The skin is an amazing organ. It serves many functions for our bodies, both internally and externally. One of its most important functions is protection. The skin protects us not just by covering and containing all of our internal organs, fluids, and systems, but also by forming a barrier to fight off pathogenic microorganisms (viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc.), and by filtering out toxins and environmental aggressors such as the sun and air pollution. Skin is the body’s first line of defense against these stressors. The body depends on it to protect it from any infection or disease causing foreign invaders. Like a soldier on the front line, the skin takes quite a beating while performing this function.
Air Pollution and Health
It is a known fact that air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, causes serious health problems. Like secondhand smoke, particulate pollution causes many issues, both short-term and long-term. According to a 2007 article in US News & World Report, “short-term adverse effects from particulates include diminished lung function, coughing, wheezing, cardiac arrhythmias, and heart attacks. Long-term exposure can also worsen asthma, slow normal lung growth, damage lung airways, and increase the risk of dying from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.”
People who live in urban areas are urged to check the local air quality forecast before they go out for the day and take the proper precautions to avoid exposure.
Air Pollution and the Skin
You don’t have to inhale polluted air for it to harm you. Up to 60 percent of topically applied substances get absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream and tissues of the body. Once inside the body, they can accumulate and form free radicals, which can cause serious premature aging and health problems.
Intact and unbroken skin acts as a filter for environmental aggressors such as air pollution, trapping them in the epidermis (the outermost layer of the skin which acts as a barrier), which will eventually shed off. However, more and more people have compromised barrier layers because of over-exposure to stressors like the sun, polluted air and water, toxic chemical skin care ingredients, and harsh weather conditions, in addition to intrinsic factors like stress, poor diet, dehydration, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption. This weakened barrier makes these people more susceptible to environmental damage.
Air Pollution Destroys Vitamin E
A study from UC Berkeley found that exposure to air pollution in urban areas and in areas with high concentrations of ozone depeletes the levels of Vitamin E in the stratum corneum (outermost layer of the epidermis). Vitamin E is an antioxidant and lipid that helps maintain the skin’s barrier function by fighting off free radicals and inhibiting oxidation. It is crucial in keeping toxins out of the body. Degradation of Vitamin E weakens the barrier, which increases the risk of formation of harmful chemicals and triggers inflammatory responses in underlying skin layers.
Air Pollution and Premature Aging
Skin that has a youthful glow has that glow not only because its barrier function is intact, but also because the cells that produce the proteins collagen and elastin are also intact. To function properly, these cells need enough oxygen, and vitamins like A, C, and E which protect from free radical damage.
As we age, the skin’s production of collagen and elastin slows. The body is also less capable of fighting off free radicals on its own. Air pollutants rob skin cells of oxygen and cause free radical production in the skin. This, in combination with UV radiation decreases the production of collagen and elastin, causing the skin to thin and lose elasticity, leading to sagging skin, fine lines, and wrinkles.
The combination of air pollution and UV radiation also damages melanocytes, the cells responsible for producing melanin pigment. This causes areas of hyperpigmentation on the skin, sometimes in the form of freckles, and dark spots commonly referred to as “age”, “sun” or “liver” spots.
Air Pollution and Other Skin Conditions
When toxins and particulates from air pollution become trapped in the epidermis, they can get lodged in the hair follicles (pores) and cause them to clog. This can interfere with the skin’s natural ability to slough off dead skin cells and debris, often leading to the formation of different types of acne infections: blackheads, whiteheads, papules, pustules, and acne cysts.
Long-term exposure to air pollution can also cause irritant, inflammatory, and allergic skin reactions like rashes, eczema, and blood vessel damage or “broken capillaries”.
How Can This Be Prevented?
Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to reduce the amount of particulate pollution in the air. It is important, again, to check the local air quality forecast and take the proper precautions by wearing appropriate protective clothing, using a protective moisturizer containing a physical sunblock (zinc oxide is preferred to titanium dioxide) and antioxidants, and by drinking adequate amounts of water. Following a proper home skin care regimen and eating a diet rich in vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients will help repair and maintain the skin’s barrier layer internally and externally.