True Story: Pollution Is Messing With Your Hair

Here's how to protect it.



Let’s just start things off by addressing the proverbial elephant: In the grand scheme of all the increasingly urgent environmental woes facing our planet, the impact of pollution on our hair doesn’t exactly top the priority list. (Before you proceed, might I suggest visiting this search engine to learn how to get involved in an environmental group near you?)

But even if it’s relatively superficial, pollution really can affect the appearance of your strands. Studies suggest that particles in the air can contribute to dullness, scalp imbalances, and even slowed hair growth. The fact that air quality has only begun to worsen in recent years isn’t exactly helping matters—and riding on the tails of a wave in anti-pollution skincare, some savvy hair brands are starting to get in on the action.

For all my fellow skeptics, the big question, of course, is this: Can these kinds of products even make a difference? Let’s take a closer look.

The state of our air is… not great

Interesting fact: While the urgency of our current climate situation cannot be understated—it is, to put it delicately, f*cking terrifying—our air quality was actually steadily improving for several years. That all came to a halt in 2016. Due to what experts suspect is a combination of increased activity in urban areas, wildfires, and loosened emission restrictions under the current administration, improvements in air quality have stalled over the past few years.

While there’s generally an array of pollutants that contribute to less-than-ideal air quality, it’s typically measured by the presence of particulate matter, or PM: That is, any combination of pollen, dust, soot, smoke, and exhaust. By definition, particulate matter is incredibly small—we’re talking 2.5 to 10 micrometers in diameter. (For reference, a strand of human hair is 50 to 70 microns in diameter.) That’s why when there’s a lot of particulate matter present in one area, the air might look hazy. Spoiler alert: That’s not great for us to be breathing in.

It’s also not great for your hair, which acts as a sort of adhesive to all the PM in the air. An extra wrinkle? The more sebum present in your hair and scalp, the more PM buildup you’re likely to have—not great for those of us who choose to space out shampoos.

The good news? With the right products and a little bit of commitment, you can actually cleanse out the grime and put your hair into pollution maintenance mode.

Save your strands

We all know that great hair begins at the scalp, so a clarifying scrub is a great start. Christophe Robin’s Sea Salt Purifying Scrub ($53) is a Byrdie team fave, thanks to gentle exfoliating action designed to target buildup and restore balance.

christophe robin scrub
Christophe Robin Cleansing Purifying Scrub with Sea Salt $53

Other new products are more explicitly billed to tackle pollution head-on—like Sachajuan’s new Anti-Pollution Shampoo and Conditioner, which take a two-pronged approach. Both formulas’ botanical ingredients are designed to reduce mineral buildup and grime, while also smoothing the surface and creating a barrier to prevent future pollution exposure. For what it’s worth, after running my hair through this particular rinse cycle, my strands were noticeably lighter and bouncier—to me, and to my hair stylist.

Sachajuan Anti-Pollution Shampoo
Sachajuan Anti-Pollution Shampoo $28

Tackle air quality at home

While reducing emissions in the air is obviously a collective endeavor, there are steps you can take to ensure your home environment is free of pollutants. Not to be dramatic, but Dyson’s Pure Cool Link ($399) has kind of changed my life: It automatically clicks on when it detects contaminants in the air (even from cooking or smoking), showing me exactly what the offending pollutants are as it filters them out. I’ve gotten so hooked on it that I purchased a second one for my bedroom. 

dyson air
Dyson Pure Cool Link $300

An important caveat

Again, this is all a symptom of an unbelievably outsized issue at stake. So my advice is this: While it’s totally fine to pay attention to how our environmental issues are affecting us in our daily lives, the key is also taking steps to do your part for the larger cause. That means focusing on your own consumption habits, aligning with brands that keep sustainability in mind, and if you’re up for it, seeing how you can make an impact in your community.

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