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How does pollution harm our skin?

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This post is part of a series about skin stressors and skin health. Read the rest of the posts in this series:

We can make serious skincare strides and keep our skin glowing by fighting these factors. But before we can address the sources of environmental stress, we have to understand them.

In this post, part of a series of deep dives into these individual stressors, we’ll explore how air pollution harms our skin.

We’ll break it down, detail what we know about its specific impact on our skin, and provide some simple skincare solutions to help you fight back.

How does air pollution create environmental stress?

First, let’s review: environmental stress, known by its scientific name oxidative damage, harms our skin. It produces unstable molecules called free radicals, which are neutralized by the antioxidants already living in our skin cells (for more, read What are environmental stressors, anyway? and How do antioxidants work, anyway?).

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) breaks air pollution down into two categories: fine and coarse particulate matter (like soot and exhaust), and gases (like ozone and nitrogen dioxide). Smoke is a type of particulate pollution. Smog is a combination of pollutants that hangs in the air over both urban and rural areas.

curl of blue smoke on a black background

In the case of pollution, we aren’t just worried about what contacts our skin. We also have to consider what we breathe in, as well. Poor air quality is a big problem for major cities around the world—an estimated 90% of the world’s population is exposed to unsafe levels of pollution through vehicle exhaust, according to this article from Dermatology Focus. And after a summer filled with deadly wildfires in the U.S., even those of us used to clean, open air might be struggling.

Air pollution, like UV light, harms our skin in two ways. It creates environmental stress, and in the case of gasses, also depletes our stores of beneficial antioxidants.

What does it do to our skin? 

While we used to refer to aging that began outside our skin as “photoaging,” researchers now refer to it simply as “extrinsic aging.” That’s because they know that not only sunlight but pollution, too—an external source of environmental stress—is responsible for visible signs of aging.

Though the exact mechanism of damage isn’t understood, we do know which symptoms are triggered by pollution.

One study published in 2010 connected particulate matter from traffic with skin aging, and another, more recent study showed that ozone gas causes wrinkles. Two studies, one in Germany and the other in China, correlated exposure to higher levels of nitrogen dioxide, the gas in car exhaust, with about 25% more pigment spots in the cheeks of the women they studied.

That’s not all.

We aren’t safe inside—indoor particulate matter causes skin tone abnormalities, too. And air pollution also increases skin inflammation. That means more redness, puffiness, and perhaps eczema, too. Emerging research indicates pollution may play a role in changing our skin’s fragile microbiome, the colonies of good bacteria that keep our skin in balance.

Given all the ways pollution threatens to wreck our skin, how can we fight back?

Simple skincare for fighting air pollution

woman with brown skin on a pink background surrounded by smokeWash it off.

Make sure you’re cleansing your skin regularly to keep particulate pollution from sitting on your skin. We like the antioxidant-rich formula in Youth to People Superfood Antioxidant Cleanser.

Apply topical antioxidants.

As we discussed in our article “How do antioxidants work, anyway?” antioxidants are our bodies’ first lines of defense against the cellular damage caused by environmental stress. We can apply antioxidants directly to our skin; one of our favorite all-in-one solutions is DEFENSE Essential Glow SPF 30.

Use oral antioxidants.

Topical antioxidants likely aren’t enough, especially when you consider that we’re also breathing IN air pollution every day. Sundaily gummies provide a daily solution to combat environmental stress with the polyphenols in our active ingredient polypodium leucotomos. Polypodium leucotomos, one active ingredient in The Base Layer, doesn’t discriminate between free radical damage from any of our environmental stressors, making it an essential addition to your routine. And The Back Up, your daily skin rewind, is packed with astaxanthin to help reverse environmental stress, minimize fine lines and wrinkles, and discoloration. 

Install an air purifier.

A high-quality air purifier can keep the air inside your home clean, even if what you find outside your door is less than desirable. Air purifiers are an especially important addition to every room if you live in an urban area or are dealing with decreased air quality after fires.

Keep an eye out for “pollution shield” products.

Though there’s no good data (yet) supporting “pollution shield” products, we like the ingredients in Ren’s Flash Defence Anti-Pollution Mist. Consider it an ounce of prevention that may be worth a try if you’re concerned about air quality and skincare.

    smog coming out of a smoke stack


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