Our skin is the largest organ we have. It stands between the world and the rest of our body, constantly suffering physical damage, attack by microbes, and degradation by the sun and other environmental factors to keep the rest of our organs safe. Our top layer of skin is made up of brick-shaped cells called corneocytes that fall off as they are damaged and get replaced from the bottom on up. These bricks are held together by a mortar made from proteins and lipids that seal in moisture. If the surface of our skin gets too dry or damaged the mortar can crack, which lets out valuable moisture and lets in toxins or infectious microbes.
When most of us think about the impact of air pollution on our health, we picture soot or gaseous chemicals damaging sensitive internal tissues of our nose, throat, and lungs. Though air pollution is unhealthy to inhale, it’s not just your internal organs that suffer damage. Airborne pollutants can also damage your skin.
Environmental skin damage
In addition to regular scrapes and other physical insults, our skin can also suffer environmental damage. Sunlight and pollutants in the atmosphere are two primary ways that the surface of the skin can be dried out or damaged enough to prevent it from protecting our bodies. Direct sunlight contains UV light, which over time and with sufficient exposure can damage the skin, age it prematurely, or even cause cancer. UV light directly damages DNA, but also creates reactive oxygen, which has several forms but always free radicals that attack anything organic nearby. When created in and on the skin, reactive oxygen degrades collagen and other tissues in addition to damaging DNA.
Air pollution damages the skin in a similar, indirect way by creating reactive oxygen in and on the surface of the skin, but, unlike sunlight, this reactive oxygen sticks to the skin while it does the damage. Many air pollutants can damage the skin, including ozone, hydrocarbons (like VOCs and PAHs), oxides (like nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides), and particulate matter. They all have different ways of poisoning the skin, and most create reactive oxygen or ozone, which is a form of reactive oxygen.
Ultrafine particulate matter, which is smaller than 100 nanometers, is particularly dangerous because it is small enough to infiltrate tissues and break them down to accelerate aging. In addition to causing damage, particles lodged in the skin can also cause inflammation, which impairs the skin barrier. It can even affect the skin’s natural microflora, which help to keep out unhealthy organisms.
Sources of skin damaging air pollution
Many if not most of the pollutants that can damage our skin come from the burning of fossil fuels. While burning coal or other fossil fuels in a power plant produces pollution, the closest source of fossil fuel pollution for most of us is vehicles driving on roads. Diesel exhaust, in particular, causes extensive damage to exposed skin. Living in urban areas or other places in close proximity to busy roads raises exposure to pollution from car exhaust, which can contain particulate matter, hydrocarbons, and oxides.
A secondary source of air pollution is VOCs, which can be brought into the home as a component of paint, varnishes, building materials, clothing, furniture, or any item made of or containing plastic. VOCs are unhealthy to breathe, but can also react with UV light or other pollutants in the air to form particulate matter or ozone and other reactive oxygen pollutants.
Tobacco smoke is also a significant source of skin damaging pollutants. VOCs and particulate matter make up much of tobacco smoke in concentrations that cause aging, psoriasis, acne, some forms of skin cancer, and other damage. If at all possible, seek to reduce exposure to tobacco smoke. Being indoors where tobacco smoke can accumulate can result in very high exposure to skin-damaging pollutants.
How to minimize skin damage
There are some easy ways to help protect your skin from air pollution. The simplest method is to remember to wash at the end of the day. Pollutants that have accumulated on your skin will continue to linger and do damage throughout the night unless you wash them off before bed. If your routine requires washing in the morning, at a minimum consider washing your face at the end of the day with a trusted facial cleanser.
Reducing your exposure to air pollution is another way to help protect your skin. If possible, exercise or take walks away from main roads and busy thoroughfares. When cooking, dusting, painting, or doing other home activities that may increase indoor air pollution, be mindful of ways to reduce pollution with ventilation or an air purifier.
Another method is with antioxidants. Antioxidants can neutralize the reactive oxygen species that mediate much of the skin damage from air pollution and are our bodies’ natural defenses against reactive oxygen and free radicals. Vitamin E, Vitamin C, coenzyme Q10, and plant-based phenolic compounds can help to protect your skin from oxidative damage and seek out free radicals that might be lurking. Rubbing them on in a lotion and taking them orally as supplements are both effective ways to protect your skin, and some sunscreens even contain antioxidants.
Finally, skin moisturizing can help to combat the damage that has been done, as well. One of the consequences of damaged corneocytes is that the underlying skin tissues dry up. You can use your favorite moisturizer to keep moisture in.
We are always looking for more ways to tell everyone about air quality, so stay tuned to our blog for more information!