Nowadays, pollution is a major environmental concern—but it can also be bad for our skin. In this post, learn about the effects of air pollution and how to protect your complexion from it.

Most people are aware of the potentially damaging impact that air pollution has on our health. Less clear, however, is how it is harmful to our skin.

In the past, this was largely due to lack of scientific research. Until recently, there was little data to go on.

Today, studies are finding that, by accelerating wrinkles and age spots, air pollution is prematurely ageing the skin, as well as contributing to other skin problems.

First of all, let’s delve into the science behind this new and concerning revelation.

effects of air pollution on our skin Source: SD-Pictures

The science


The academic debate on the effects of air pollution on the skin is just beginning. In the last few years, studies have shown that air pollution caused by tiny particles are a problem for the skin.

Prof. Jean Krutmann, director at the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Germany, highlights how the scientific conversation surrounding skin protection has shifted in the last 20-30 years. UV damage from the sun used to take centre stage; these days, air pollution is on the agenda.

Krutmann—speaking to The Guardian in 2016—noted that ‘air pollution has the potential to keep us busy for the next few decades.’

It appears the scientific community is waking up to the dangers of air pollution on the skin.

Does this mean we should, too?

Thanks to cutting-edge research, we now know that pollution in the air is just as damaging to our skin as it is to our general health. ‘Skin Effects of Air Pollution’, a study by Goldsmith, explains how ‘the skin is the site of significant absorption of environmental pollutants [...] the atmospheric pollution by ozone-depleting chemicals is a major concern to dermatologists.’

Increasingly then, the skin’s retention of air pollutants is a contributing factor to major dermatological problems. Therefore, in the modern world, we must adapt our skincare regimes to fall into line with these discoveries.

But what is air pollution, anyway?

Read on to find out more.

what are the effects of air pollution on our skin? Source: George Hodan

What is air pollution?


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ‘Air pollution is contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere.’

In other words, it’s anything that enters into the air that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

Human activity is the greatest contributor to air pollution with household combustion devices, motor vehicles and industrial facilities some of the chief culprits.

That said, naturally occurring forest fires are also a common cause.

While nitric oxide and hydrocarbons from burned fuel undoubtedly comprise a large amount of pollution in the air, there is an array of floating debris in the atmosphere that could potentially be harmful to the skin. Even natural sources of airborne irritants, such as pollen, could also be problematic.

So, how exactly is air pollution damaging our skin?

what are the effects of air pollution on our skin Source: David Holt

What are the effects of air pollution?


The side effects of air pollution are varied, but perhaps the most well-documented is skin ageing. The way it manifests is by accelerating wrinkles and dark liver spots on the skin.

Air pollution leads to smog which, aside from obscuring the skyline and making everything look dreary, can cause skin ageing. Smog consists of low-level ozone (molecules of three oxygen atoms bound together), particles (dust, soot and smoke) and other pollutants, such as carbon monoxide.

When your skin absorbs pollutants in the air, your whole body feels the consequences. What’s more, smog starves your skin of oxygen which results in premature skin ageing, causing wrinkles and loss of skin elasticity.

Due to air pollution in big cities, ozone (a pale blue gas with a sharp odour reminiscent of chlorine) quickly strips away vital vitamin E—which nourishes healthy skin. This depletion of essential vitamin E also leads to dry skin.

Sadly, skin problems related to smog don’t stop at skin ageing. According to the American Association of Dermatologists, if you live in an area with high levels of pollution, you have an increased risk of getting atopic dermatitis (more commonly known as eczema). In fact, exposure to smog can cause all sorts of skin complaints, such as acne, dryness or rashes.

So, you’ve heard about the dangers, now scroll down to learn what you can do to protect your skin from air pollution.

effects of pollution on our skin Source: cfredalford

What can you do?


Luckily, there are remedies and methods of prevention for alleviating the effects of air pollution on the skin.

As with most skin problems, prevention is better than cure. So, develop a good skincare routine, including regular use of moisturiser and sunscreen.

It may sound obvious, but steer clear of dirt and wash your face at least twice a day. Use a gentle soap that’s kind to your skin, and exfoliate every other day with a deep-cleansing exfoliator.

Knowing how to combat age spots in the context of UV rays is relatively simple. With air pollution, the solutions are more complex.

To start with, build up antioxidants to reduce the ageing effects of air pollution. Plus, try using skin barriers, such as aloe vera, or products that contain antioxidants.

Mineral makeup is a good idea as it creates an effective barrier against pollutants.

Always remove makeup as soon as possible because it doesn’t let your skin breathe properly. If you don’t, you run the risk of pollutants getting trapped under a layer of foundation... Yuck!

Protect your skin with high-quality sunscreens of at least SPF 30. Opt for mineral sun creams, as they create a protective layer that shields your skin from airborne nasties.

Unfortunately, sometimes prevention isn’t enough. If pollution has already entered into your skin, it creates free radicals—unstable molecules with unpaired electrons. In their quest to gain an electron from a healthy cell, these molecules bounce around your skin, causing it injury.

To defend your skin from free radicals, apply a daily serum after cleansing in the morning, and do the same at night to bolster the repair process.

Use a serum that strengthens the epidermis barrier and stimulates Epidermal Growth Factor.

Eating well can give you a glowing complexion; it also helps fight the effects of air pollution on your skin.

Drink plenty of water and eat a variety of green vegetables, oily fish and fruit to detoxify the body from the inside out. Also, boost your intake of antioxidant-rich foods such as blueberries.

effects of air pollution on our skin Source: Andrea Pacheco

If air pollution is still concerning you, head over to the government’s Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) website for more information and advice.