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Ask a Dermatologist About the Effects of Air Pollution on Your Skin

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Many things are bad for your skin that you probably already know. Public enemy number one is the sun, as well as other culprits like sugar, stress, or blue light from your smartphone while scrolling through endless amounts of social media.

There’s another problem: skin damage. Air pollution is the issue. It can be very harmful for urbanites. But it is not just those who live in cities that should be worried. Drs. Robyn Gmyrek and Macrene Alexiades, dermatologists, explain what air pollution can do to your skin and what you can do about it.

What is Air Pollution?

If you are anything like us, air pollution is something you see every day. It can be seen as black smoke from factories, the smog that covers the Los Angeles skyline, or the black soot on your New York City apartment’s windowsill. Air pollution is a broad term that can cover many things. If you need to be more specific, it can be described more clearly. Gmryek explains that six pollutants have been identified by the EPA as ‘criteria air pollutants’. This is because the agency regulates them using science-based guidelines to set permissible levels.

She explains that these six pollutants include carbon monoxide and lead, as well as nitrogen oxides, ground level ozone, particulate matter, sulfur oxides, and ground-level oxygen. These aren’t all six. She also mentions that there are other things like airborne polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (or PAHs), which can be found in cigarette smoke. Gmyrek also says that while most air pollution is associated with outdoor environments, indoor pollutants can also exist. These pollutants include household products, cooking fuel, and even candles.

How air pollution affects your skin

“Let’s cut to the chase: Skin damage from air pollution. Your skin acts as a barrier between the outside world, and your internal organs. This makes it vulnerable to environmental stressors like pollution”, says Gmyrek. It is natural to think of pollution as being on top of your skin, similar to the black soot on your windowsill. However, it can penetrate deeper than that. “Pollution doesn’t just touch the skin when it comes in contact with it.

“Pollutants can penetrate deeper layers of your epidermis and cause issues like worsened skin moisture, clogged pores or duller skin. And ultimately, premature signs aging due to loss of elasticity.” Alexiades explains.

Gmyrek explains that although ozone can’t penetrate the skin, it causes damage to the skin by depleting antioxidants, creating reactive oxygen species (ROS) and triggering inflammation in deeper layers of skin. She adds that other pollutants such as particulate matter can penetrate the skin directly. They also trigger ROS and cause acne, eczema, and dark spots. One study found that traffic-related particles were associated with an increase in the number of age-related pigment spots called lentigines and deeper nasolabial folds.

Your skin also takes a direct hit, which is an insult to the already bad situation. Gmryek says that air pollutants can also cause skin damage through indirect systemic absorption. Gmryek says that inhaled air pollution can cause skin damage via blood delivery. A 2013 study found that transcutaneous air pollution, also known as air pollution absorbed through the skin, was at similar levels to inhaled air pollution.

Is it possible to reverse skin damage caused by air pollution?

Although it is often true when discussing skin, the best defense is always the best offense. It’s possible to repair or undo the damage done once it has occurred, but it is much easier to prevent it from ever happening. In-office treatments–radiofrequency microneedling, fractionated lasers–are often needed to help reverse the signs of skin aging caused by exposure to pollution, including but not limited to dullness, discoloration, and fine lines, notes Alexiades.

How to protect your skin from air pollution

Two words: topical antioxidants. Gmyrek says that our skin has natural antioxidant defense mechanisms in place to protect us against ROS and other harmful free radicals. Problem occurs when our skin is exposed to high levels of pollutants or chronically. These systems become overwhelmed and stop functioning properly. Topical antioxidants are a great solution. Gmryek, who cites this promising study, says that antioxidants neutralize and stabilize harmful reactive oxygen species and can help to reverse some environmental extrinsic damages.

Alexiades concurs: “To protect your skin from pollution, you need to apply twice daily anti-pollution antioxidants as well as skin barrier fortifiers”. More about the latter in a moment. While all antioxidants are good for your skin and can be used to fight pollution, some of them work better than others. Alexiades recommends gingko extract as one of her top picks. This is because gingko trees are from China, which is known for its high levels of air pollution. She says that gingko extract is effective against the types of free radicals found in automobile pollution. This includes nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. She also adds vitamin C and E to her favorite list, along with resveratrol. Gmyrek notes that vitamins C, and E are both very effective, but with the caveat of being in properly formulated products to maintain stability. She also mentions phloretin as another well-studied and efficient option.

Remember Alexiades’ previous point about strengthening the skin barrier. The less particles and pollutants that can get through your skin barrier the better. This means that ingredients such as ceramides or lipids are an excellent choice to help strengthen this outer layer. And don’t forget sunscreen. Sun exposure can be harmful for your skin by itself. But what happens when you add air pollution to the mix? Pay attention. Gmyrek says that UV radiation combined with airborne pollutants can worsen the effects of pollutants. She adds that, much like how you would avoid the sun, it is important to try to avoid polluted areas.

Air pollution can cause a variety of skin conditions, including acne, eczema, and signs of aging. There is no way to know if it will affect your skin. It is easy to make topical antioxidants an essential part of your skincare regimen. This, along with some other key steps, can help protect your skin and prevent future problems.

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