How Pollution Is Damaging Your Skin


With pollution levels rising all over the world, we’ve become more concerned about its effects. But in recent years, we’ve learned that pollution isn’t just damaging the earth—it’s also harming our skin. Learn how pollution affects your skin and what you can do to prevent its side effects.

How does pollution damage your skin?


“Pollution causes free-radical damage to skin and over time can cause breakdown of collagen, wrinkles and brown spots, among many other signs of premature skin aging,” says Rachel Nazarian, M.D., FAAD, dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York. “Free-radical damage causes inflammation in the skin, and with time and normal aging, skin can lose the ability to retain moisture and water. Continued use of a product containing squalane can improve the ability of skin to retain moisture over time. Consider Biossance 100% Squalane Oil.”

How can regular cleansing offset the effects of pollution?


“It is important to wash off any pollutants that may collect on the skin,” says Michael Kek, skin-care scientist at Unilever. “I recommend using Simple Kind to Skin Cleansing Facial Wipes. They are not only merciless on makeup but are also capable of removing up to 99 percent of pollutants on the surface of the skin. Additionally, while we regularly think of facial cleanser products when we speak about pollutants, it is important to remember the rest of your skin. The new Dove Anti-Stress Micellar Water Body Wash and Beauty Bar is ideal to gently cleanse away pollutants and environmental stressors like dirt.”

Why is it important to apply a topical antioxidant?


“Antioxidants help fight free radicals from all environmental aggressors, like pollution,” says Dennis Gross, M.D., founder of Dennis Gross Dermatology. “Free radicals can enter the skin and cause tissue damage. Antioxidants work like Pac-Man to deactivate these electrically charged harmful elements. There have been numerous studies demonstrating vitamin C’s ability to protect against pollution—it is one of the tried-and-true antioxidant ingredients. Everyone should use an antioxidant due to their amazing abilities to not only prevent damage but also to correct existing damage—they also help protect against UVA/UBV, which is a universal concern. People can enhance the benefits of antioxidants by combining them with other ingredients such as retinol, like my Ferulic Acid + Retinol Brightening Solution. This prevents free-radical damage while also stimulating cellular turnover, leading to a brightened complexion and more youthful-looking skin.

How does your skin protect you from pollution?

“The body’s first defense to protect from environmental aggressors is your skin, which pollution can penetrate and over time lead to irritation and skin issues like dryness, sensitivity, redness and oiliness,” Kek says. “There are many ways that pollution can damage even healthy skin. For example, exposure to pollution results in 1.13 times more dryness compared to skin exposed to less pollution, and skin exposed to pollution produces 1.5 times more sebum compared to skin exposed to less pollution and increases risk of inflammation by 35 percent.”

Should people who live in polluted areas like large cities take extra precautions?


“Skin can be sensitive whether you live in the city or in the suburbs,” Kek says. “However, people who live in polluted areas are especially prone to pollution damage given pollution is an ever-increasing issue in major urban hubs like Shanghai, London and New York City. Did you know that pollution actually magnifies the effect of UV exposure? Even one hour in a highly polluted city is like two hours at the beach.”

Why are people who live in more rural areas still at risk?


“It’s not just those living in large cities who should take precautions,” Gross says. “Actually, according to the American Lung Association’s 2018 State of the Air report, Fairbanks, Alaska has the worst year-round particle pollution in the United States. This city has a population of approximately 32,000 (compared to New York City, which has 8.6 million) and is surrounded by beautiful forests. It’s important to note that wind is a big factor in determining how much pollution a city will experience. Fairbanks is east of China, which has terrible pollution levels. The wind carries over this pollution and dramatically effects an otherwise rural city.”

Can wearing sunscreen help?


“Sunscreens are wonderful for protecting against ultraviolet radiation, which can also cause premature aging of the skin,” Nazarian says. “Some sunscreens are also specialized and can protect against pollution damage.” SPFs do not protect against pollution on their own, but sunscreen is critical to guarding against the magnifying effect that pollution has on UV damage. For maximum protection, look for a sunscreen that also has a pollution shield, such as Algenist Sublime Defense Ultra Lightweight UV Defense Fluid SPF 50.

What other skin-care products can help offset the effects of pollution?

“In addition to an antioxidant, I recommend a moisturizer rich in nourishing oils to repair the skin’s barrier and reduce transepidermal water loss and a non-stripping chemical cleanser to remove surface debris, dead skin cells, wash away bacteria and decongest pores,” Gross says. Spritz on Skyn Iceland Glacial Spray Lotion With Anti-Pollution Complex to boost skin’s natural defenses.

Photo credit: francovolpato, Adobe Stock; VlaDee, Adobe Stock; Drobot Dean, Adobe Stock; ightFieldStudios, Thinkstock; Arto Marttinen, Unsplash; Karsten Würth, Unsplash; Ali Morshedlou, Unsplash