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How Does Pollution Affect Your Skin? Plus, How To Treat It Naturally 

Industrial chimneys with smoke, at sunset

There are some circumstances that are simply out of our control when it comes to skin health—namely? Air pollution. Over the years, the increase in air pollution has undoubtedly weakened the strength of our precious planet while taking its toll on the largest organ. The skin acts as a shield against pro-oxidative chemical and physical air pollutants—and the day-to-day exposure adds up, with high levels of various pollutants having profound negative effects on the skin.

How does pollution affect your skin? 

There are a handful of common air pollutants related to skin issues, and they tend to affect the skin in the same ways. However, their effects are largely the same: damaged skin cells, premature aging, and overall lack of vibrancy.


1. Particulate matter

The first, particle pollution (or, particulate matter) consists of small, floating particles in the air that come from everything from car exhaust to metal smelting to smoking. Research has found that they're even small enough to weasel their way into your pores. A study also found particle pollution leads to the formation of free radicals, DNA damage, and cell death.  

2. Ground-level ozone

Ground-level ozone, or O3, is the second most common air pollutant. This dangerous gas is created when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) come together. Along with contributing to various other health concerns, there is evidence O3 can accelerate the skin's aging process, resulting in the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and sagging skin. 

3. Carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide

Then there's carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. Carbon monoxide leads to tissue hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the tissue). This slows the metabolic process of the skin, resulting in a pale complexion, premature aging, dryness, and more. The latter, nitrogen dioxide, damages the hydro-lipid film, causing the skin to become irritated and sensitive. Suspended particles may lead to irritations and allergies. 


4. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are a group of more than 100 different chemicals that are released from the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gasoline, trash, tobacco, wood, and more, can lead to skin irritation and inflammation. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are organic compounds that evaporate readily to the atmosphere and are emitted from a wide range of products; they can cause skin irritation

The bottom line:

Air pollutants have been found to interfere with normal functions of lipids, DNA, and proteins of the human by way of oxidative damage. The results are dreary: skin aging, inflammatory or allergic conditions including atopic dermatitis, psoriasis and acne, and even skin cancer.


So what can you do about it?

While air pollution is largely inescapable, when it comes to the health of your skin, there are essential steps you can take to protect your body's precious barrier: 

1. Clean your face every night. 

Cleansing your face every night isn't just necessary for removing makeup. You spend all day exposing your skin to air pollution, dirt, and other debris. Washing away the day frees the surface of your skin and your pores from the day's buildup of harmful gunk. 


 2. Protect it with skin care products. 

There are many protective products that pollution-proof your skin. Look for products with antioxidants like vitamins C and E. Then ensure your skin barrier function is optimal by using hydrating emollients. These ingredients are essential for skin health and performance.  

3. Take oral antioxidants. 

As antioxidants are your anti-pollution best friend, take them orally via diet and supplements. They prevent surface skin damage from free radicals by neutralizing the molecules and preventing them from potentially causing signs of aging. Astaxanthin, for example, has been shown to help reduce fine lines and dark spots and support skin hydration.*

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