The Impact of Pollution on The Skin

JANUARY 02, 2018
Doris Day, MD
Doris Day, MDDoris Day, MD
The world is rapidly changing. Bodies, starting with the skin, is under ever greater assault from pollution and toxic elements in the environment that it has not yet evolved enough to neutralize on its own. The consequences can range from irritation and premature aging, to organ damage and, at its worst, cancer.

This is mostly from oxidative stress, which is defined as an over-production of destructive reactive oxygen species (ROS) and an inability of the body’s natural antioxidant network to neutralize them before they do damage to skin and other organs. The generation of ROS is initiated by 3 major components relating to pollution: particulate matter, ozones, and aryl hydrocarbon receptors (AhR).
The good news is that there are ways to protect against the damage and repair at least some of the damage done.

Here are some recent numbers issued by the World Health Organization (WHO):
  • Ninety-two percent — that’s the percentage of people around the world who live in cities that do not comply with WHO air quality standards.
  • Six and-a-half million — that’s the combined number of deaths (11.6% of all global deaths) associated with indoor and outdoor air pollution. That number has more than doubled since 2012.
In Europe, 1 year of life expectancy is lost for every person due to exposure to particulate matter (PM) from air pollution. This is mostly due to the increased risk of heart and lung diseases. The effects of pollution on skin are also profound and seen as increased risk of skin cancer, skin sensitivity, premature skin aging, discoloration, dryness, dullness, and roughness.

Pollution is in fact a mix of many, many components which makes it difficult to say exactly which one of the different elements are responsible for the skin changes we see. In the laboratory, it is possible to expose cultured human skin cells to certain pollutants one at a time. A few examples of specific pollutants tested include Benzo-a-pyrene, urban dust, ultrafine dust, and diesel exhaust.

Surprisingly, the real threat often doesn’t come from these particles themselves; it comes from the chemicals that find a way to attach to them. Urban dust contains a cocktail of 224 toxic chemicals – from polyaromatic hydrocarbons to pesticides and heavy metals. And, while the particles of pollution are usually too large to penetrate skin themselves, many of these chemicals attached to them are not. Cigarette smoke is another major pollutant, and that has been shown to consist of over 6,000 chemicals.

The laboratory tests are able to measure not only how the cells react to different pollutants, but also which ingredients can protect them against the negative effects caused. From there, products can be developed to protect against the damage and repair the damage done as much as possible.

The relationship between air quality and skin conditions

There is a clear correlation between spikes in air pollution and increases in the number of people suffering from skin problems such as acne, hives and eczema. It is clear that air pollution is not just affecting skin on a cosmetic level, but also poses a real threat to skin health.

A recent study done in Korea evaluated the clinical effects of outdoor air pollutants in patients with chronic eczema. Researchers measured daily outdoor concentrations of PM, nitric oxides and volatile organic compounds to estimate each patient’s exposure to air pollution. They found a direct correlation between outdoor particulate concentration and presence of symptoms, showing that ambient air pollution was an aggravating factor for these patients.

Those living in highly polluted areas have significantly worse skin hydration than subjects living in the cleaner suburbs despite making better lifestyle choices (such as cleansing routines, water consumption and greater skin care product usage). In addition, compromised skin barrier function was found in the urban dwellers.

While there is sadly a lack of in-depth research in the area of air pollution and skin health, there is clear scientific evidence that skin barrier function and skin hydration are among the most immediate and significant threats air pollution imposes on our skin.

Anti-Pollution Measures To Protect and Restore Your Skin
  • Cleansing: I recommend a 2-step process for cleansing. The first is using a cleansing wipe or makeup remover pad and a second pass or wash with a cleanser to remove any remaining makeup, dirt, grime or pollution left on the skin. Cleansing brushes work better than just using your hands to wash your face.
  • Niacinamide (Vitamin B3): Orally in doses of 500 to 750 mg twice daily — or topically in brands such as Olay, Nia24, Skin Medica, SkinCeuticals and others — is one of the hardest working ingredients and is at the top of the list in being able to successfully reduce the negative effects of urban dust, cigarette smoke, diesel dust and benzo-a-pyrene. In all these tests, it significantly reduces the damage caused to the skin cells, protecting them and helping them to recover better. It also strengthens the skin barrier and actively repairs UV damage – giving your skin all-round protection against environmental stresses
  • Superoxide Dismutase (SOD): One form I often recommend to my patients is GliSODin. This is an oral supplement containing melon SOD combined with wheat gliadin and it has been shown to increase the body’s antioxidant defenses and also has anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Hydration: By both drinking water and using excellent skin products is key in making sure the skin functions at its best in protecting and strengthening the natural skin barrier.
  • UV Protection: It is still one of the biggest environmental stressors. An SPF product should always be part of the daily skin care routine.
  • Antioxidants: I recommend it in both topical and oral forms. These include Vitamin A, C, D, B-complex and B3, as noted above.
  • Adaptogens: These are natural ingredients that help balance out and modify the effects of stress on the system. These include Superoxide dismutase, CoQ10 and Resveratrol, ashwaganda, curcumin, and ginseng, among others. The best way to incorporate these into regimens is through fruits, vegetables and spices. They are also available in supplements such as Nutrafol, which was designed for hair growth, but is one I often recommend to my patients as an anti-pollution supplement.
Protect Your Skin

The threat from pollution is real and it is not getting any better any time soon. Skin and overall health can be protected by a high antioxidant diet, select supplements, properly cleansed skin, and using products with ingredients specifically tested against the most common toxins in pollution.

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