There are many things that you likely already know are not good for your skin. The sun is public enemy number one, of course, along with other culprits such as sugar, stress, and the blue light emitted from your smartphone during hours of mindless social media scrolling.
But there's another skin-damaging elephant in the room that needs to be addressed. We're talking air pollution. Yes, it can be very problematic for urbanites, but it's not only city dwellers who should be concerned and take note. Ahead, dermatologists Macrene Alexiades and Robyn Gmyrek explain what air pollution is, the toll it can take on your skin, and, most importantly, what you can do about it.
Meet the Expert
What Is Air Pollution?
If you're anything like us, you probably think of air pollution in the context of visible things you can see: the black smoke rising from a factory's smokestacks, smoggy air covering the Los Angeles skyline, black soot along the windowsill of your New York City apartment. And indeed, "air pollution" is somewhat of an umbrella term under which many different things can fall. But it can be defined more concretely if you want to get specific. "The EPA has identified six pollutants as 'criteria' air pollutants because it regulates them by developing science-based guidelines for setting permissible levels," explains Gmryek. "These six pollutants are carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, ground-level ozone, particle pollution, what is often referred to as particulate matter, and sulfur oxides," she says. That being said, these aren't the only six; there are also things such as airborne polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, several of which are present in cigarette smoke, she adds. It also bears mentioning that, while air pollution is most often associated with the outdoor environment, air pollutants can also be present indoors, stemming from things such as household products, fuel used for cooking, and even burning candles, says Gmyrek.
How Air Pollution Impacts Your Skin
We'll cut right to the chase: Air pollution damages your skin. After all, your skin is the barrier between the outside world and all of your internal organs, making it the target of several environmental stressors, pollution included, notes Gmyrek. While it makes sense to instinctually think of air pollution as sitting on top of your skin—kind of like that black soot on the windowsill—it can actually penetrate much deeper than that. "When pollution comes into contact with the skin, it doesn’t just sit on the surface. Pollutants can infiltrate deeper layers of the epidermis, causing issues such as worsened skin hydration, clogged pores, duller skin, and ultimately, premature signs of aging due to a loss in elasticity," explains Alexiades.
More specifically, "ozone isn't able to penetrate the skin, but it causes damage by depleting antioxidants and causing the formation of reactive oxygen species, or ROS, triggering inflammation in the deeper layers of the skin," says Gmyrek. Other types of pollutants, such as particulate matter, do penetrate the skin directly, where they have similar effects, also triggering ROS, and exacerbating everything from acne to eczema to dark spots, she adds. (One study revealed that an increase in traffic-related airborne particles was associated with an increased number of age-associated pigment spots, called lentigines, as well as deeper nasolabial folds.)
Adding insult to injury, your skin not only takes a hit directly; air pollutants can also damage it through indirect systemic absorption, says Gmryek. In other words, air pollution that's inhaled can damage the skin via its delivery through the blood. And vice versa—a 2013 study showed that air pollution delivered transcutaneously (aka absorbed through the skin) was found in similar levels to that of air pollution that was inhaled.
Can You Reverse Skin Damage Caused by Air Pollution?
Yes, although as is so often the case when talking about skin, the best offense is always a good defense. In other words, you can undo or repair the damage once it's done, but it's far easier to prevent it from happening in the first place. In-office treatments—radiofrequency microneedling, fractionated lasers—are often needed to help reverse the signs of skin aging caused by exposure to pollution, including but not limited to dullness, discoloration, and fine lines, notes Alexiades. The good news? There's also an effective topical approach, one that's ideal for both helping to undo and prevent pollution-induced damage.
How to Protect Your Skin From Air Pollution
Two words: topical antioxidants. Your skin has natural antioxidant defense systems in place, meant to protect us from ROS and free radicals, says Gmyrek. The problem occurs when we're exposed to chronic or high levels of airborne pollutants and those systems get overwhelmed and can't function properly; that's where topical antioxidants come up huge. "Antioxidants neutralize and stabilize damaging reactive free oxygen species, and have been shown to contribute not only to preventing but also to reversing some aspects of environmental extrinsic damage," says Gmryek (who cites this promising study).
Alexiades agrees: "Protecting your skin from pollution requires the twice daily application of anti-pollution antioxidants, as well as skin barrier-fortifiers," she says. (More on the latter part in a moment.) All antioxidants are great for your skin, but certain ones do tend to be more effective against pollution specifically than others. Alexiades says gingko extract is one of her top picks, noting that gingko trees come from China, a country known for its air pollution problems. "Gingko extract has been shown to be effective against the type of free radicals that we see in automotive pollution, including nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and ozone," she says. She adds vitamins C and E, as well as resveratrol to her list of favorites as well. Gmyrek also notes that vitamins C and E are both highly effective (though with the caveat that they're in products that are properly formulated to maintain stability and efficacy),and mentions phloretin and ferulic acid as other well-studied and effective options.
Per Alexiades' earlier point of strengthening the skin barrier, keep in mind that the stronger your skin barrier is, the fewer pollutants and particles are going to be able to get in. That means that opting for ingredients such as ceramides and lipids, which help to fortify this external layer, are a choice pick. And don't forget sunscreen. Yes, sun exposure is bad for your skin in and of itself, but when there's also air pollution in the mix? Watch out. "UV radiation, in combination with airborne pollutants, can exacerbate the effects of the pollutants," says Gmyrek. Finally, just like you'd try to avoid the sun, consider avoiding polluted areas as much as possible, she adds, noting that checking smog indexes is one easy way to gauge the situation.
The Final Takeaway
There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it—air pollution can take a toll on your complexion in a multitude of different ways and exacerbate everything from acne to eczema to signs of aging. Happily, something as simple and easy as making topical antioxidants a nonnegotiable part of your skincare routine—along with a few other key steps—can go a long way toward helping protect your skin, prevent future problems, and even undo any existing damage.
Hüls A, Vierkötter A, Gao W, et al. Traffic-related air pollution contributes to development of facial lentigines: further epidemiological evidence from caucasians and asians. J Invest Dermatol. 2016;136(5):1053-1056.
Weschler CJ, Nazaroff WW. Dermal uptake of organic vapors commonly found in indoor air. Environ Sci Technol. 2014;48(2):1230-1237.
Valacchi G, Sticozzi C, Belmonte G, et al. Vitamin c compound mixtures prevent ozone-induced oxidative damage in human keratinocytes as initial assessment of pollution protection. PLoS One. 2015;10(8):e0131097.