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What Causes Skin Inflammation? Unveiling the Triggers and Symptoms

From the Experts | Apr 10, 2024
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Skin inflammation plays a role in many complexion woes. Acne breakout? Inflammation. Flushing cheeks? Inflammation. Sore, itchy skin? Inflammation. It gets the blame for all manner of irritable conditions, but delving deeper into the causes of skin inflammation is key if you want to soothe your pores.

So, let’s take a look at the different types of skin inflammation you might deal with, as well as the triggers that could be upsetting your complexion in the first place…

What is skin inflammation?

From itching to blisters to rashes, skin inflammation can be linked to any kind of irritation or swelling. It’s your body’s reaction to harmful aggressors; a healing process that, when disrupted, can lead to more serious skin conditions. Most inflammation is acute, meaning it’s easy to treat and only lasts for a short while. However, some also suffer from chronic inflammation, where their skin can’t regulate its response, so it stays in ‘panic mode’.

Not only can skin inflammation be uncomfortable short-term – think tender, itchy or hot – but it may also lead to signs of premature ageing long after your complexion has calmed down. Even acute inflammation, like a sunburn, is able to trigger deep-down damage, which results in fine lines, wrinkles and dark spots. So, understanding the types of inflammation and their causes is crucial for delicate complexions. Only then can you start taking the right protective steps towards soothing your skin.

    6 of the most common types of skin inflammation

    1. Eczema

    Eczema is one of the most well-known types of skin inflammation, but there’s more than just one kind of eczema to be aware of. You’ve got contact dermatitis, which is an acute flare-up that usually comes from an allergic reaction, and then there are the chronic types of eczema, like atopic or seborrheic dermatitis. These chronic conditions are usually found in very dry skin types that can’t hold onto moisture, leaving pores vulnerable to extreme itching, flaking and angry rashes.

    2. Psoriasis

    This chronic autoimmune condition can be recognised by patches of thick, scaly skin, which may be red, purple, pink or silver in colour. These patches are also known as ‘plaques’, and they may feel itchy, hot or painful, appearing most commonly on the elbows, knees, scalp or lower back.

    3. Acne

    It’s important to know that not all acne is inflammatory. Case in point: blackheads and whiteheads are blemishes not linked to inflamed skin, but are caused by clogged pores that come with very little pain or redness. However, if you’re seeing sore, swollen, red papules, pustules, cysts or nodules, then you’re likely to be dealing with inflammatory acne.

    4. Rosacea

    Another type of chronic skin inflammation, rosacea causes flushing, enlarged blood vessels and pustules, mostly across the cheeks, nose, forehead and chin. It’s sometimes mistaken for acne, because rosacea-triggered blemishes are common, so it’s important to seek the advice of a dermatologist if you’re unsure.

    5. Hives

    These raised, red welts on your skin can be painful and are often very itchy, making them one of the most uncomfortable types of skin inflammation to deal with. They’re often linked to emotional stress; you might break out in hives if you’re feeling anxious or run-down, which can then make you feel even more stressed, making them hard to get rid of.

    6. Sunburn

    Some sunburns are worse than others. They might be pink, tender and quickly soothed, or they could leave you with extreme redness, blisters, a fever and skin that feels hot to touch. The worst sunburns can cause deeper, longer-term damage to the skin cells, such as scarring and dark spots. That’s why it’s crucial to apply a high SPF each morning – and reapply – even on cold winter days.

    Symptoms of skin inflammation

    There are so many ways your skin can tell you it’s struggling – some obvious and some not so obvious. If you’re not sure what to look out for, here are the key warning signs and symptoms of skin inflammation to know:

    • Redness and irritation
    • Extreme dryness and flaking
    • Itchy rashes that may burn or sting
    • Blisters or pimples
    • Raw patches of skin that may crack and bleed
    • A sensation of warmth or even intense heat
    • Enlarged blood vessels

    Causes of skin inflammation

    There’s not just one cause of skin inflammation. All the symptoms you’ve seen above can be triggered by various aggressors, each leaving pores vulnerable to irritation. So, next time you experience a flare-up, consider all of these causes to identify the culprit. Once you know what’s upsetting your skin, you can start to find your solution. Consult a dermatologist or medical professional for a diagnosis and medical advice.

    Allergic reactions

    Rashes, redness, blisters and swelling can all point to an allergic reaction, and it’s not always clear what your triggers may be. The culprit could be a certain type of laundry detergent, a food intolerance, or a skincare product that’s too harsh for your pores. If your allergic reaction is new, think about what’s changed in your routine recently, and you may find that’s your cause.


    Certain types of skin inflammation can come down to something as simple as genetics. So if you have a family history of sensitivity, it’s not uncommon for flare-ups to carry through generations. Not all conditions have a genetic link, but those that can be hereditary include eczema, psoriasis and even acne.


    Have you heard about skin barrier damage? This outermost layer of your skin acts like a ‘shield’ for your whole body, deciding what nutrients it's going to let in and what harmful aggressors it needs to keep out. But, when this barrier is compromised, your pores can be vulnerable to irritants, including bacterial, viral and fungal infections that set off inflammation. Some of these infections include:

    • Shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful, often blistered rash.
    • Cellulitis, a type of bacterial infection that leaves skin swollen, red and painful.
    • Ringworm, which is fungal and easily spotted by a round, ring-like rash

    The risk of these infections is one of many reasons it’s vital to keep your barrier strong. So, as well as supporting your immune system with a healthy lifestyle, make sure you add the best skin barrier repair product to your routine.

    Shiseido’s Urban Environment Age Defense Sunscreen and Tanning Compact Foundation with SPF

    Autoimmune diseases

    Some skin inflammation – such as psoriasis, lupus and pemphigus – is caused by autoimmune diseases. In short, this means the immune system can’t tell the difference between the body’s own cells and harmful aggressors, so it starts to attack the normal cells. When this happens, the regeneration of skin cells is sped up, so they’re produced too quickly. This can cause skin to flare up with redness, rashes and blisters.

    UV damage and photosensitivity

    You already know that exposure to UV rays can lead to a sunburn, so if you experience that all-too-familiar tenderness, uncovering the cause is easy. However, photosensitivity – also known as a ‘sun intolerance’ – can take UV-induced inflammation to another level, resulting in more severe symptoms. These include blistering, hives and even bleeding of the skin.


    You’ve heard about heat rashes. These happen when heat gets trapped within the skin, and can leave you with small blisters or even large, inflamed bumps that take time and patience to calm. So, when a heat wave strikes, look out for sensitive, reddened skin. Taking time out of the sun may be needed to keep your complexion at peace.

    Gut conditions

    An unhealthy or damaged gut has more impact on your skin than you might think. In fact, skin inflammation could point to a problem called ‘leaky gut syndrome’, when the intestines allow partially digested food to escape into the bloodstream. This has been linked to conditions like eczema, acne and psoriasis.

    Emotional stress

    There’s a reason you might look extra tired when you’re feeling stressed or run-down. Emotional stress weakens your immune system and, in turn, your skin barrier, allowing dryness, breakouts and rashes to take hold. That’s why, when investing in self-care, skincare should also be a factor. Taking a moment to soothe and comfort your complexion can be as good for your mind as it is for your skin.

    Hormonal imbalances

    From teenage breakouts to dry menopausal skin, hormones play a huge role in the look and feel of your skin – so it makes sense that a hormonal imbalance could lead to certain types of inflammation. In particular, acne and hormones have a deep and complex relationship, but hormonal changes can also increase sensitivity to rosacea and eczema flare-ups.

    Insect bites

    Wasps, bed bugs, spiders… Their bites can all leave skin inflamed, with reactions ranging from a little swelling to more severe blisters. Usually they should calm down within a matter of days, but some insect bites can become infected – particularly if you scratch or pick at them. So, if you’re dealing with a bite, no matter how itchy, try to keep your hands away from it.

Diagnosing skin inflammation

If skin inflammation isn’t going away, or you don’t know why it’s happening, it might be time to seek advice from a medical professional. Depending on the type of inflammation you’re dealing with, there are a number of ways your doctor might diagnose what’s causing your skin to flare up. Here are some of the steps they could take:

Physical examinations: In many cases, your doctor will be able to identify the problem just by talking to you and looking at your skin. Inflamed conditions like acne, rosacea, eczema and even shingles can be easy to spot, making diagnosis simple.

Patch tests: If your doctor suspects an allergen or intolerance is making skin flare up, they might suggest patch testing to find the hidden culprit. This usually involves pricking or injecting tiny amounts of known allergens into your skin, then assessing the area to see if and how your skin has reacted.

Blood tests: Blood tests are also used to identify allergies. The sample will be sent to a lab to see if your body has developed antibodies to fight specific allergens. Your doctor may also suggest blood tests to figure out if there’s an underlying medical cause impacting your skin, such as a pre-existing autoimmune condition.

Biopsy: In rarer cases, a biopsy may be recommended to diagnose the cause of skin inflammation. This involves your doctor taking a small sample of your skin, so it can be examined to uncover the culprit.

Skin inflammation FAQs

Can lifestyle choices contribute to skin inflammation?

Yes, daily habits can affect your skin in a range of ways. For example, smoking may slow down the healing of wounds, and sunbathing can lead to blistering sunburn. So, if you want to dial down your risk of inflammation, try to stick to healthy lifestyle choices. That means keeping skin protected in the sun, prioritising a good night’s sleep, staying active, and eating a nutrient-rich, balanced diet.

How does the immune system contribute to skin inflammation?

Your immune system doesn’t just fight off colds and flus. It works hard to keep all infections and viruses at bay, including those that affect your skin, like psoriasis and shingles. The skin inflammation you see is actually your immune system reacting to the threat of infections. It’s a sign that it’s trying to heal the damage – even if the swelling and redness tell you otherwise.

Can skincare products exacerbate skin inflammation?

While a soothing skincare routine can help to calm an inflamed complexion, using the wrong kinds of products may actually make any irritation worse. In fact, if you’re using too-harsh formulas or applying concentrated acids too often, this can actually be the cause of your skin inflammation.

So, when you notice the signs of angry pores, scale back on chemical exfoliants and scrubs. Instead, reach for your gentlest cream cleansers, moisturising essences and comforting moisturisers. Some of our favourite calming essentials include the Extra Rich Cleansing Milk, Treatment Softener Enriched, and Essential Energy Hydrating Cream. Finish with a non-comedogenic sun cream, like Urban Environment Age Defense Oil-Free SPF 30, to keep pores protected.

Disclaimer: The information in this post is for educational purposes only, and does not substitute for professional medical advice. Readers are advised to consult a medical professional or healthcare provider if seeking medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment.

* Consumer tested on 109 women.

The information in this post is for educational purposes only, and does not substitute for professional medical advice. Readers are advised to consult a medical professional or healthcare provider if seeking medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment.

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