How to Protect Your Skin From Pollution

Your skin is an adaptive whole-body protection organ that is constantly fending off attacks from all angles. But as we age, our skin will inevitably start to break down both for natural intrinsic reasons and environmental extrinsic reasons. Aging from outside and from within have been found to be tightly linked to oxidative stress, which is chemical stress on your body’s tissues. This stress ages your skin in many ways, including increasing inflammation, slowing healing, and causing cancer. It also damages the cells that produce collagen, which is vital for tissues to keep their shape and strength. All of these effects aggravate each other and can start a cycle of skin problems.

Oxidative stress comes from a variety of sources such as sunlight, lack of sleep, air pollution, tobacco smoke, diet, cosmetic products, and as the natural byproduct of our metabolism. Of all these intrinsic and extrinsic factors, there has been a lot of research lately on sunlight and air pollution because they have a synergistic effect, meaning one makes the other’s impact worse. Sunlight is best handled with shade, the appropriate clothing, and frequent application of SPF 15 or more sunscreen, but air pollution is more complicated because it is invisible and can build up in closed spaces.

You can use an air purifier to help reduce indoor air pollution, but outdoor air pollution is best avoided completely. Let’s take a look at a few ways that air pollution ages the skin and how to handle them, always keeping in mind that each of these threats to skin health can affect each other and lead to the  breakage of the skin’s barrier, which is the worst that can happen to your skin.

 

Pollutants use up antioxidants

Our bodies naturally produce antioxidants to balance the oxidative stress from our metabolisms. When our skin is exposed to oxidizing air pollutants like ozone, our natural antioxidants are used up to neutralize ozone, which leaves our cells without a way to balance the usual amount of stress in our bodies. Indoor sources of air pollution, such as cooking with solid fuels like coal or wood, can increase oxidizing pollution like particles and the airborne chemical dioxin that lead to discoloration and other signs of aging.

Diagram of free radicals causing oxidative stress in a cell

The parts of a cell that generate energy from food are also where the free radicals are produced as byproducts. Less antioxidants means free radicals may damage the energy-producing part of the cell. Cells that produce collagen are particularly vulnerable, and consistent exposure to pollutants like tobacco smoke will slowly damage their metabolism. Without energy to create collagen, skin starts to sag, lose water, and becomes more fragile.

Skin with healthy intact collagen and aged broken down collagen

How to supplement antioxidants

A good defense is to simply add more antioxidants to your skin to soak up the stress with antioxidant-infused lotions. They are best used multiple times a day, and in particular after returning from being outside.

  • Vitamins are antioxidants, and vitamins A, B3, C, E, and coenzyme Q10 are best to put on the skin where they will jump in front of free radicals to save your cells. 
  • Plant-based compounds such as resveratrol in grapes also offer neutralizing protection in the same way, and there are many hundreds of plant-based antioxidants available  to supplement what your body already produces. 
  • Ask your dermatologist for a recommendation on the best ingredients to look for.

More inflammation

When our skin becomes inflamed, the immune response has been activated which results in blood rushing to the area. Reddened and raised skin can be uncomfortable in the short term but if it occurs consistently over time serious complications can result, such as chronic skin conditions, cancer, and even heart attack. Exposure to air pollution directly causes inflammation at the chemical level. Skin that is chronically inflamed by air pollution has been shown to age faster and is less able to protect the rest of the body, and can even break the skin barrier over time.

Examples of inflamed and normal skin

Atopic dermatitis, a very common chronic inflammation skin condition also known as eczema, is a condition characterized by a red skin rash and is thought to be activated by the same inflammation pathway as air pollution. Atopic dermatitis is part of what is known as the inflammatory cascade, or how inflammation in one part of the body such as the skin, can induce inflammation in other parts of the body, such as the lungs. Chronic skin inflammation from air pollution can start us down a path that could lead to allergies or asthma.

How to manage inflammation from the inside out

There are a few different ways to help your skin properly manage inflammation. 

  • Avoid any allergy triggers you already know you have to reduce the inflammatory cascade. This is most important if you already have a skin condition involving inflammation such as eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea.
  • Avoid processed foods and dairy and focus on dark leafy vegetables and fruits or foods rich in fiber or any of the antioxidants mentioned above. 
  • Be sure to get enough sleep so your body can recharge to produce its own antioxidants and manage inflammation.
  • Finally, you can seek out a professional nutritionist to help you come up with a low inflammation diet.

Healthy foods that have antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory

Air pollution harms your microbiome

The skin microbiome consists of the particular blend of fungi, bacteria, and multicellular organisms that live on and in the surface of your skin. A healthy microbiome contains mostly harmless species that compete with disease-causing species, and even communicates with your immune system through chemical messaging. Everyone’s microbiome is different, and the population changes from body part to body part.

None of these organisms have protective skin like ours so are very vulnerable to air pollution. Studies have shown that skin microbiomes vary between areas with different air quality and are even killed outright by ozone. When the microbiome is depleted pathogenic bacteria can move in, which can cause atopic dermatitis in some people. Air pollution can also block pores, which creates a closed anaerobic environment where unfriendly bacteria can grow and cause acne. In addition, the chemical messages your microbiome sends to your immune system signal its friendliness, which reduces inflammation.

3d rendering of the gut microbiome

Protecting and restoring the skin microbiome

To protect or restore your microbiome, you can try:

 

Using an air purifier at night to reduce contaminants like dust, pollen, smoke, and mold in the air is one more layer of protection for your skin. Be sure to get one that can handle a wide range of pollutants to keep your microbiome in the best condition. Keep an eye on this blog for more wellness tips, and our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for everything on the science of clean air.

Written by

Haldane King is a molecular biologist by education, a statistician by training, and a researcher by nature. He spent 15 years in the market research world helping to grow all types of companies from pharmaceuticals to software to insurance. Haldane has researched the world of air quality, air pollution, and air purifiers at Molekule and now proudly attends to the Molekule.Science blog.