Clean Air Act: How Pollution Affects Your Skin

By Celia Shatzman / September 11, 2018

If you had to take a guess, what would you say is the number one enemy of your skin? Chances are, you said the sun. But there’s another culprit: pollution. We’re not just talking about clogged pores here. Pollution can cause inflammation, dehydration, acne and premature aging, to name a few.

“The most often spoken-about damage caused by pollutants is oxidative stress—pollutants that prevent the skin’s natural antioxidants from working at their optimal level,” says Asiya Ebrahim, spa manager at The Silo Hotel, Cape Town. “Add to this that the skin’s ability to protect itself is not unlimited; issues occur when abnormal or constant exposure to external pollutants exceeds the skin’s ability to defend itself.” That’s where symptoms like inflammation and parched skin come in. It’s not just urbanites who are at risk—rural residents are, too. “If you live in a large, polluted city, you should absolutely take extra precautions to help prevent pollution from impacting your skin,” says Natalie Pergar, lead skin care trainer at Eminence Organic Skin Care.​

“If you live in a rural area, you are still at risk of pollution as you are likely still exposed to household chemicals, car exhaust and pollen. If you live in a non-organic farming area, you may also be exposed to airborne pesticides.”

So how exactly does pollution damage your dermis? “Pollution is comprised of particulate matter, which are tiny particles that float around in our environment,” Pergar says. “These particles accumulate from many sources, including car exhaust, factory emissions and even household chemicals. These particulate matter are known to trigger multiple pathways of inflammation in our skin.” Blame inflammation for skin aging and symptoms like hyperpigmentation, dehydration, redness and sensitization, to name a few.

Different pollutants have different sizes of particulate matter. For example, take the size of pollen versus the size of exhaust particulate. “Larger particulate matter sit on the skin, while smaller particulate matter may penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin,” explains Pergar. “While discovery around how pollution impacts skin health is still fairly new, the fact is that pollution causes inflammation, which dehydrates the skin, and accelerates pigmentation and rosacea. As a result of inflammation, the body may also trigger enzymes that cause collagen breakdown, resulting in a loss of elasticity and plumpness.”

Luckily, there are a few key steps you can take to protect your skin from pollution, starting by loading up on antioxidants in your diet and your skincare products. “Antioxidants help fight free radical damage,” Ebrahim says. “They do this by slowing or preventing the effect of free radicals, which start oxidation—a process that causes damage from oxygen that can lead to cell dysfunction. Different antioxidants support cells in different ways: Vitamins A, C and E are great all-around options, assisting with scarring and tissue growth, among other things.”

A healthy diet full of antioxidants and omegas will help your body and skin defend against the harmful effects of pollution. Skip sugary foods and drinks, which speed up collagen breakdown. And stay hydrated throughout the day. “Topically, there are many natural products that can help to lessen the effects of pollution, like coconut oil for dry skin or lemon juice as a natural exfoliant,” Ebrahim says. “However, these too can be counterproductive if used in excess.”

There’s yet another reason to always make sure you wash your face before going to bed: By doing so, you’re removing pollutants from your skin. Don’t skip your morning cleanse either. Tata Harper Purifying Cleanser will do the trick. “Double cleansing is an excellent addition to your home care routine to prevent the impacts of pollution on the complexion,” Pergar says. “Look for a cleansing oil or cleansing balm for your first cleanse. These types of cleansers act like magnets that pick up and remove particulate matter from the skin’s surface. Then, follow with a gentle gel cleanser to purify pores.” Regular exfoliation is key to removing daily grime and the buildup of dead skin, but limit it to twice a week. An oxygenating exfoliant helps infuse fresh oxygen into the skin while removing impurities. Masks that target pollution, like the Jurlique Purifying Mask, are another tool to detox.

You’ve heard that wearing sunscreen every day—in the sunshine or snow—is key. Your trusty SPF doesn’t just protect you from harmful rays, as it also helps guard against pollution, especially one designed to do so, like Farmacy Green Screen Daily Environmental Protector Broad Spectrum Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 with Echinacea GreenEnvy. “If you’ve ever experienced a sunburn in a polluted city, you probably know that your sunburn was worse and occurred in a shorter amount of time, than, say, a sunburn sustained during a woodsy hike,” Pergar says. “As the energy from the sun radiates through the ozone, it can magnify the impact of the particulate matter. Sunscreen is always a good idea.”

In addition to antioxidants, add a few other products to your skincare arsenal. “During the day, look for moisturizers that are high in lipids, omega fatty acids or essential fatty acids, like jojoba or coconut oil,” Pergar says. “These moisturizers help protect the skin’s barrier function, which is your natural defense against the effects of pollution. Add a specialized overnight product with multiple benefits. Look for a treatment that will help the skin detoxify, calm over-sensitization and prevent from transepidermal water loss.” Try adding Eminence Organics Lotus Detoxifying Overnight Treatment to your PM routine. Wearing mineral makeup can also create a shield from pollutants.

You—and your skin—will breathe a little easier by taking these measures to fight off pollutants. “Pollution is at an all-time high,” Ebrahim says. “Supporting your skin’s ability to protect itself is vital. Exposure to UV rays and VOCs is the reality for everyone—all that differs is the extent.”​

Celia Shatzman

Celia Shatzman

Celia Shatzman is a Brooklyn-based writer who has penned stories on topics ranging from fashion to travel to celebrities, entertainment, beauty, finance, health, food, and fitness. A graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, her work has appeared in New York, Teen Vogue, NYLON, New York Post, Latina, Marie Claire, Self, ELLE.com, Time Out New York, CondeNastTraveler.com, and USA TODAY, among others. When she’s not writing, Celia enjoys traveling, learning to play tennis, and playing with her rescue dog, Olive.
Celia Shatzman

Latest posts by Celia Shatzman (see all)