Ask a Beauty Editor: The Best Anti-Inflammatory Ingredients for Irritated Skin
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Reader question: I have inflammation when cleansing, and I know it's not from the products I currently use. Are there any types of ingredients or products I can apply that help lessen inflammation? — Erin Smith
Inflammation can mean a lot of different things, but skinflammation (inflammation of the skin) is an especially tricky thing to pinpoint. For starters, it can manifest in a number of ways, such as redness, dark spots, itching, breakouts, and/or swelling. And even if you haven't added any new products into the mix, there are an overwhelming number of environmental factors that could trigger skinflammation, making its elimination quite difficult.
If your inflammation is chronic, only happens when cleansing, and you've already ruled out products, I'm going to go ahead and say you probably have sensitivity to hard water. Hard water is the term used to describe tap water that's high in dissolved minerals, largely calcium and magnesium. Depending on where you live, some states have higher concentrations of hardness in their water (like New Mexico, Utah, Indiana, and Florida), whereas other states have less.
Over time, this skin residue can disrupt the skin barrier. It causes your pores to clog up, which, in turn, can lead to acne and exacerbate skin conditions like eczema and dermatitis. If you've noticed that your skin improves dramatically when you travel elsewhere, there's a high chance that your water is to blame.
First, I recommend getting a good mineral filter for your faucet and shower head. This can help filter out the minerals that are triggering your irritation. You can also try cleansing with micellar water whenever possible, which effectively cleanses skin without requiring you to wash your face. When you do use the sink, always use cool water—never hot.
And of course, there are also additional steps you can implement during and after washing to counteract irritation. Remember that keeping a simple skincare routine that focuses less on exfoliation and more on moisturizing/calming is essential for treating inflammation. Whatever you do, don't pile on a bunch of products (especially anything fragranced) as this will most likely make things worse.
So what ingredients should you be using to combat irritation? The right anti-inflammatory ingredients work by inhibiting the body's negative response and blocking the effects of certain enzymes that contribute to inflammation. I'm sure the last thing you want to do is experiment with already irritated skin, so I've compiled a list of soothing ingredients that are ideal for sensitive complexions.
Niacinamide, also known as Vitamin B3, is an anti-inflammatory ingredient that reduces redness and minimizes the appearance of dry skin. It's a choice brightening ingredient, too, combating hyperpigmentation by blocking the transfer of pigment from the pigment-producing cells (melanocytes) to the skin cells on the surface where discoloration is visible, according to Kenneth Howe, MD, board-certified dermatologist of Wexler Dermatology in New York City.
Try: Glossier Super Pure ($28; glossier.com)
2 Aloe Vera
Aloe vera has a very long track record as a skin-soothing agent. Not only is it moisturizing and protective, it's also rich in essential amino acids, fatty acids, and vitamins A, C, E, and B-12, which create a protective barrier and locks in moisture without contributing to skin oiliness. "Aloe vera has been shown to decrease a chemical called thromboxane, which is known to slow down wound healing," explains Rachel Nazarian, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. And as an added benefit, it also contains magnesium lactate, a chemical that can decrease itching and irritation.
Try: Nature Republic New Soothing Moisture Aloe Vera Gel ($10; amazon.com)
3 Witch Hazel
Witch hazel is a naturally cleansing, soothing, and healing extract full of compounds known as gallic acid and tannins. These compounds contain conditioning properties that help calm and maintain the skin's moisture balance. "Witch hazel toner can be used on all skin types after cleansing to eliminate excess oil, calm inflammation, unclog pores, and smooth complexion," says Kavita Mariwalla, MD, board-certified dermatologist in West Islip, N.Y. She recommends Dickinson's toner infused with rosewater (bonus: rosewater also has anti-inflammatory properties).
Try: Dickinson's Enhanced Witch Hazel Hydrating Toner with Rosewater ($3; amazon.com)
4 Sea Buckthorn Oil
Sea buckthorn oil is an unsung hero in the skincare industry. According to studies, it contains a rare palmitoleic acid (omega-7), which stimulates cellular regeneration in the epidermis. That's why it's often applied topically in hospitals to soothe skin burns, chafed skin, and bedsores (although you can find it in skincare products too). "Using this powerhouse fruit daily helps nourish the tissues in your skin and body, hydrating your complexion and preventing wrinkles," says Elina Fedotova, cosmetic chemist, celebrity esthetician, and owner of Elina Organics Skincare & Spas. "It's also a very promising treatment for rosacea and other adjacent skin conditions."
Try: The Ordinary 100% Organic Virgin Sea-Buckthorn Fruit Oil ($11; deciem.com)
Calendula is a natural oil extracted from marigold flowers native to the Mediterranean region. This sweet juice contains flavonoids with antiseptic properties, and carries anti-inflammatory abilities that help heal wounds and soothe eczema. Calendula's skin-soothing benefits can also be attributed to its ability to limit trans-epidermal water loss, which in turn strengthens the skin's defenses against potential irritants.
Try: Kiehl's Calendula Deep Cleansing Foaming Face Wash ($34; sephora.com)
You may sip on chamomile tea to chill out before bedtime, but it can also have the same effect on skin when applied topically. The anti-inflammatory herb contains high levels of an antioxidant known as apigenin that placates redness. According to dermatologists, there is also research showing that chamomile helps block signals in the body known as prostaglandins, which are responsible for inflammation.
Try: Naturopathica Chamomile Cleansing Milk ($38; amazon.com)
7 Tiger Grass
Tigers in India have been known to heal their trauma wounds and infections by rolling around in this herb plant (hence the name), which is native to the wetlands in Asia. Also known as cica, or sometimes gotu kola, tiger grass has the plant extract centella asiatica as its active ingredient. "Known for its antioxidant properties, the plant is rich in amino acids, beta-carotene, and fatty acids. Together, these are great for restoring the skin moisture barrier, protecting against external pollutants, and increasing collagen production," says Ife Rodney, MD, board-certified dermatologist of Eternal Dermatology. And the best part? Its true power lies not in the leaf but in its water, which is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. In fact, it's even been used to treat serious conditions, like leprosy, lupus, and ulcers.
Try: Dr. Jart+ Cicapair Tiger Grass Color Correcting Treatment SPF 30 ($52; sephora.com)
Love or hate the trend, CBD does work wonders for some people with inflammation. The modern CBD craze can be fatiguing (and TBH, pretty dangerous considering it's unregulated by the USDA), but there's a lot to be said for the anti-inflammatory properties found in high-quality CBD. When applied to skin, it interacts with skin receptors to turn down its inflammatory response. In short, you may see less redness and itching, and even help treat eczema and psoriasis, per a study published in the March-April 2019 issue of the Italian journal Clinical Therapeutics. That being said, always make sure to choose dermatologist-trusted brands and track where your CBD is coming from to ensure it's not contaminated with toxins and pesticides.
Try: Lord Jones Acid Mantle Repair Moisturizer With 250mg CBD and Ceramides ($75; sephora.com)