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Stop pollution from affecting your skin health

Stop pollution from affecting your skin health

As a high performance skin protection brand, we'll take any chance we can to share our knowledge on what's attacking your skin every day and the damage it can cause. Obviously, we also have your back if you decide to take steps to try and combat this damage by investing in your long-term skin health.

This week, the skin 'aggressor' we wanted to focus on is pollution. Specifically, airborne pollution.

Pollution in the press

There's obviously been a lot of press over the past few years on the impact pollution has on human respiratory and cardiac systems. And rightfully so. The World Health Organisation estimates that seven million people across the world die prematurely due to airborne pollution.

But researchers and dermatologists are also starting to sound the alarm bell. Increasingly, we're reading more and more clinical studies looking at the impact of pollution on human skin. And anecdotally, we've heard dermatologists in some circles suggest that pollution will soon rival UV damage as a major skin issue.

What are airborne pollutants?

Obviously levels vary by location and season but here are the main air pollutants that are known to affect the skin, and where they come from:

  • Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) - this is one we've talked about before here and it comes from the sun
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) - the most widespread organic pollutants; they come from exhaust fumes and wood burning
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) - from organic solvents in paints, varnishes, environmental tobacco smoke, stored fuels, exhaust from cars and emissions from industrial facilities
  • Particulate matter - particles suspended in air of varying sizes and composition. Factories, power plants, refuse incinerators, automobile, construction activities, fires and natural windblown dust are some of the main sources. Major components are metals, organic compounds, material of biologic origin, ions and reactive gases
  • Nitrous oxide - mainly from mobile and stationary combustion sources
  • Sulphur dioxide - from volcanos and forest fires (naturally ocurring) but also fuel combustion from power generation and industrial processes
  • Carbon monoxide - from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and combustion engines
  • Ozone - exists in the stratosphere and is found in low concentrations at ground-level, originating from the stratospheric ozone and hydrocarbons which are released by plants and soil. However, ozone may also be formed as a byproduct of human activities reacting with sunlight, hydrocarbons, VOCs and nitrous oxide creating what we know of as 'smog'
  • Cigarette smoke

Pollutants' impact on the skin

On the basis it's pretty challenging to control which items from the list above you expose yourself to once you step outside, we won't go into the detail of how each individual pollutant is thought to impact the skin. Instead, we'll speak in generalities (based on research, of course).

Although human skin acts as a barrier to the outside world, prolonged or repetitive exposure to high levels of pollutants may have profound negative effects on the skin. Some of the pollutants in the list above can penetrate the skin and directly 'corrupt' skin cells or critical skin 'processes'.

Exposure of the skin to air pollutants has been associated with pigmentation, dark spots, wrinkles/skin ageing and inflammatory or allergic skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis or acne. Skin cancer is among the most serious of possible side-effects.

Living in a polluted environment may also reduce skin moisture and increase the rate of sebum excretion.

How do I look after my skin in the 'face' of pollution?

General skincare basics are your best friend here. There's no special pollution-busting regime required.

However, as this discussion gathers steam, we're seeing some really interesting, high tech ingredients being developed for use in skincare to combat pollution. As an example, we use an ingredient called Benzylidene in our Daily Repair Moisturiser because it binds to the many pollutants our skin is exposed to, preventing them from penetrating into the dermis. You can read more about this here.

In terms of basics, this is what we suggest:

  1. Maintain, protect and look after your skin barrier by moisturising daily (twice if necessary)
  2. Pollutants have been shown to be taken up by the skin so cleanse at the end of the day
  3. Wear SPF every day. UVR is in the list above, but importantly, in the presence of other airborne pollutants, its potency can increase


Biologically, your skin has evolved to deal with a number of external factors. But one of the issues of the modern world – and something your skin really hasn’t had time to adapt to – is the vast range of pollutants that float around us from the relatively rapid development of industry and cars.

Obviously this 'particulate matter' is now firmly part of modern life. You’ll face less of it if you live and work in the countryside but for the vast majority of people who live in towns and cities, it’s simply another factor in the daily battle our skin faces to maintain balance and protect you on the inside.

Hope this was helpful and thanks for reading.

References: PubMed IDs 30897234, 26289769 and 28195077