Alexandra Engler

mbg Beauty Director

By 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

woman holding her face

Image by Studio Firma / Stocksy

February 9, 2023

Our editors have independently chosen the products listed on this page. If you purchase something mentioned in this article, we may

earn a small commission.

The road to inflammation is often paved with good intentions. So many folks adopt new skin care routines or habits with the hope of glowing, refreshed, vibrant skin—and instead are met with new sensitivities, irritation, and a more dull-looking complexion than before. One of the most insidious traits of modern skin care routines is that we’re simply doing too much: Too many ingredients, too much exfoliation, too high of a concentration of potent active ingredients, and too many “professional-grade” treatments without the discerning touch of an actual professional. 

And in the process, our skin barrier becomes damaged and disrupted, triggering inflammation. While inflammation is a natural occurrence in the body, when it becomes chronic it’s associated with far-ranging problems, from acne and flushing to premature aging. On the latter point, inflammation’s role in skin aging is so profound, there’s even a name for it: inflammaging. 


This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.

Why inflammaging is the sneakiest cause of premature aging. 

Even if you don’t notice the immediate side effects of heightened inflammation (i.e., you don’t experience breakouts or rashes), that doesn’t mean it’s not doing damage. In fact, as mbg Collective member and board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., tells us, even a slight disruption to the barrier can lead to this undercurrent of inflammaging1

“Pay attention to your skin barrier. When the barrier is not functioning—even if it’s not overt, and you’re not seeing the signs—there’s chronic low-grade, microscopic inflammation,” she says. “When the skin barrier is even slightly compromised, a patient may just go about their business thinking everything is fine, but there’s a whole cascade of all these inflammatory cytokines that are actually creating a slow burn under the surface. This is setting you up for major problems down the road.” 

Some of those problems we see? A breakdown of collagen and elastin, increased dryness (thanks to lipid and ceramide loss), dullness, dark spots, fine lines, crepiness, and sagging. Essentially, all telltale signs of premature aging can be attributed to chronic inflammation. 

How to know if your skin care routine is triggering inflammaging. 

Given inflammaging isn’t always obvious, it may be challenging to identify if your skin care habits are doing more harm than good. Here, some ways to identify inflammaging in your skin:

  1. Many times, inflammation isn’t visible—but sometimes it is. Anytime you have a flare-up of acne, rosacea, psoriasis, or eczema, it’s a sign inflammation has been triggered.
  2. Your skin is feeling more sensitive lately. Skin barrier breakdown leads to sensitized skin. So if you’re finding your skin is more prone to irritation than you’re otherwise used to, it’s an indication that the skin is vulnerable. 
  3. Dry, tight skin post-wash means that your cleanser is too stripping. It’s good to rinse your face and body; however, many formulas alter the skin’s acid mantle and barrier, as they are too harsh or have too high of pH.
  4. Exfoliating daily, or using exfoliating ingredients in excess. Over-exfoliation is a common bad habit in modern skin care routines. Folks should really only be doing so one to two times a week (if that). And in many folks’ skin care routines, they may be exfoliating during several steps: For example, washes, serums, masks, and peels can all be a form of exfoliation. Even things like rough towels can be exfoliating for the skin. Take stock of how many exfoliating steps you actually have—it may be more than you realize.
  5. You don’t practice sun protection. UV damage accounts for up to 80% of aging2, research shows. And if you don’t practice good sun care (i.e., wearing SPF and avoiding prolonged stretches of sun exposure), there’s a very good chance you’re triggering inflammaging in the skin. 


This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.

How to support your skin barrier.

The skin barrier is a resilient thing. Like all organs, it has the ability to repair itself when not inundated with external stressors. So the most important thing you can do is to pare back and let your skin calm down. 

Switch to a gentle cleanser & reevaluate exfoliation.

Cleanser should not make your skin feel tight, and exfoliation should not hurt. If your skin feels uncomfortable during your skin care routine—that means it is, and you should readjust. 

For cleansers, skip sulfates, as those are fairly irritating to most skin types. Look for calming and buffering ingredients, such as butters, emollients, and oils. Aloe vera makes for a good base ingredient, as it’s both hydrating and anti-inflammatory. Cleansing milks, oils, and balms are especially gentle for those with dry skin.

As for exfoliation, only do so a few times a week. And never assume that a more potent product means it’s more effective. At a certain point, strong products become too aggressive and are counterproductive to your skin goals. “The most important tip is that ‘less is more.’ You want to exfoliate just enough to increase cell turnover and reveal fresh new skin,” Ife Rodney, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Eternal Dermatology tells us about frequency. “But be sure to not scratch or damage your skin by overusing these devices or products.” 


This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.

Hydrate with calming products.

Our skin deals with a lot day-to-day. It’s what protects us from the outside world, pollution, and stressors. So why make it deal with more by applying harsh topicals? When in doubt, opt for calming skin care. Look for anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as oat extracts, aloe, antioxidants, butters, and oils.   

You should also look for actives that help support and strengthen your skin barrier. Fatty acids (found in many plant oils and butters), squalane/squalene, ceramides, and other lipids are a good place to start, as they feed the skin’s moisture barrier. 

There are also skin-microbiome-supporting ingredients that help restore barrier function. For example, some postbiotic ingredients have been shown to improve epidermis framework regeneration. This is notable, as it can limit inflammaging as it relates to external exposures. 

And this is true not only for our face but our bodies as well. Inflammation is inflammation—no matter where it happens on the skin, so it’s important to care for your skin as a whole.


This ad is displayed using third party content and we do not control its accessibility features.

Consider inflammatory lifestyle choices.

Of course skin health is not simply dependent on the products you use. First of all, your skin is in constant contact with the world around you. So it’s important to be mindful of how you protect the skin from UV damage and pollution—wear mineral sunscreen daily.

Skin is also influenced by how you care for your body as a whole: Nutrition, movement, and mental health can all play a role in how your body deals with and manages chronic inflammation. Be sure to eat a balanced diet, move your body regularly, and practice stress management in a way that works for you.  

The takeaway.

Inflammaging in the skin is a topic we’ve really only just begun to understand. But what we do know is that even low-grade inflammation—when chronic—accelerates aging in the skin, leading to wrinkles, sagging, dullness, and dark spots. And unfortunately, modern skin care habits may be contributing to this rise in inflammation.