From the thick smog that clouds the skies to the noxious fumes belched out by cars and the pungent smoke from burning tobacco, the air we breathe daily is teeming with a whole host of pollutants that can take a real toll on our skin. As a city-dweller, I’ve seen firsthand the damage pollution can do to the skin. And given that 9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, it’s a scary thought that pollutants are everywhere and can easily penetrate the skin. And no, your body won’t be able to fight pollution on its own, so you need to give it a helping hand.
Even though the skin has a built-in defense system and does its best to act as a barrier against environmental nasties, you shouldn’t entirely count on it. This is because constant exposure to pollutants can weaken its defense and leave the skin susceptible to a range of issues. Dryness, rashes, inflammations, premature aging, dark spots, and even conditions such as atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, and acne have been associated with exposure to air pollution.
All things considered, it’s high time you take action to protect your skin from air pollution and turn on your defense against it. To get to the bottom of it, let’s start by taking a closer look at how pollution affects the skin and how to build an anti-pollution skincare routine to counteract it.
How does pollution affect the skin?
Pollutants get a bad rap in the dermatological field because they create free radicals in the body—unstable molecules that damage the cells and tissues. Subsequently, they weaken the skin’s antioxidant capacity and leave it vulnerable to more damage from other external threats.
How this affects your skin is worrying, at least. Both outdoor and indoor pollution was found to accelerate skin aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles, reduce skin moisture, aggravate acne, and worsen inflammatory conditions. And if you think you don’t have to worry about pollution and shield your skin, especially in a city, think twice.
Pollution is almost everywhere. Cars, industrial processes, power plants, paints, and pesticides are some of the most common sources of pollutants we encounter every day. Tobacco smoke is also one and generates over 10 free radicals per puff—enough to wreak havoc on skin health. And even if you live in an environment with a breath of fresh air, you are not completely safe. Airborne pollutants emitted by airplanes affect the whole world and appear detrimental to the skin too.
The ground-level ozone turns out to be the most impactful outdoor pollutant. It’s a noxious gas formed when nitrogen oxides (gases produced from burning fossil fuels) and volatile organic compounds (chemicals found in solvents, paints, etc.) react with heat and sunlight. It’s quite bad since this scenario happens often in urban areas, especially during summer. It’s a double-whammy because exposure to this pollutant has been linked to a 70% drop in vitamin E and a 50% decrease in skin microflora, leaving skin exposed to environmental aggressors and susceptible to harmful bacteria.
Ozone, cigarette smoke, and other pollutants also oxidize squalene, a lipid naturally found in the skin’s sebum. This, in turn, can increase the sebum excretion rate and worsen inflammatory acne.
Skin issues caused by pollution
According to the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, exposure to air pollutants can trigger and worsen the following skin conditions:
- Weakened antioxidant defense
- Imbalanced skin microflora
- Premature skin aging
- Hyperpigmentation and dark spots
- Atopic dermatitis/eczema
- Dry skin
- Weakened skin barrier function
How to protect skin from pollution
You know the saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It goes exactly the same with protecting the skin from pollution—prevention comes first. Avoiding areas with public smoking and around industries, wearing protective clothing when outside, and investing in an indoor air purifier and ventilator can help mitigate the impact of pollution on the skin and prevent conditions caused by it.
Using sunscreen during the daytime is also a good prevention measure. Even though it does not block pollutants from penetrating the skin, sunscreen does block UV, which reduces the number of free radicals that pass through the skin. Moreover, wash your face immediately after being outside to remove accumulated pollutants and stay hydrated to help flush out toxins from the body.
Polluants generate free radicals, and your body needs antioxidants to scavenge them. Hence, having a diet rich in antioxidants can consolidate your body’s defense system and help protect the skin from damage induced by air pollution. Vitamins A, B3, and C, omega fatty acids, β-carotene, and coenzyme Q10 are all essential antioxidants and key players in the fight against free radicals. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, fish, red wine, and green tea are good sources of these antioxidants, so try to include as many as possible in your diet.
Your skincare routine is the best place to fortify your skin with anti-pollution protection and restore its natural defense mechanism. And as you may have guessed, it all boils down to using antioxidant-rich products. Look out for products, preferably serums, with high concentrations of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, niacinamide, green tea, coenzyme Q10, and resveratrol. These are powerful anti-pollution skincare ingredients that will keep your skin safeguarded and reduce the harmful effects of pollutants.
Paula’s Choice Super Antioxidant Serum is one of our favorites because it packs all the good stuff to combat the effects of pollution on the skin. Apply it every morning to get your skin instantly hydrated and strengthen its antioxidant defense. SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic is also a solid option we’re willing to stake our reputation for. Even though it’s a bit pricier, it loads a generous amount of vitamins C and E to deliver A-class anti-pollution protection. And for a budget-friendly alternative, The Ineky List Niacinamide Serum is worth checking out.
Also, washing your face two times a day (in the morning and evening) with a cleanser can help eliminate the toxins and pollutants accumulated on the skin. Use a gentle formula sans alcohol, fragrances, and sulfates that doesn’t strip the skin of essential moisture, like La Roche-Posay Toleriane Hydrating Gentle Face Cleanser.
In addition to cleansing, exfoliate your skin regularly to get rid of damaged cells and pollutants trapped on the skin’s surface. Preferably use a chemical exfoliant like glycolic acid or lactic acid two times a week. This will also enhance the penetration of your other skincare products, including antioxidants, so they provide better anti-pollution protection.
Lastly, use a lightweight moisturizer with added antioxidants during the day to keep your skin hydrated and protected. For the night, apply a regenerative cream. They are usually made with ceramides, cholesterol, and fatty acids and work to restore the epidermal barrier, which has the role of protecting the skin from external threats, pollutants included. Two to try are Andalou Naturals Repair Cream and CeraVe Skin Renewing Night Cream.
Here’s a complete anti-pollution skincare routine:
- Wash your face two times a day with a gentle cleanser.
- Apply an antioxidant serum with vitamins C and E in the morning.
- Use a lightweight moisturizer with added antioxidants for the day.
- Use sunscreen every time you go out.
- Apply a regenerative and skin-repairing cream at night.
- Exfoliate two times a week.
- What is pollution, and how does it impact the skin?
Pollution is the presence of harmful substances in the environment. When pollution particles come in contact with the skin, they can cause inflammation, dryness, and premature aging. Pollution can also lead to skin conditions such as acne, rashes, dermatitis, and hyperpigmentation.
- What are the main types of pollutants that harm the skin?
The main types of pollutants that harm the skin are particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and heavy metals. These air pollutants can damage the skin's barrier and trigger an increase in free radicals.
- How does pollution affect different skin types?
Pollution affects all skin types, but it can be especially damaging to sensitive skin and skin that is already prone to dryness, eczema, and rosacea. People with dark skin may be more susceptible to hyperpigmentation as a result of exposure to pollutants, while those with oily skin may be more prone to acne breakouts.
- What can be done to protect the skin from pollution?
To protect the skin from pollution, cleanse and moisturize regularly, and use protective skincare products with antioxidants and anti-pollution ingredients. Wearing protective clothing and staying indoors during peak pollution hours can also help minimize the damage.
- What skincare ingredients combat the effects of pollution on the skin?
Several skincare ingredients are effective at combating the effects of pollution on the skin. These include antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, niacinamide and green tea, and barrier-strengthening ingredients like ceramides and fatty acids. Using products that contain these ingredients can help to protect the skin from the damaging effects of pollution.
- Does sunscreen protect skin from pollution?
Sunscreen alone does not protect the skin from pollution damage, but it does reduce UV damage, which can mitigate the impact of free radicals.
- Can pollutants clog pores and cause acne?
Yes, pollutants can clog pores and make acne worse. Particulate matter, such as dust and dirt, can settle on the surface of the skin and mix with sebum, dead cells, and bacteria to form a plug in the pores. Pollution can also trigger inflammation in the skin. Both can lead to blackheads, whiteheads, and acne.
Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.
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- Drakaki E, Dessinioti C and Antoniou CV (2014) Air pollution and the skin. Front. Environ. Sci. 2:11. doi: 10.3389/fenvs.2014.00011
- West Virginia University. “Exposure to pollutants, increased free-radical damage speeds up aging.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily.
- Puri P, Nandar SK, Kathuria S, Ramesh V. Effects of air pollution on the skin: A review. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 2017;83:415-423
- Wendy Roberts, Air pollution and skin disorders, International Journal of Women’s Dermatology, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2021.