It may not garner the same level of attention as other dermatologic issues like acne or eczema, but rosacea—an inflammatory skin condition that causes blemishes, facial redness, visible blood vessels, and sensitive, dry skin—is surprisingly common. In fact, it affects an estimated 16 million Americans, according to the National Rosacea Society. One reason it’s still somewhat under the radar? Most rosacea sufferers don’t even know they have it. The organization “found that 95 percent of rosacea patients had known little or nothing about its signs and symptoms prior to their diagnosis.”
What causes rosacea?
Previously thought to be an infectious disorder, rosacea has traditionally been treated with oral or topical antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals—medications that are often coupled with laser or intense-pulsed-light therapies that use heat to combat redness and shave down bumps. But a growing number of studies showing rosacea to instead be a chronic inflammatory condition point to botanical oils and other natural ingredients as effective, gentler alternatives to the more aggressive therapies.
According to the AAD, “most people with acne-like rosacea react to a bacterium … called bacillus oleronius,” triggering a reaction that “causes their immune system to overreact.” Indeed, according to an article appearing in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, some of the most effective agents in combating rosacea are those that offer anti-inflammatory properties. Other researchers have published similar findings, reporting that the therapeutic efficacy of certain antibiotics in the treatment of rosacea have been attributed to anti-inflammatory antioxidant effects.
How to treat rosacea naturally
All of which opens the door to the benefits of treating rosacea topically with botanical oils and other vitamins and compounds renowned for their anti-inflammatory properties. “Natural cosmeceutical options serve as an additional branch of the market available to rosacea patients,” notes a scientific journal report on managing rosacea.” Natural ingredients reported in the literature that provide hydrating, anti-inflammatory properties capable of calming the manifestations of rosacea include colloidal oatmeal, niacinamide, feverfew, licorice, teas, coffeeberry, aloe vera, chamomile, turmeric, and mushroom extracts. Other vitamin-rich botanicals that work to fight inflammation include helichrysum, rose hip seed oil, grape seed oil and pomegranate seed oil.
Common rosacea triggers
Given that rosacea is a chronic inflammatory condition, “the goal of treatment should be to subside acute flares,” according to a study published in Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. The report further notes that avoiding “triggers, particularly ultraviolet light exposure, is critical for long-term improvement and disease control.”
In fact, although rosacea can also be precipitated by “hot or spicy food and drinks, alcohol, physical exercise, high temperature environments or abrupt changes of temperature,” the number one trigger for rosacea is sun exposure. UVA rays aggravate the ruddiness associated with rosacea, which means preventing sun damage is critical; hats and the regular use of sunscreen are mandatory. Further, it’s imperative to choose a non-nano, zinc-oxide-based sunscreen. In addition to acting as an anti-inflammatory, zinc oxide remains on the surface of the skin, reflecting UVA rays. Chemical sunscreens, by contrast, absorb radiation, thus exacerbating inflammation.
How (gentle) exfoliation can help rosacea
Then there’s the issue of exfoliation. While regular sloughing of the skin improves its health, tone and all-over appearance by unclogging pores and removing dead skin cells—thereby aiding the absorption of moisturizing products, preventing breakouts, shrinking pores and mitigating the appearance of wrinkles—harsh scrubs can also erode the skin’s protective barrier. Such erosion, naturally, aggravates rosacea; research shows that rosacea “patients tend to be more sensitive to topical treatments and may experience skin irritation with use.”
Those with rosacea (and sensitive skin in general) should instead seek out exfoliators containing alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) such as lactic acid. According to a study in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, alpha hydroxy acids are ideal because they resurface skin, improving texture and tone, without causing irritation. This last part is crucial: any irritation is a sign that your skin barrier is weakened, and researchers note that rosacea “symptoms improve when the skin barrier is strengthened.”
With the right adjustments to your routine, your skin can find calm again. Just remember to be patient. Having a positive attitude about the situation can only help soothe the underlying inflammation—being kind to yourself is also a way of being kind to your skin.