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How To Adjust Your Skin Care Routine To Deal With Pollution

Photo by Nadine Greeff
October 18, 2017

Air pollution—largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels—has been shown to cause heart and lung damage, asthma, and even increased rates of depression in kids. And, on a slightly more vain but nevertheless concerning note, it's messing with our complexion.

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The pollution-skin connection.

Chemicals in dirty air—organic compounds like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and volatile organic compounds (VOC), along with other irritants like ozone and cigarette smoke—comes in contact with our skin, the body's outermost barrier, every time we step outside. And prolonged, repetitive exposure to them over a lifetime has proven troubling in early research.

"If I had a dollar for every person who told me 'My skin was great until I moved to NYC,' I would have retired."

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"Animal and human studies have demonstrated that these components of air pollution can contribute to premature skin aging—wrinkling, pigmentation spots, etc.," explains Anjali Mahto, MBBCh, a consultant dermatologist in London, where air pollution is of large concern. "This is largely thought to be due to their generation of reactive oxygen species or free radicals that can damage DNA in skin cells."

Cybele Fishman, M.D., an integrative dermatologist based in New York City, often sees this oxidative stress in many of her patients too. "In addition, pollution increases the amounts of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which I think plays a role in the worsening of common skin diseases like acne and eczema," she says. "If I had a dollar for every person who told me 'My skin was great until I moved to NYC,' I would have retired."

How to save your skin.

In order to protect against this oxidative stress and inflammation, you can befriend antioxidant serums that contain ingredients like vitamin C and resveratrol. And thankfully, they're easier to find than ever. The category of anti-pollution skin care has grown 30 percent over the past six months, as "pollutant defending masks" and moisturizers for "environmentally stressed skin" enter mainstream consciousness. The beauty world has long offered products that offer SPF protection, so it makes sense that pollution-blocking products are beginning to appear on shelves too.

Fishman's favorite offerings with antioxidant power include Neals Yard Remedies Frankincense Intense Concentrate, while Mahto goes for SkinCeuticals Phloretin CF.

They also both recommend applying an SPF with zinc or titanium every day. "The antioxidants repair skin damaged by pollution, counteracting the reactive oxygen species, and the zinc/titanium provides a physical barrier so pollution particles are less likely to get through," says Fishman.

Mahto adds that simple acts of good skin hygiene like cleansing, exfoliating, and moisturizing can also do wonders in pollution protection. Cleansing and exfoliating remove the dirt and toxins your skin has picked up throughout the day, while moisturizing will strengthen the skin barrier. The next step of the skin protection puzzle is a simple one: Incorporate plenty of natural antioxidants into your diet (think colorful fruits, veggies, and red wine).

And last but not least, go straight to the source and be vocal about the fact that you want clean air. "Put people in office who care about the environment," says Fishman. "Humankind’s health depends on a healthful environment."

Did you know that air quality in the United States recently faced a huge setback? Stay up-to-date with environmental news here.

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Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.