In case you haven’t heard, the latest trend in skincare is anti-pollution care.
But is pollution something we have to worry about when it comes to skincare? We explore that question in this post.
Does Pollution Harm Skin?
You know that breathing in pollutants can harm your lungs. Recent research has shown that regular exposure to air pollution may harm the skin, too.
Pollution can be responsible for skin itching, irritation, dryness, allergic skin conditions, acne, pigmentation, atopic-prone skin and hypersensitivity. It may also lead to things like chronic inflammation and premature aging.
Here’s what happens: Lipids, or fats, help bind skin cells together, creating that smooth, strong look we all crave. Air pollution can oxidize lipids, however, inflaming the skin and causing a breakdown of the outer layer. It’s the free radicals present in the pollutants that cause this oxidation.
You know how an apple turns brown when you expose it to the air? That is oxidation caused by free radicals. The same effects can occur in your skin when you’re exposed to pollutants in the air.
When the outer layer of the skin breaks down as a result of oxidation, it can no longer protect the rest of the body from bacteria and other microorganisms. Since skin is the main immune barrier for the rest of the body’s organs, when the skin starts breaking down, the rest of the body is vulnerable to damage and disease.
Major air pollutants that may negatively affect the skin include the following.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
These are the most widespread organic pollutants and come from wood burning, automobile exhaust fumes (particularly from diesel engines), and in all smoke like cigarette smoke. They can be absorbed by the skin, where they can create damaging free radicals that contribute to skin aging.
Some studies have also connected PAHs to an increased risk of skin cancer. As they stimulate the production of free radicals, these free radicals can then cause DNA damage that leads to the development of cancerous cells.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
These are organic solvents found in paints, varnishes, vehicle refinishing products, environmental tobacco smoke, exhaust from cars, and emissions from industrial facilities. In combination with sunlight and NOx, they can also create free radicals in the skin.
Studies have found that when the skin is exposed to VOCs, there is an increase in inflammatory cells, which could lead to an increase in allergic reactions like atopic dermatitis and eczema.
Nitrogen oxides (NOx)
These are emitted mainly from fossil fuel combustion processes and exists in emissions from cars, trucks, buses, power plants, and off-road equipment. These also generate free radicals in the skin and may oxidize amino acids in the tissues as well as polyunsaturated fatty acids in the deeper layers of the skin.
Some studies suggest that there is a higher prevalence of atopic dermatitis in areas of higher air pollution. Atopic eczema has also been linked with living close to heavy traffic.
Particulate matter (PM)
These are small particles of air pollutants that are suspended in the air. They come from factories, power plants, incinerators, construction activities, fires, windblown dust, and automobile exhaust.
These induce free radicals in the skin and have been found in studies to contribute to skin aging signs, like age spots, nasolabial folds, and wrinkles.
This contains thousands of chemicals, including free radicals and carcinogens, along with some substances known to interact with skin. Studies have linked exposure to cigarette smoke to water loss in the skin, degeneration of connective tissues, deeper wrinkling, and psoriasis.
How to Protect Yourself from Pollution-Induced Skin Damage
Considering these findings, you can see why many manufacturers are trying to sell anti-pollution beauty products. But do you need to buy a particular product for this? We don’t think so.
Instead, you simply need to choose products that are high in antioxidant ingredients that fight off that free-radical-induced oxidation. Anti-inflammatory and anti-irritation ingredients also help protect skin, while moisturizing ingredients strengthen the skin barrier.
The best way to protect your skin from pollutant-related damage is to follow these tips:
- Keep skin healthy! This is by far the best way to protect your skin from pollution. When the skin is healthy, it has a strong protective barrier that is much less likely to allow pollutants to seep through. When skin is dry, flaky, inflamed, and damaged, those pollutants are more likely to find a way in. To keep skin healthy follow a regular skin-care routine that involves products rich in protective antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, and moisturizing ingredients. In addition, avoid smoking, eat well, and get enough sleep every night.
- Eat more antioxidants: Antioxidants are free-radical-fighting nutrients found in whole foods like fruits and vegetables. The more of these your body has, the better able it is to counteract free-radical damage caused by pollution.
- Apply antioxidants: Skin creams that include antioxidants can also help. Look for those with vitamin C and E, which are both powerful antioxidants, as well as natural plant oils.
- Look for niacinamide: This form of vitamin B has been linked with helping to reduce the damage caused by pollution, and it also helps strengthen the skin barrier. You can take a vitamin B3 supplement, or apply skin creams with niacinamide in them.
- Keep skin moisturized: Moisturized skin is healthy skin and will be less likely to let pollutants in. When skin is hydrated, it also has a stronger outer barrier, which protects from environmental aggressors. And remember—we’re not just talking about the skin on your face but on your entire body.
- Choose products carefully: Avoid harsh ingredients, cleanse gently, and take care not to over-treat with retinols or acids, as that can contribute to outer-layer breakdown.
- Protect from the sun: The sun is still the biggest source of skin damage, so it’s important to protect your skin with clothing and sunscreen. Some studies have found that when UV rays are combined with pollutants, the damage to the skin can be even greater, so if you’re protecting from pollution but not the sun, you’re still leaving your skin at risk.
- Don’t forget about indoor pollution: The Environmental Protection Agency notes that indoor pollution is often worse than outdoor (caused by dust, air conditioning, pet dander, mold, pollen, smoke, household products), so even if you don’t spend a lot of time outdoors, it’s still important to protect your skin.
Do you protect your skin from pollution?
Drakaki, E. (2014). Air pollution and the skin. Front. Environ. Sci.,. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fenvs.2014.00011/full