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How Pollution Affects Skin Health And Appearance

Written by Donna Hart, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist on July 10, 2020 No Comments

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The skin is the human body’s largest organ. One of the primary functions of the skin is to act as a barrier, preventing bacteria, dirt, and other outside debris from getting into the body. Serving as a shield from the outside world leaves the skin exposed to an often-overlooked source of poor health and aging: air pollution.

Pollution is clearly a negative phenomenon that can affect many different aspects of overall internal health, but it can also have a profound impact on the well-being of the skin. Scientists are beginning to explore the issue in more depth and dig into what pollution can do to this important organ.

Pollution and skin health

Many skin care companies are conducting scientific studies on how pollution affects skin health. Studies have shown skin damage can result from exposure to ozone and pollutants. Pollution has been linked to contributing to pigmentation issues, skin dryness, inflammation, pigmentation issues and irritation.

A study conducted by Olay found that women living in areas with higher air pollution levels experienced far higher rates of skin dehydration and inflammation compared to women living in environments with lower levels of pollution.

Pollution and skin appearance

Pollution also causes aging symptoms to occur as it both destroys and reduces the production of skin healthy proteins like collagen and elastin. This can result in line and wrinkle development, sagging skin (loss of firmness), and dullness. Pollution has been linked to both early onset and accelerating aging of the skin.

A “sunscreen” for pollution?

Most people realize that overexposure to the sun’s UV (ultraviolet) rays is dangerous, causing both skin cancer and premature aging. UV exposure is well researched and has led to both the condemnation of tanning and the use of daily sunscreen as an essential part of keeping skin healthy and youthful.

Pollution may become the “next UV” as additional findings link pollution to skin issues. We could see more products focused on protecting the skin from air pollution.

Currently, there are some skin care products on the market that claim to help protect the skin from pollution. These typically include products with antioxidants that neutralize damaging free radicals.  However, we may see FDA approved pollution blocking skin care products in the near future as more research goes into the subject.

Ways to protect your skin from pollution

The best thing you can do to protect your skin from pollution is to live in areas with lower pollution levels (see America’s 10 best and worst cities for air pollution).  However, there are many things you can do every day to help protect your skin from pollution:

  • Cleanse your skin daily (without overly cleansing)
  • Use sunscreen regularly
  • Stay indoors in times of pollution advisories
  • Use pollution blocking air filters in your home and car
  • Moisturize your skin
  • See your dermatologist regularly
  • Use antioxidant-rich skincare products daily
  • Consider undergoing periodic in-office treatments like chemical peels or microneedling

Donna Hart, MD

Donna Hart, MD, a medical, surgical and cosmetic dermatologist, completed her dermatology residency at the John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County in Chicago, where she served as chief resident. Dr. Hart is Board Certified by the American Board of Dermatology, and is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, and Women’s Dermatologic Society.


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