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The Effect of Air Pollution on your Skin

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

The effect of air pollution on skin has not been as widely tested as the effect of UV light on skin, but there is extensive correlation between air quality and skin diseases. We all know that breathing in air pollution is not good for us, and it goes a lot further than merely breathing in unsafe air.

The effect of air pollution on your skin

Can air pollution harm your skin?

We should all be concerned about air pollution and not just because it can harm us when breathed in. Numerous pollutants harm the environment and many make it difficult to breathe at all. Air pollution has been known to cause harm to the lungs and heart for a long time, and can even cause death, but less obvious dangers from air pollution are also present, such as the effect of air pollution on skin.

Dermatologists have been extremely effective in passing on the dangers of the sun and UV light on skin, but even if it makes sense many people are less aware of the impact of air pollution on their outer body. It just isn’t something most people think about. Let’s change that thought process and make people more aware of the effects of air pollution on skin.

Pollutants that can harm your skin

There are three main pollutants to be aware of when it comes to air pollution and skin:

  • Low level ozone, which forms from the reaction of sunlight on air containing hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides;

  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are emitted when burning fossil fuels;

  • Particulate Matter, which are microscopic particles of solid or liquid matter suspended in the air, many of which are invisible to the naked eye;

Particulate matter is particularly concerning and is believed to cause multiple effects on skin health and premature ageing of skin. Even so, there is no extensive data on the effect of air pollution on skin but there is some extensive correlation between air quality and skin diseases.

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs when your skin comes in direct contact with an allergen and there are many different pollutants in the air.

Eczema is a skin condition that is often linked to asthma with studies showing that if you have one condition, you may be more likely than most people to have the other. Dermatologists have noticed that after a rise in air pollution or a fall in air quality, both eczema and asthma tend to be more severe and more difficult to treat.

Although more research is needed, it pays to be cautious.

Skin damage from air pollution

Whenever we are exposed to chronically high levels of air pollution or UV radiation, free radicals are created and our cellular defences are weakened, which leads to an unstable environment. Our body’s natural tendency is to resolve those free radicals using antioxidants and (the now slightly weakened) cellular defences. Over time, when these free radicals are not resolved, they can lead to tanning damage and advanced ageing.

The effect of the sun on skin is well known, increasing free radical production which can cause DNA damage and a lot of the signs of skin ageing - fine lines, wrinkles and discolouration over time - as well as an increased risk of skin cancer.

Air pollutants can have similar effects on skin, also increasing free radical production, but also have some key differences, most notably causing inflammation and irritation directly onto the skin’s surface. They also decrease antioxidants, the skin’s natural defence in decreasing free radicals.

How to protect your skin from air pollution

In the modern world, it is impossible to avoid air pollution. As such, it pays to create preventative action and to maintain a good skincare regime of moisturising and cleansing. One of the purposes of a cleanse