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What Chronic Inflammation Does to the Skin

7 months ago by

In the world of beauty, the marketing beast is at its very best. It’s a place where some of the greatest innovation sits alongside some of the most spectacular hyperbole, and often it’s hard to sort one from the other, because there is always something we “should” be doing, using, or avoiding. So, when we hear a new term being thrown around, whether it’s an ingredient, a technique or a skin condition we approach with cautious curiosity.

This is how we felt when the term “chronic inflammation” started popping up. Although we first heard it a few years ago, the term was actually coined back in 2000 by an Italian group of researchers whose paper challenged the idea that aging changes the functionality of the immune system (making it less effective to external aggressors). Instead, they suggested that it could actually be the reverse: that changes to our immune system could be contributing to accelerated aging. And this is why we’re here. Because, if the Italians were right, could there be a way that we can lessen inflammation, and as a by-product, the effect it has on skin aging? Maybe there is.

Let’s rewind for a second though and explain exactly what we mean by “chronic inflammation.” In a nutshell, it’s long-term low-level activity of our immune cells. But, according to Dr. Scott Ellis, Aesthetic Physician from The Doctor’s Studio, to understand the effect that inflammation has on the skin, you first need to understand a little about the immune system. “Our body is separated into two main processes – innate immunity and adaptive immunity,” he says. “Innate immunity acts quickly, and often causes a little damage to our own tissues.” Think about when you get a pimple, and your body reacts with redness and swelling outside of the actual spot – this is innate immunity in action. “Adaptive immunity takes longer to develop, but is much more targeted and causes far less damage to our own tissues – so the kind we we train with vaccinations,” he says. It’s well documented that our immune system changes with age, but more recent research has shown that the changes may be more significant than we first thought, potentially contributing things like heart disease, dementia, and skin aging. In the last decade, the kind of chronic inflammation that leads to aging (the entire body – including the skin) had been given the term “inflammaging” – which has also become its own field of biomedical research.

But, what triggers this inflammation? And how exactly does it affect the skin? Well, here’s the bad news: it’s kind of everything in modern life. See, the thing with our skin is that unlike our other organs, it’s exposed to both internal (think: diet and psychological stress) and external stressors (pollution, UV radiation) and these all result in inflammation. And, because we’re exposed to these aggressors daily, our skin pretty much always has a level of inflammation present – not exactly a healthy regenerative environment for our poor old cells. What this means for our skin isn’t pretty either. Dr. Ellis says, “We see disorganized collagen, elastin and hyaluronic acid through the dermis – resulting in sagging, loss of elasticity and dehydration, and we see changes in the epidermal cell binding proteins, contributing to an impaired skin barrier and skin fragility.”

Naturally, none of this sounds like our best skin life. But another reason why reducing chronic inflammation is so vital is because, “inflammation is a feed-forward process, meaning inflammation begets more inflammation,” says Amir Nobakht MD, MBA, co-founder of Heraux says. Essentially, our cells are learning by example, so if some inflammatory molecules are released into the system, other cells respond by doing the same, creating a never-ending cycle. “When we treat the inflammatory component of these conditions, we stop that cycle and allow the cellular environment to improve so our cells, (including stem cells), can regenerate and function at an optimal level,” says Nobakht. And that’s true for our entire body – not just our skin.

Chronic inflammation is also a silent deadly type, creating its damage behind the scenes. Unlike severe inflammation that presents in redness, swelling and pain, this low-level chronic inflammation is “sub-clinical” – meaning we can’t immediately see the damage it’s doing until the likes of pigmentation and loss of elasticity and tone rear their heads. So, by the time we see the signs of heightened inflammation, it usually means it’s been there for a long time.

Is it all doom and gloom for our skin then? Not at all. But like many things, prevention is far better than cure, and we do have to employ a holistic approach to reducing inflammation. Translation: a good diet, adequate sleep, and limiting alcohol and helping to create a healthy system for your skin to thrive in. And on top of that, regular exercise and mediation have also been shown to reduce psychological stress which has a positive effect on the skin, as well as limiting exposure to, and protecting from pro-inflammatory circumstances.

Product-wise Ben Van Handel, PhD, a stem cell biologist at the University of Southern California and co-founder of Heraux says your non-negotiable is sunscreen, daily. “Always take precautions against UV radiation with sunscreen and other sun protection measures (UV radiation can get through clouds too, so just because you don’t see the sun doesn’t mean your skin is safe!).”

Dr. Ellis agrees, “despite low-level inflammation playing a role in the long term, remember that exposure to environmental factors can induce significant damage and age the skin much faster than low-level whole-body inflammation.” High quality, science-backed antioxidants (like vitamin C or kojic acid) also help as they help to neutralize free radical damage (which is caused by UV and pollution).

In addition Van Handel and Nobakht are the brains behind an innovative new serum (with no less than 18 patents worldwide) that is a world-first anti-aging skincare that targets inflammaging – Heraux Molecular Anti-inflammaging Serum. It contains HX-1, a unique molecularly engineered biomimetic lipid (created from over a decade of stem cell research) that is specifically designed to target the protein responsible for the majority of chronic inflammation. “This revolutionary one-of-a-kind molecule shields stem cells from the effects of stress and promotes their overall youthful function by modulating the protein that regulates regeneration versus inflammation. By modulating this protein, not only is the feed-forward pro-inflammatory cycle interrupted, but the cells are pushed into a regenerative state that breaks the cycle of stress in the skin” explains Van Handel. What this means it that it gets to the root of the problem (the inflammation) rather than just treating the outward symptoms, whilst at the same time it promotes cell regeneration, which can actually correct the effects of inflammaging.

If you can’t get your hands on Heraux, Dr. Ellis says the best way to address chronic inflammation is to disrupt the inflammatory cycle. That means helping to prevent it by doing your checklist of diet, sunscreen, exercise etc., but also “incorporating anti-inflammatory agents in your skincare may help to break or suppress the cycle before it creates too much damage.” Although there are many on the market, he names checks the following as some of his (evidence-based) favorites: niacinamide (5% is optimum, higher concentrations offer no further benefit); azelaic acid (it’s both anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant) and prescription retinoids (Vitamin A) which can both decrease chronic inflammation and minimize signs of aging. If you’re looking for a quick fix, you’ve come to the wrong place. But with a little bit of (ongoing) love and some understanding the future of your skin looks pretty bright.

If you want more direct beauty tips like these, sign up for Sarah Tarca’s newsletter, Gloss Etc, here!


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  • Thanks for this informative post.

  • Some people are super-allergic to sunscreen.

  • Nicolette Ketterer 14 avril 2021, 12:32 / Répondre

    Excellent summary- this is spot on.Low grade chronic inflammation can certainly be addressed with diet choices and correct supplementation – one of the active corrective steps within our control , because there are so many other factors out of our control as the article mentions. I am now alerted by this article as to the external skin products that also target this concern, many thanks.
    There are finessed holistic , preventative doctors ,who specialise in checking blood levels of their patients depending on ones concerns and responses to a questions and answers consultation chat and pre- appointment questionaire. Such a custom blood check for your concerns and the doctor’s intuition of what markers should be tested for your potential vulnerabilities can reveal chronic inflammation as well as the other very critical thing is in this age of covid viruses , also breast and skin cancers- namely an adequate vit D level !

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