Anti-Pollution Skin Care: Common Pollutants and Advice from the Experts

air pollutants
  • Air pollution can have serious negative effects on your skin.
  • Specific types of pollutants are known to cause some skin conditions and to make others worse.
  • There are steps you can take to help prevent the effects of air pollution on your skin.

Air pollution is increasingly recognized as having detrimental effects on skin. The various components of air pollution have been linked to numerous adverse skin conditions, including eczema, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, acne, and skin cancer. Additionally, they can lead to cosmetic problems like premature aging and undesired pigmentation.

Air pollution is markedly higher in urban areas than in rural ones. Demographic trends across the globe point to rapid urbanization in almost all countries; indeed, the US Census Bureau indicates that the vast majority of Americans now live in urban areas. This trend means that an increasing numbers of people will be subjected to the ill effects of air pollution.

While air pollution itself may be hard to avoid, there are steps you can take to help protect your skin.

How pollution affects the skin

We asked Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, a Beverly Hills dermatologist, to help us grasp the general effects of air pollution on skin.

“The larger particles of physical dirt in the air — from soot, exhaust, smoke, acids, chemicals, for instance — sit on your skin and cause irritation and inflammation of the upper layers of the skin,” she says. “This affects the lipid layer of the skin, which in turn affects the protective barrier function of the skin.”

More significantly, the tiny pollution particles, which are much smaller than pores, get deeper into the skin and cause direct damage to the collagen.

“They create free-radicals that attack the collagen, which gives skin its elasticity and contributes to its plumpness,” Shainhoues explains. “They also cause inflammation, which causes redness, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin tone. This can lead to flare ups in acne and rosacea-prone skin.”

Even worse, she concludes, free-radicals can do damage to your DNA, which could lead to skin cancer.

Specific pollutants and their effects

There are many types of air pollutants that may be present in various quantities, depending on the area, the time of year, or a number of man-made sources, including industry, automobiles, construction, or energy production.

The following are some of the more common pollutants that contribute to skin problems.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

PAHs are probably the most common air pollutant. They’re naturally-occurring compounds consisting entirely of hydrogen and carbon that are found in coal and oil deposits.

They’re also created through the incomplete combustion of organic materials like wood. Consequently, PAHs can be produced by a host of processes. Some of the more common causes of PAHs are:

  • Automobile exhaust, especially from diesel engines
  • Coal- or natural gas-powered power plants
  • Road paving
  • Numerous industrial processes
  • Wood and tobacco smoke

The effects of PAHs on human skin are known to be deleterious. “PAHs can lead to unwanted premature aging of the skin including excessive freckles. They can also lead to skin cancer and cause acne eruptions,” notes Dr. Paul S. Yamauchi, a Santa Monica, CA dermatologist.

In addition to being carcinogens in their own right, PAHs have been shown to permeate the skin barrier more readily when a person is simultaneously exposed to PAHs and ultraviolet (UV) rays.

There may be unexpected sources of PAHs near you. The US Geological Survey indicates that homes next to parking lots with coal-tar sealant have indoor PAH levels 25 times higher than those next to lots that don’t use the same type of sealant. Notably, cities in central and eastern parts of the US use coal-tar based sealants far more often than those on the west coast, so they suffer far higher levels of PAHs.

Particulate matter (PM)

‘Particulate matter’ is a catch-all term that describes a variety of tiny particles in the air, both organic and inorganic. It can come from fossil fuel emissions, fires, construction, and natural dust, among other sources.

PM may come in many sizes, though it’s measured in micrometers. PM is counted at different levels, with 10, 5, and 2.5 micrometers being standard levels studied.

Although all forms of PM are harmful to the skin, smaller particles are generally more harmful than larger ones. Dr. Yamauchi says that PM causes oxidative stress to the skin, which leads to premature aging, wrinkles, and pigmentation.

PM is also associated with an increased risk of skin conditions, especially atopic dermatitis and eczema.

California generally has the worst particulate pollution in the US, especially in Los Angeles and cities in the central valley. Other high-ranking polluted cities include Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.

Cigarette smoke

Cigarette smoke has long been known to be particularly damaging to skin.

“Cigarette smoke contains a potpourri of carcinogens and oxygen radical forming substances that can wreak havoc on the skin,” warns Dr. Yamauchi. “The effects include premature aging of the skin, acne, skin cancers, worsening of psoriasis, and delayed wound healing.”

Oxides and ozone

Certain oxide compounds, notably sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (including NO and NO2, among others) are also known to be harmful to the skin. Both sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are produced in fossil fuel emissions including those from automobiles, power plants, and industry. Sulphur dioxide may come from natural sources like volcanoes as well.

Sulphur and nitrogen oxides are skin irritants. Dr. Yamauchi indicates that both lead to a higher prevalence of atopic dermatitis and children and adults.

Nitrogen oxides, in combination with sunlight and hydrocarbons, lead to the creation of ozone (O3) at the ground level. Ozone exposure has been linked to premature aging and reduces levels of collagen and elastin in the skin. Ozone also depletes the skin’s levels of vitamin C and E, and exposure has been shown to have a strong link to conditions like eczema, rash (urticaria), and contact dermatitis.

California leads the country in ozone pollution. Cities like Phoenix and New York also make the list of the country’s top 10 most polluted areas.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

VOCs come from numerous sources and are even produced by our own bodies. They’re called “volatile” because of their low boiling points, which means they easily become gaseous at room temperature. Not all VOCs are dangerous to humans — most odors, both good and bad, are caused by VOCs.

However, certain VOCs can be dangerous, especially those found in numerous household products. Referring to the hazardous type, Dr. Yamauchi says that “VOCs come from organic solvents, such as paints and varnishes, which can oxidize the skin in combination with ultraviolet light from the sun, leading to skin cancers and exacerbating rashes such as eczema.”

How to prevent damage

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help mitigate the damaging effects that air pollution has on your skin. If you’re already suffering from pollution-related skin diseases, taking anti-oxidants or anti-inflammatory drugs may be helpful.

Dr. Shainhouse presents the following three-step preventative plan to help you cope with air pollution.

Wash off the pollution

“At the end of the day, remove makeup and make-up remover and then a use mild soap to remove more dirt,” she says. “A toner or face oil may remove even more dirt and calm the skin and help recreate a damaged skin barrier, respectively.”

Because cities generally experience more air pollution than rural areas, it’s important to take that into account. “In urban cities,” she adds, “a deeper cleanse is helpful at least every other day.”

Prepare your skin

Creating a skin care routine to prepare yourself before leaving the house can help prevent long-term damage to your skin.

“Use an antioxidant layer on your face in the morning to prep your clean face for the day,” she suggests. “Ingredients like vitamin C, acai berry, coffee berry, and green tea will help prevent damage from free-radicals that are generated in the skin during the day.”

Wear sunscreen

Both Dr. Yamauchi and Dr. Shainhouse agree that daily use of sunscreen is a very important step in protecting your skin.

“Sunscreen acts as another layer on the skin to prevent pollutants from irritating the skin surface and getting inside,” explains Dr. Shainhouse. “And more importantly, it protects skin from UV ray damage (increased by pollution-induced damage to the ozone layer), which prevents sunburn, pigment changes, and skin cancer.”

How do I know if my area is polluted?

A good way to check the pollution levels in your city is to check the Air Quality Index map. By clicking on a specific location, you’ll get real-time information regarding common pollutants, including particulate matter, ozone, and oxides.

Additionally, the EPA shares information regarding air pollution via its website. Information is shown via Google Earth, indicating which facilities are currently producing the most of certain pollutants, including PM, oxides, and VOCs.

» For more advice on preventing and reversing the effects of pollution on your skin, meet our Medical Review Team.

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