Hair Loss & Air Pollution: What To Know + 4 Hair Care Tips
Air pollution is everywhere—all around us, yes, even indoors—and our exposure to it on a daily basis is largely out of our individual control. Its detrimental effects on our largest organ, the skin1, have been well documented, but more and more research is showing that air pollution also has a significant impact on another aspect of skin care—our scalp and, subsequently, our hair.
Not only can air pollution build up on top of our strands and cause them to, in turn, appear dull, lackluster, and dirty, but it can also contribute to more serious side effects, including hair loss. Here's what you need to know.
Why is pollution so bad for our hair?
Air pollution contributes to hair loss.
Yes, you read that right. Per a 2019 study, researchers found that exposure to common air pollutants (known as particulate matter, or PM for short) decreased the level of a specific protein in hair follicle cells—the very protein that is responsible for fueling hair growth in the first place. In other words, when hair follicle cells were exposed to common air pollutants (including byproducts from burning fossil fuels and general particulate dust), their ability to produce new hair growth slowed. And the more pollution they were exposed to, the more hair loss ensued. Bottom line: A growing body of research is confirming that hair loss is connected to air pollution.
Air pollution dulls hair color.
In the same way that oxidative stress dulls our skin tone over time, the oxidative stress caused by air pollution can do the same to our hair. Research has confirmed that free radical damage to the hair can manifest in loss of color2, or hair graying, as well as hair loss. Hair graying is, of course, a natural part of the aging process, but this loss of pigment speeds up in correlation to the amount of oxidative stress that the hair follicle is exposed to.
Air pollution causes buildup.
That particulate matter we referenced earlier—which is composed of the small particles and droplets in our air that we consider to be pollution—can also build up on the scalp over time. If not properly sloughed off, and if the scalp does not receive proper protection afterward (we'll get to this next), then this buildup can contribute to significant hair follicle damage, lead to issues such as dandruff and irritation, and eventually even lead to hair loss.
Air pollution doesn't just affect your scalp, but it can also build up on your actual hair, ultimately making it feel (and look) dirty, dull, and weighed down. The dust, fumes, dirt, and daily grime you encounter on a daily basis actually builds up on each strand—just as it does on your skin if you don't properly cleanse it off.
Air pollution speeds up hair aging.
Just as it does to your skin, oxidative stress contributes to premature aging of the hair3. We're not just talking about loss of pigment (or graying), although that is part of the natural hair aging process. We're also talking about other aspects of hair aging, including a general decrease in hair production and the thinning of hair follicles, and hair strands, themselves. Oxidative stress, including that which stems from exposure to air pollution, contributes to all of this and overall, speeds up the hair aging process.
What you can do about air pollution and your hair health:
Take a collagen supplement.
Because you can't fully remove yourself from the effects of pollution, you need to ensure you are neutralizing as much free radical damage as possible from the inside. This involves eating plenty of antioxidants, like vitamin C and vitamin E and supporting your body through hydrolyzed collagen supplements. Hair is mainly made up of the protein keratin and structural lipids4. For the body to build keratin, it needs several types of amino acids, many of which are part of collagen peptides5. In fact, one of the main amino acids in keratin is proline, which is found in collagen peptides as well. The theory follows that if you ingest these amino acids, they can help support your natural levels of these essential ingredients.* "Amino acids are the building blocks' cell membranes and, for keratin, the material that hair is made of," says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. Collagen supplements may also act as an antioxidant6 and help neutralize free radicals from oxidative stress.* From there, you should focus on removing pollution debris from the hair and scalp.
Swap in an anti-pollution shampoo.
If air pollution is of particular concern to you, consider investing in a shampoo system that's formulated specifically to mitigate the negative effects of air pollution. The right shampoo will cleanse away any detrimental debris from your scalp and strands while also leaving behind beneficial ingredients (oils and antioxidants, namely) to help seal your hair's cuticle and protect it going forward.
Care for your scalp.
Scalp health is so crucial to overall hair health, and its subsequent appearance. If you're noticing any signs of scalp inflammation—such as general buildup, irritation, redness, or increased sensitivity—then it's time to implement a regular scalp-care routine right away. "If buildup is really extreme, it can even pull the hair down because there's so much inflammation around the hair follicle," according to Mudgil Dermatology, which will (yes) lead to hair loss.
In regard to air pollution, one of the best ways to care for your scalp is by using a weekly scalp scrub. Using a weekly exfoliant will help slough off any buildup of air pollution, as well as dead skin cells, oil, and excess product. Don't just reach for the first scalp scrub you find, however. Rather, take a minute to determine the right scalp scrub for your own hair type and scalp (just as you would when seeking out a new product for your skin).
Use topical antioxidants.
Since air pollution and its effects on the scalp cells are a form of oxidative stress, one of the key ways to counter its effects is through the use of antioxidants—which, by definition, mitigate oxidative stress. Look for hair products that are formulated with potent antioxidant ingredients such as green tea and vitamins C and E.
Pollution, from both indoor and outdoor particulate matter, dramatically affects our hair and scalp health. Given you really don't have any control about how much pollution you come into contact on a daily basis, it's vital you take care of your hair with antioxidants, supplements, and proper cleansing.*
Rebecca Dancer is a beauty and lifestyle writer who obtained a print and digital journalism degree from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She’s worked at and contributed to various print and digital publications, including Byrdie, Allure, Brides, Teen Vogue, Beauty Independent, Shape, SELF, and Women's Wear Daily.