Fanning the Flames: The Contradictions Surrounding Inflammation

Is inflammation always a negative? // Frozenmost/iStock/Getty Images Plus

When we hear the term "inflammation," negative connotations like irritation and itchiness are the first to come to mind. But there’s more to this protective mechanism than meets the eye.

“Inflammation has good and bad qualities,” says Shannon Esau, CEO and director of education at Rhonda Allison Cosmeceuticals. “While it’s easy to focus on the bad, inflammation is, at its core, a part of the body’s natural defenses and healing process.” It plays an important role in skin rejuvenation, and it’s been used in spa treatments and skincare in one way or another for decades. “Inflammation occurs when tissue has been injured or abnormally stimulated, and it’s a signal to the body to begin the healing process,” says Lisamarie Garguilo, VP of spa sales and education for Luzern.

There are five principle indicators of inflammation—pain, heat, redness, swelling, and loss of function—and each one is essential to skin regeneration, Esau says, because “during the inflammation stage, platelets release pro-youth growth factors and other pro-inflammatory molecules to heal, rebuild, and renew.” While most spa professionals prefer to harness the powers of inflammation for good, some are solidly in the anti-inflammation camp. “I don’t believe it’s ever okay for the skin,” says Phyllis Hsieh, president of Sesha Skin Therapy. “When inflammation does occur, it’s important to calm and soothe it immediately with a combination of antioxidants.” For brands that prefer to take a natural approach, it’s a sign of bigger problems. “Inflammation is a reaction to something that went wrong,” says Genny Smith, practical trainer for boutique and spa for Clarins. “It’s really important to us to listen to our bodies and respect what they have to say.”

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There are two kinds of inflammation. One can be beneficial while the other is to be avoided at all costs. “Without inflammation receptors, wounds and infections wouldn’t heal, so acute inflammation is an imperative part of the body’s natural defense,” says Esau. But when it passes from the acute level to the chronic, things can get dicey. “Chronic inflammation is prolonged inflammation, which causes the skin not to respond to true inflammatory receptor signaling and become more vulnerable,” she says. It’s a fine line where acceptable levels of inflammation begin and end, according to Brian Goodwin, international trainer for Eminence Organic Skin Care. “When inflammation becomes chronic or continued inflammation, healthy tissue becomes damaged faster than it can be repaired, and the skin actually ages more quickly,” he says. 

When used properly, inflammation can be a helpful tool in the spa technician’s arsenal. “Certain esthetic treatments were designed to trigger an inflammatory response, initiating the rejuvenation process and helping restore skin to optimum health,” says Garguilo. Chemical peels have long been popular for that very reason. “Facial peels produce a controlled, short-term inflammatory response, initiating the rejuvenation process and revealing youthful, healthy skin,” says Esau. 

Gentle, controlled wounding of the skin with resurfacing technologies like peels may jump-start renewal, but minimizing inflammation should always be the goal, says Gül Ç. Zone, CEO and founder of DermAware Bio-Targeted Skin Care, who adds that there’s a fine art and a great science to determining just how much inflammation is helpful and how much is hurtful. “Very targeted and precise treatments that trigger minimal inflammation can boost things like collagen production, but if they aren’t done well, they can result in damage,” says Alicia Yoon, founder and CEO of Peach & Lily. Microneedling and blood facials, for instance, can achieve results, but they can also cause excessive inflammation and trauma to the skin. For spa-goers, Goodwin says, a good rule of thumb is to leave things like laser treatments and high levels of acids to the professionals and focus on a daily homecare routine that builds the skin with vitamins, hyaluronic acid, and gentle peels.

When in doubt, take a step back. Shel Pink, founder of SpaRitual, takes a holistic tack to avoiding inflammation that includes lifestyle adjustments as well as topical therapies. “I believe in taking a slower, more gentle approach to the self-care process. I just don't believe in super-aggressive body or face treatments,” she says, emphasizing the importance of diet, hydration, sleep, and hands-on stress relief. “People should be having regular massage treatments to reduce inflammation, but also to help avoid getting inflamed.”

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