What Is "Inflammaging," And How Can You Prevent It?

by Jessica DeFino
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Recently, I heard the term “inflammaging” used to describe the foremost cause of fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots. I wasn’t familiar with it — and because my interest in skincare is obsessive at best (and all-consuming at worst), this sent me deep into a research spiral. I needed to learn everything about the buzzy new word; so, naturally, I consulted a few dermatologists. “Inflammaging is an evolving medical term which acknowledges the role chronic inflammation plays in the aging process,” Dr. Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, the medical director of Mudgil Dermatology, tells The Zoe Report. He says the condition is hard to reverse — but inflammaging skin can be prevented.

It’s important to note that inflammaging (a portmanteau of "inflammation" and "aging") is not just a skincare thing — it refers to a full-body health phenomenon, and skin is just a tiny part of that. “Skin inflammaging is not a term used frequently by dermatologists at this time, but it has been recently described in medical literature,” Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, a dermatologist known as Dr. Heather, tells The Zoe Report. “It covers chronic, low-grade inflammation and its potential contribution to age-associated diseases,” which include everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s.

Skin-specific symptoms of chronic inflammation include wrinkles and crow’s feet, uneven tone and texture, and a slowdown of cells’ self-healing functions.

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Inflammation isn't necessarily a bad thing, though; it's actually the body’s way of protecting itself. (Think of how your knee swells up when you accidentally bump into something, in an effort to pad the joint and keep it safe from further harm.) This reaction occurs in ways large and small — for example, pimples are spots of inflammation in bacteria-clogged pores — but when the body is continuously exposed to inflammation triggers, it can wear on cells and cause premature aging.

“In the skin, the sun is the key player in inflammaging,” Dr. Mudgil tells TZR. “Environmental toxins, like cigarette smoke and pollution, play a role, too.” Dr. Heather adds that food is a large contributing factor. “Certain dietary habits, including diets high in meat and sugars and low in vegetables, cause chronic inflammation,” she says.

The easiest way to prevent inflammaging is to limit your exposure to these particular triggers. “For our skin, daily sunscreen of least SPF 30, which contains titanium or zinc, is the number one method of prevention,” Dr. Mudgil shares — so if you needed another reminder not to skip this step in your morning routine, this is it.

To decrease your skin’s interaction with pollution and environmental aggressors, skincare products with antioxidants are the way to go. “Topical antioxidants have been proven to be beneficial to treat signs of photo-aging and combat inflammation,” Dr. Heather says. Look for products with high concentrations of vitamins A, C, and E — the most studied antioxidants in existence, known for neutralizing free radicals (aka, the pollution particles that wreak havoc on skin). “A low glycemic diet and avoiding red meat would be helpful," she adds.

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As for repairing inflammaging damage that’s already happened? That's a little trickier. “Sun damage impairs the skin's ability to heal itself,” Dr. Ronald Moy, a dermatologist and consultant for DNAEGF Renewal, tells The Zoe Report — so first, you need to focus on restoring that function. He recommends looking for products that contain DNA repair enzymes and epidermal growth factor (EGF), such as DNAEGF Renewal Serum or Skin Revolution Skin Conditioning EGF Serum, to support the skin's natural healing mechanisms and “repair sun damage by thickening and tightening skin.”

“Retinoids have also been proven to have anti-inflammatory effects,” Dr. Heather says. You can reach for an over-the-counter version, like Drunk Elephant A-Passioni Retinol Cream or MARA Algae Retinol Oil, for a low dosage of retinol; or ask your dermatologist about getting a prescription for high-strength tretinoin — both may help reverse any fine lines or texture issues caused by sun and pollution exposure.

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“There are various laser treatments and other cosmetic procedures, like Botox, that can help cover up the consequences of inflammaging,” Dr. Mudgil adds. “But unfortunately, once the damage is done, it’s nearly impossible to reverse.” The key takeaway? Start incorporating SPF, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory foods into your lifestyle now to avoid the effects of inflammaging later.

Ahead, shop all the inflammaging-preventing products your skin needs to stay healthy, firm, and glowing.