Skin, Lip and Body Care

How to Protect Your Skin from the Damaging Effects of Pollution

+ CV Skinlabs Team

Smoke. Vehicle exhaust. Factory emissions. Dust.

It’s all bad for the environment, but did you know that it’s also bad for your skin?

We’ve talked about how pollution can damage skin here on CV Skinlabs many times in the past, and recent studies have shown that we’ve been right-pollution actually ages you, and can make those fine lines and wrinkles much more noticeable.

What can you do about it? Read on!

How Pollution Ages Skin

You already know that pollution is no fun to breathe, and that it’s not good for your health, particularly your lungs. Some studies have even suggested there may be a connection between pollution and an increased risk for breast cancer.

In 2003, for example, they reported that although few epidemiologic studies have shown associations between the two, “occupational studies show associations between breast cancer and exposure to certain organic solvents and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)s.” And in 2017, researchers found that women with extremely dense breasts had higher exposures to ambient air pollutants than those with more fatty breasts. Breast density is a well-established risk factor for breast cancer.

While we’re still looking into a possible connection between pollution and breast cancer, the evidence linking pollution to skin damage is much stronger. Scientists are now discovering that air pollutants can also cause significant damage to your skin.

In 2016, for example, researchers published a study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology showing that particles typically present in urban air pollution actually accelerated the appearance of wrinkles and age spots.

“Unless people do more they will end up wearing the pollution on their faces in 10 years’ time,” Dr. Mervyn Patterson, cosmetic doctor in the U.K., told The Guardian. “It is definitely something people now need to take seriously.”

Specifically, researchers looked into nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are typically present in urban air pollution. They discovered that age spots on the cheeks increased by 25 percent with a relatively small increase in pollution-10 micrograms of NO2 per cubic meter.

An earlier study found that ultraviolet radiation (from the sun), and environmental air pollutants like PAHs, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ozone, cigarette smoke, and particulate matter are all damaging to the skin.

“Although human skin acts as a biological shield against pro-oxidative chemical and physical air pollutants,” the researchers stated, “the prolonged or repetitive exposure to high levels of these pollutants may have profound negative effects on skin.” They added that exposure to air pollutants has been associated with skin aging and inflammatory conditions like dermatitis and eczema, even acne.

Scientists don’t yet have all the answers as far as exactly how these pollutants cause their damage, but they know that some of the compounds “ignite melanocytes,” creating dark areas and age spots, while others increase redness and exacerbate rosacea. The damage also causes the skin to try to repair itself, and it uses collagen to do that, but over time and exposure to more pollution, it may need more collagen than it can produce, which causes that sagging, bagging, and wrinkle formation.

“Pollution breaks down collagen and the lipid layer in the skin,” Dr. Zoe Draelos, consulting professor of dermatology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, told Self Magazine, “which impairs skin barrier functions.”

As we gather more evidence about how pollution causes aging, we are likely to see more skin care products on the market that can help deter these effects, but what can we do right now?

How to Reduce the Aging Effects of Pollution on Your Skin

To help protect your skin from the aging effects of pollution, try these tips:

  1. Don’t go to bed with a dirty face: Always wash your face carefully at night. It will help to get rid of the pollutants that have settled on it during the day, so they can’t damage your skin during the overnight hours.
  2. Consider cleansing with a brush: You’ve seen those cleansing brushes out there. You may have wondered if they’re worth it. If you live in a city, you may want to invest in one of these, as it’s more likely to help you get rid of any pollutants that are sticking to your skin.
  3. Exfoliate a couple times a week: Some impurities in the air stick to your skin like soot, and don’t respond to simple cleaning. Exfoliating skin, however, removes that top layer of dead skin cells, taking the pollutants right along with it. Use a gentle exfoliative product. Exfoliate more often if you live in the city, or while visiting a polluted area.
  4. Use skin care with antioxidants: One way we know that pollutants damage skin is by creating free radicals. These are harmful molecules that increase inflammation and destroy the structure of skin. Antioxidants neutralize these free radicals so they can no longer hurt your skin. Look for vitamins E, A, and C, as well as resveratrol, green tea, coenzyme Q10, and niacinimide (vitamin B). (We have several powerful antioxidants in our products, including vitamin E, turmeric, and reishi, so if you’re using them, you’re covered!)
  5. Eat more antioxidants: Remember that you are what you eat, and that includes your skin! If you eat more antioxidants (present in fruits and vegetables), your skin will benefit just as much as the rest of your body.
  6. Protect with sunscreen: You know that sunscreen protects you from UV rays. It can also help protect you from other pollutants, as well. Don’t walk out the door without it.
  7. Fortify the skin barrier: Your skin can keep pollutants out if it’s healthy. If it’s dry, flaky, cracking, or otherwise struggling, those pollutants are going to more easily work their way into the deeper levels where they can cause lasting damage. To fortify your skin barrier, moisturize regularly (try our Calming Moisture and Body Repair Lotion), and avoid harsh scrubs with nuts or other scratchy ingredients that create inflammation.
  8. Be smart about makeup: Your makeup can create another layer between pollution and your skin, and that can be a good thing, if the makeup is good for your skin overall. Look for products that are made by ingredient-conscious companies, and consider a quality mineral makeup that will provide a protective shield on your skin.

Have you noticed how pollution can damage your skin?

SourcesAnke Huls, et al., “Traffic-Related Air Pollution Contributes to Development of Facial Lentigines: Further Epidemiological Evidence from Caucasians and Asians,” Journal of Investigative Dermatology, May 2016; 136(5):1053-1056, Carrington, “Air pollution causes wrinkles and premature ageing, new research shows,’ The Guardian, July 15, 2016, Drakaki, et al., “Air pollution and the skin,” Front Environ Sci., May 15, 2014,“How Pollution is Affecting Your Skin-and How to Fix It,” Green Brody and Ruthann A Rudel, “Environmental pollutants and breast cancer,” Environ Health Perspect., June 2003; 111(8):1107-1019, Yaghjyan, et al., “Association between air pollution and mammographic breast density in the Breast Cancer Surveilance Consortium,” Breast Cancer Research, 2017; 19:36,

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