet looks a lot like a general healthy diet. First, says Alcedo, "reduce and limit inflammatory foods, like refined sugars, refined baked foods, processed foods and excessive alcohol." Don't worry—you don't have to completely swear off treats, just cutting back will help. "If you occasionally consume a slice of cake or a home-baked cookie or two, your body will not suffer the negative effects that someone will who consumes a refined pastry every single day," she notes.
Overall, think plants. By adding a variety of colors to your grocery cart, you ensure that you're getting a full range of antioxidants—those natural, possibly cancer-fighting chemicals that give plant foods their colors. "Antioxidants may help lower inflammation by protecting your cells from free radicals," Alcedo says. In particular, lycopene and polyphenols have been shown to guard against oxidative damage from the sun and reduce skin inflammation. In fact, a fruit- and vegetable-rich pattern of eating cuts the risk of squamous cell carcinoma by 54%, according to research, while an eating style rich in animal protein and dairy raises the risk of this common skin cancer.
Many foods are full of antioxidants, but here are some Alcedo likes to add to her cart: turmeric, cayenne pepper, ginger, garlic, dark chocolate, strawberries, blueberries, goji berries, beans, spinach, oranges and raspberries.
Meanwhile, scientists are finding that bacteria and other bugs may be the key to healthy skin. "The microbiome is the collection of natural microorganisms that live on our skin. When that microbiome is disrupted, either because of genetics or environmental exposures, the skin barrier can become compromised," explains Dr. Zeichner.
"This translates to inflammation, irritation and a variety of skin rashes." Research is revealing that both skin and gut microbiomes play roles in many skin issues, including allergies, acne and eczema, adds Dr. Shainhouse. "This ongoing research may help us determine if we can prevent and/or manage certain conditions by tweaking the flora—the bacteria and yeast—on our skin and in our guts," she says.
While experts are still figuring out how to best do that, it can't hurt to consume plenty of probiotic and prebiotic foods. You'll get probiotics—live yeasts and bacteria—from fermented and cultured foods, such as tempeh, pickled vegetables, mozzarella and full-fat yogurt with live cultures. Prebiotics, on the other hand, feed your gut bacteria. Potent ones include garlic, onions and chickpeas. But prebiotics are found in almost all plant foods, so everything from your morning bowl of oatmeal to your post-workout banana helps nourish your good bacteria. And that just may help your skin.