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How Inflammation Can Trigger Acne (And What Causes It)

Like many things in life, acne can seem simple at first. A pore gets clogged and, boom, you’ve got a pimple. Easy as pie, right? 

But the reality is, acne is complex. And the more we study it, the more complex this pesky, even painful, skin condition reveals itself to be. 

Today, we understand better than ever acne’s wide range of causes, how your diet and stress levels affect it, and how caring for the skin microbiome can make a difference in healing current blemishes and preventing future ones. 

Adding to that complexity is that dastardly villain known as inflammation. 

It’s a broad term that gets tossed around a lot when talking about overall health, often in connection with habits like smoking and drinking, poor diet choices, and infrequent exercise. 

But what exactly is inflammation? Let’s take a closer look at it – and how it can cause acne flare-ups. 

FAQs about Acne and Inflammation

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation is the unfortunate side effect of your body’s immune system fighting off infection. 

When harmful substances like viruses or bacteria enter the body, the immune system activates, sending white blood cells and other defenses to trap and neutralize the offending agents. This process also occurs when you suffer an injury. Your immune system sends cells to start healing the damaged tissue. 

The trouble is that this process can result in pain, swelling, bruising, or redness. If you’ve ever sprained your ankle, you’ll remember – it turns purple and swells up. This immune system reaction is known as acute inflammation. 

Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, refers to when your body activates its immune system without an initial infection or injury, sometimes as part of a more serious autoimmune disease. Symptoms of chronic inflammation include abdominal pain, chest pain, joint pain, and fatigue.  

How Does Inflammation Cause Acne?

Scientists have long understood that inflammation is a part of acne. The reason a pimple becomes red, swollen, and painful in the first place is because a sebaceous gland has become inflamed—the immune system has sent its defense cells to the site affected by the bacterial overgrowth.

But these are just the symptoms of acne. A growing body of research suggests that inflammation may come into play much sooner, before the pimple even forms. 

This research shows that the acne process truly begins when inflammation at the cellular level—also known as “systemic inflammation”—causes the oil in the sebaceous glands to oxidize, meaning its natural oxygen levels decrease. Acne-causing bacteria thrive in low-oxygen environments and begin to multiply at faster and faster rates. That’s when they start to colonize the sebaceous glands. 

So, in short, inflammation creates a bacteria-friendly environment, the bacteria inevitably find the oil-producing glands, they colonize those glands, and the overgrowth triggers an immune response—aka, more inflammation. 

Furthermore, inflammation anywhere om the body can make you more susceptible to infection and bacterial overgrowth, even in other parts of the body. For example, if your gut microbiome has an overgrowth of bad bacteria, or you’re fighting an infection, the resulting inflammation can affect your immune system’s overall responses – including causing new or worsening acne. 

What Causes Inflammation (and How Do We Prevent It)?

While some root causes of inflammation, like autoimmune disorders, can’t be prevented (although, if symptoms are more serious, your doctor might prescribe medications that can ease inflammation’s effects), there are things you can do to reduce inflammation. 

Here are a few things you can do to help minimize acne-causing inflammation in your body: 

  • Form Healthy HabitsSmoking tobacco and drinking too much alcohol introduce into the body all kinds of pro-inflammatory bacteria. Eliminating these will free up your body’s defenses to address other threats.
  • Find the Right DietIt’s not a coincidence that the same foods that help your skin and gut microbiomes are also effective anti-inflammatories. Avoid red meat and processes foods and seek out foods with antioxidants like nuts, beans, fatty fish, and leafy greens. 
  • Exercise RegularlyIn addition to benefiting our weight and mental health, exercise also has benefits on the cellular level. Studies show as little as 20 minutes of exercise a day can bolster your body’s immune system and reduce inflammatory responses. 
  • Manage StressChronic stress can make your body’s systems go haywire, and that includes your immune system. Keeping your stress levels low can have the same effect on your levels of inflammation.

Is All Acne Caused by Inflammation? 

It’s a good question! After all, when we talk about types of acne, we consider there to be inflammatory acne – like red, swollen zits – and non-inflammatory acne, like blackheads

However, the latest science suggests that inflammation, even if we don’t see it, is a possible cause of more acne than we think, because it creates environments in which acne-causing bacteria can thrive. 

But like we said earlier, acne is, frankly, complex. Inflammation definitely isn’t the only thing that can cause zits to form. Chronic stress, hormones, environmental toxins, and other free radicals can do the job just fine. 

So is all acne cause by inflammation? Not directly – at least not as far as we know yet – but inflammation certainly plays a part in how acne forms and how it behaves.

And that’s what you need to know about how inflammation can cause acne

If you’re struggling with stubborn acne that doesn’t respond to regular, over-the-counter treatments, chronic inflammation or a microbiome imbalance may be playing a part. (If symptoms persist, or if you experience other symptoms of acute or chronic inflammation, it’s worth mentioning to your doctor!)

Keeping your skin microbiome healthy with prebiotics, probiotics, and antioxidants can help enhance your body’s natural defenses against these harmful, acne-triggering agents. Find the product that’s right for your skin and meet the power of probiotics today.

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