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What Are the Effects of Pollution on the Skin?

What Are the Effects of Pollution on the Skin?

Pollution is a major issue - and in many cities, it’s getting worse everyday. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 92% of people live in cities that don’t comply with the WHO’s air quality standards - yikes!

This has a major negative impact on our bodies and on the world. A whopping 11.6% of all global deaths are associated with indoor and outdoor pollution. This number is likely to rise as conditions worsen in many cities and countries.

But the point of this isn’t to scare you out of leaving your house. Rather, use these facts get empowered to understand exactly what’s going on and what steps you can take to help stop the damage - both to your face and to the world around you.

Let’s dive in.

Pollution: The Basics

You are bombarded by all kinds of pollution every day - some that you’d expect, some you wouldn’t.

  • Air pollution: This includes primary air pollutants from sources like urban dust, cigarette smoke, diesel dust, and benzo[a]pyrene) and secondary pollutants formed when primary pollutants react in the atmosphere. Both can lead to major health concerns - including increased risk of heart attack, birth defects, reproductive failure, and disease - and skin issues.
  • Water pollution: This is caused by wastewater, sewage, and fertilizers that compromise critical water sources. Water pollution can lead to the death of aquatic creatures and reproductive and developmental problems in humans.
  • Land and soil pollution: This occurs when people apply chemicals to the soil, dispose of waste improperly, irresponsibly exploit minerals, and participate in deforestation. These actions put people in contact with toxic substances, destroy ecosystems, and create atmospheric imbalances.
  • Noise and light pollution: Prolonged and excessive use of artificial light can cause health problems in humans, disrupt natural cycles, and affect wildlife. These forms of pollution can cause stress, anxiety, headaches, irritability, hearing loss, and sleep loss.

In short, pollution is wrecking our environment, contaminating our food and water, causing disease, and destroying the air we breathe.

It should come as no surprise, then, that it’s also wreaking havoc on your hair and skin.

What Does Pollution Do to Your Skin?

Pollution can have major consequences on the skin, causing:

  • Skin congestion
  • Premature aging
  • Cancer
  • Irritation
  • Acne, hives, eczema
  • Dehydration
  • Compromised skin barrier

The main culprit here is unchecked oxidative stress and free radicals. Pollutants hit your skin and cause over-production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), or free radicals. These unstable molecules are microscopic wrecking balls on your skin that:

  • Poke holes in collagen, reducing skin firmness and elasticity
  • Cause hyperpigmentation and fine lines
  • Cause inflammation
  • Cause DNA damage and cell mutation, which can lead to cancer

Antioxidants can calm these unstable free radicals by donating an electron in order to stabilize them. The problem? Your natural antioxidants aren’t always powerful enough to combat these ROS's on their own and neutralize them before they do real damage. As a result, free radicals break down your skin’s natural barrier, collagen and lipids.

That’s why you may need a little help.

What You Can Do to Combat Pollution

Overall, there are 3 steps that you can follow to help you stop free radical damage and reverse the harm of pollution:

Step 1: Get It Off

First thing’s first - you have to get the grime off and cleanse thoroughly every day. This is a step that many people skip or do incompletely, but that’s a problem. If you don’t get all of the gross off your face, you won’t effectively reduce the burden on your skin or properly prep it for your products.

Properly cleansing the skin can involve up to three steps (though, at minimum, you should do step one): a cleanser, exfoliant, and toner.

  1. Cleanse: First, we recommend that you cleanse twice a day with a mild, nutrient-rich cleanser. The goal is to thoroughly wash your skin without over-stripping, drying, or causing irritation (bonus points if you use a cleansing brush - they’re much more effective at removing deep-rooted impurities).
  2. Exfoliate: Next, incorporate a mild exfoliant into your routine at least a couple of times a week. This will get rid of any surface dead skin cells andhelp you address more pronounced issues that your normal cleanser can’t quite reach. Remember, though, not to scrub too hard.
  3. Tone: Finally, finish off with a swipe of toner to balance your skin’s pH and prep it for the products in step 2.

Step 2: Neutralize It

As we explained, the biggest problem that pollution creates is free radicals on the surface of the skin. So, you need to deliver antioxidants directly to your skin to neutralize those free radicals and diminish any possible negative effects.

There's good news: you can incorporate antioxidants into most steps of your skincare routine. This can start right away, for example, with an antioxidant-rich cleanser. Or you can layer on a serum with antioxidants directly after cleansing or finish with an everyday cream to block pollution.

Don’t forget about the power of incorporating antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries, leafy greens, or beans into your diet. That way, you can nourish your skin from the inside out.

Step 3: Reinforce Your Natural Barrier

A common skin problem overall is UV damage - and this only gets more profound with pollution.

As air pollution erodes the ozone layer, UV rays become stronger and more harmful. This not only increases your risk of sunburn but also exacerbates issues like hyperpigmentation and inflammation.

You have to protect your skin from this kind of damage (and from bacteria, infection, and other problems). That involves two things: repairing and strengthening your skin’s natural barrier and using UVA and UVB protective sunscreen.

The former is accomplished primarily through the products that you add to your skincare routine. Look for products that restore the lipids and strengthen your barrier, including:

  • Niacinamide: Otherwise known as Vitamin B3, niacinamide reduces the negative effects of urban dust, cigarette smoke, diesel dust, and benzo[a]pyrene. Specifically, it can protect skin cells, help cells recover from damage, strengthen the skin’s natural barrier, and repair UV damage.
  • Fatty acids: Linoleic acid is an omega-3 fatty acid (one your body can't produce on its own) that helps repair barrier function.
  • Antioxidants: Load up on these bad boys - which include vitamin A, B, D, E, C, and B3 - to protect against free radical damage.
  • Adaptogens: Some studies suggest that these natural ingredients - which include resveratrol, CoQ10, ashwagandha, curcumin, and ginseng - can balance or combat the effects of stress on the system. Incorporate them through fruits, vegetables, spices, or supplements.

And don’t forget that UV protection! An adequate sunscreen is necessary to protect against pollutants and UV damage. Bonus points if you find one with antioxidants too.

Don’t know where to start? You can find a whole suite of pollution-fighting products to add to your skincare regimen in our Discovery Kit.