How do anti-inflammatory ingredients calm down sensitive skins?

Sensitive skin is the most troublesome of all skin types. Sensitive skin is easily stressed, easily aged and easily provoked meaning decisions as simple as choosing skincare can become convoluted and confusing. Skincare with the right ingredients could calm and desensitize your skin; skincare with the wrong ingredients could stress and aggravate your sensitive skin.

The difference between these two scenarios often comes from the type and amount of anti-inflammatory skincare ingredients used in a skincare formula.

Skincare with a powerful collection of anti-inflammatory ingredients helps alleviate and prevent the symptoms of sensitive skin.

Sensitive skin and inflammation

Sensitive skin types are characterised by being over reactive. External and sometimes internally consumed ingredients which most people apply or eat without negative effect provoke un-needed reaction.

A lotion most people find great benefit from may easily cause redness, sensitivity and allergic type dermatitis. Skin may become hot, uncomfortable or tight.

Sensitive skin reacts in this way because it perceives something i.e. a cream or lotion as a foreign ingredient and a potential threat. When skin predicts danger it initiates an immune response of which a large portion is inflammatory.

Inflammation in short doses is healing and beneficial. The instant mass of raised inflammation caused when skin is bumped helps repair tissue damage and kill bacteria which have crossed the skin barrier. However inflammation in large, prolonged doses is ageing1 and stressful to skin. Sensitive skin types often experience inflammation.

What is inflammation?

In simple terms, inflammation is an immune response. On a biological level, skin or another internal organ perceives a threat and initiates an immune response in reaction to that threat. The purpose of inflammation is to isolate and neutralise a perceived threat. In order to do this, skin will release compounds able to kill bacteria and viruses. These compounds may also harm living and healthy skin tissue.

Reactive oxygen species are a common cause of inflammation. Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are high energy molecules and atoms able to oxidise, stress and age skin. Naturally skin is able to defend against moderate attacks with antioxidant reserves, however when skin is overwhelmed by ROS, antioxidant reserves are depleted and skin becomes inflamed2.

Inflammation is a complex process and is not yet fully understood. Under conditions of stress several cell mediators are released. Many of these are known as cytokines, small proteins which influence the behaviour of cells. Cytokines such as TNF (tumour necrosis factor) are implicated in the pathology of many inflammatory skin conditions.

Causes of skin inflammation

While sensitive skin types have many more causes of skin inflammation than non-sensitive skin types, all skin types may be acutely stressed by similar outside influences. The most prevalent of which are;

  • UV light
  • Pollution
  • Smoking
  • Harsh skincare products
  • Environmental allergens
  • Irritants and sensitizers

The key activating event in the cause of skin inflammation appears to be a disruption to a person’s skin barrier3. When healthy a person’s skin barrier prevents entry of external ingredients including allergens, irritants, and sensitizers. When stressed, the skin barrier does not function optimally and external ingredients are allowed to absorb into the skin. Chronic inflammatory skin diseases such as atopic dermatitis, contact dermatitis, and psoriasis are supporting conditions of this theory.

UV light is a very common stressor of skin. When skin is exposed to UV light several types of cytokines and matrix degrading proteases (i.e. collagen degrading) are released. These trigger inflammation and induce skin ageing4.

Sensitive skin types react to ingredients most skin types wouldn’t, they, therefore, most often overreact to external influences which are stressful to the skin. Sensitive skin types should, therefore, do their best to avoid and prevent the effects of well-known oxidants and stressors – using anti-inflammatory skincare is an important tool for this purpose.

Side effects of inflammation

Perhaps the most motivating reason to avoid, pacify and prevent inflammation is the role such immune activation plays in skin ageing. When a skin stress event is experienced, for example, because of reactive oxygen species from UV light, the following events take place;

  1. Depletion of skins antioxidant reserves
  2. DNA damage
  3. Immunosuppression and release of neuroendocrine (hormone) mediators
  4. Leading to increased synthesis of pro-inflammatory mediators
  5. Increased permeability of blood vessels leads to infiltration of neutrophils (white blood cells) and their circulation
  6. Elastases and similar proteases released from neutrophils cause inflammation and provoke MMP, resulting in loss of collagen and degraded elastin fibres5

Collagen and elastin are essential for healthy, youthful skin. As collagen levels fall, skin loses volume becoming prone to fine lines, wrinkles and sagging skin. As elastin fibres become disordered and hardened skin is less resilient and prone to malformation.

The use of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories help to relieve and prevent inflammation. All antioxidants are also anti-inflammatories, however not all anti-inflammatories are also antioxidants6.

What is an anti-inflammatory?

An anti-inflammatory is an ingredient which interrupts the progression of inflammation. This may be done by preventing the initial attack of reactive oxygen species through antioxidant pathways, suppressing the immune system as in the case of many corticosteroids or inhibiting the activation of neutrophils7.

The most commonly prescribed anti-inflammatories are corticosteroids. However, their use comes with concerning side effects and most patients are therefore advised to use them only in small doses and only with short-term use.

Long term use of corticosteroids results in;

  • Thinning of skin
  • Immunosuppression and therefore reduced/altered reaction to bacteria/irritants/viruses

Discontinuation of corticosteroids can result in corticosteroid withdrawal and symptoms of stinging, burning, redness and skin peeling. Therefore anti-inflammatories which work by suppressing the immune system are not appropriate for the long term care of sensitive skin. However, there are many other types of anti-inflammatories which may be used daily during a sensitive skincare regimen.

Natural anti-inflammatory skincare ingredients

Plants, herbs, fruits, and cereals are of particular interest in the study of skin as naturally, they exhibit high resiliency to stressful environmental conditions. Where skin is aged by UV light, green plants thrive. Where skin is dried by low humidity, plants survive. Where skin’s barrier properties are compromised by high winds, plants remain protected.

Some of the most effective and natural anti-inflammatory ingredients are derived from;

  • Apples
  • Oats
  • Turmeric
  • Chamomile
  • Grapes
  • Green tea

To date, curcumin is considered one of the most potent anti-inflammatory ingredients derived from nature. Commonly known as Turmeric, this spice is made up from several ingredients of which the majority are cuminoids;

  • Diferuloylmethane
  • Demethoxycurcumin
  • Bisdemethoxycurcumin

Turmeric is able to act as an anti-inflammatory as it down-regulates several inflammatory mediators such as cytokines8. Turmeric however is a highly coloured ingredient and therefore its current use in skincare applications is limited.

Many natural oils and butters are also a mixture of active antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredients. Shea butter for instance is in part made from a class of ingredients called triterpenes which exhibit active anti-inflammatory activity. Regularly applying an ingredient with natural anti-inflammatory activity to skin helps combat daily stress which may upset and trigger sensitive skin types. The application of shea butter triterpenes to skin is studied to produce a 25% reduction in the release of a specific inflammatory mediator (IL-1α cytokine)9. In addition studies show shea butter triterpenes may also contribute to a thicker more resilient skin barrier offering skin strength and protection. As many studies show an impaired skin barrier may be the direct cause of inflammation and is almost certainly a direct aid and cause in sensitivity outbreaks, regular use of shea butter containing moisturisers may help effectively manage sensitive skin types, for example the griffin+row Enrich antioxidant night cream.

Oats or oatmeal have been used for centuries to help heal, relieve and soothe irritated or damaged skin. Placed into a muslin bag and hung under running bath water or left to stew inside the tub, oatmeal’s traditional uses are now being backed by science. Oats are a source of many bio-active ingredients; one of particular interest goes by the name of avenanthramides. Phenolic ingredients present at around 300 parts per million in oats. Although in such small quantities, avenanthramides exhibit significant potency. In fact, studies have shown them to be active in concentrations as little as 1 part per billion. At such low concentrations avenanthramides inhibit TNF-α signalling alongside several other inflammatory cascades. Concentrations of 1 to 3 parts per million has been shown to mitigate the inflammation associated with hypersensitive skin types alongside reducing the often associated itch and uncomfortable nature of sensitive skin10.

Red grape vine extract is an example of a natural antioxidant with additional anti-inflammatory activity. Red grape vine extract is a natural source of resveratrol an effective and potent bioactive ingredient. Inflammation induced by UV light as seen by skin oedema and inflammation can be successfully mediated with red grape vine extract11. This ingredient is an important constituent of the griffin+row centess+complex, found in all griffin+row skincare products.

Conversely many natural anti-inflammatory ingredients also pose secondary antioxidant activity as is the case with an extract of the Chamomile plant. Chamomile too has long been known and accepted to help alleviate sensitive skin conditions, without understanding of the science behind it’s mode of action. Chamomile, specifically German chamomile is comprised of an ingredient called Bisabolol. Formulas containing Bisabolol show hypoallergenic, anti-inflammatory activity. Due to bisabolol’s high skin tolerability and bioactivity, the federal drug administration has granted bisabolol GRAS status (generally recognised as safe). Bisabolol inhibits the production of several inflammatory mediators preventing the excessive reaction of sensitive skin types12.

How to use anti-inflammatory skincare

Unlike doctor prescribed anti-inflammatory skincare, natural and nature-derived anti-inflammatory skincare may be used daily with no restriction on the time period it’s used over. As natural anti-inflammatory ingredients are not suppressive of skin’s immune function, the side effects associated with corticosteroid use are not a concern.

All skincare routines effective in controlling, mediating and reversing the inflammation associated with a sensitive skin type should be high in anti-inflammatory ingredients. Skincare routines for both day and night should be focused on their application.

For morning use, moisturisers such as the griffin+row Nourish natural skin moisturiser are most appropriate. This formula for instance contains anti-inflammatory grape seed extract, aloe vera and Shea butter.

For evening use, moisturisers such as the griffin+row Enrich antioxidant night moisturiser are most appropriate. This formula contains grape seed extract, aloe vera and shea butter in addition to several other antioxidant ingredients with anti-inflammatory effects.

During times of skin reaction or heightened skin sensitivity, anti-inflammatory moisturisers may be used in greater quantities and more frequently. Anti-inflammatory ingredients may also be used in treatment products specifically designed for treating sensitive skin flare-ups. Oatmeal for instance is often used in mask based treatment products and is effective in helping to alleviate stinging, itching, irritation and redness.

A skincare routine designed with an effective balance of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients is the most natural resolution to a sensitive skin type. Skin will be protected from inflammatory reactive oxygen species, pacified and allowed to refind a resilient skin barrier. 


References and sources

  1. Chronic inflammation is etiology of extrinsic aging. Thornfeldt CR. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2008 Mar;7(1):78-82. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-2165.2008.00366.x.

  2. Skin inflammation: reactive oxygen species and the role of iron. Trenam CW, Blake DR, Morris CJ. J Invest Dermatol. 1992 Dec;99(6):675-82.

  3. Chronic inflammation is etiology of extrinsic aging. Thornfeldt CR. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2008 Mar;7(1):78-82. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-2165.2008.00366.x.

  4. Fuller, B., Smith, D., Howerton, A. and Kern, D. (2006), Anti-inflammatory effects of CoQ10 and colorless carotenoids. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 5: 30–38. doi:10.1111/j.1473-2165.2006.00220.x

  5. Pillai, S., Oresajo, C. and Hayward, J. (2005), Ultraviolet radiation and skin aging: roles of reactive oxygen species, inflammation and protease activation, and strategies for prevention of inflammation-induced matrix degradation – a review. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 27: 17–34. doi:10.1111/j.1467-2494.2004.00241.x

  6. Antioxidants and inflammatory disease: synthetic and natural antioxidants with anti-inflammatory activity. Geronikaki AA, Gavalas AM. Comb Chem High Throughput Screen. 2006 Jul;9(6):425-42.

  7. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs: how do they work? Weissmann G, Korchak H, Ludewig R, Edelson H, Haines K, Levin RI, Herman R, Rider L, Kimmel S, Abramson S. Eur J Rheumatol Inflamm. 1987;8(1):6-17.

  8. Anti-inflammatory properties of curcumin, a major constituent of Curcuma longa: a review of preclinical and clinical research. Jurenka JS. Altern Med Rev. 2009 Jun;14(2):141-53. Review. Erratum in: Altern Med Rev. 2009 Sep;14(3):277

  9. A-C Andersson and J Alander, Shea butter extract for bioactive skin care, Cosm & Toil 130(6) 18-25 (Jul/Aug 2015)

  10. Avenanthramides, polyphenols from oats, exhibit anti-inflammatory and anti-itch activity. Sur R, Nigam A, Grote D, Liebel F, Southall MD. Arch Dermatol Res. 2008 Nov;300(10):569-74. doi: 10.1007/s00403-008-0858-x. Epub 2008 May 7

  11. Ndiaye M, Philippe C, Mukhtar H, Ahmad N. The Grape Antioxidant Resveratrol for Skin Disorders: Promise, Prospects, and Challenges. Archives of biochemistry and biophysics. 2011;508(2):164-170. doi:10.1016/j.abb.2010.12.030.

  12. Kamatou, G.P.P. & Viljoen, A.M. J Am Oil Chem Soc (2010) 87: 1. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11746-009-1483-3″ rel=”nofollow”>https://doi.org/10.1007/s11746-009-1483-3

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