Does Pollution Really Do Anything to Your Skin?

Photo: Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive

I’ve lived in major urban cities for over half my life, so you’d think that I’d grow immune to being “dirty.” And the truth is I don’t carry hand sanitizer in my bag, or wipe down an airplane seat, but I did start to get grossed out by the black soot gathering under my nails on an almost-daily basis this summer. And when I wash my face at night, I can see the dark soot on my washcloth (ok so maybe it’s mascara, but I can feel it!). This got me thinking: if I can see the residue of pollution, what exactly is it doing to my skin?

The answer? Pollution might be the underlying cause of many of the issues most of us blame on everything else.

What is pollution?
“Pollution really has two components,” says Julie E. Russak, M.D., FAAD, Board Certified Dermatologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology. “One factor is particle matter of various sizes, which is the visible black soot you wipe off your face. Then there are the gasses: ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. These are the main players when it comes to skin-impacting pollutants.” The ozone layer, the one closest to the planet at the sub-stratosphere, is highly reactive with everyday pollutants from cars, the air, chemical plants, even water and dust particles. And when they react with the UV, they create a carcinogenic factor that breaks down proteins and destroys the lipids in our skin, says Dr. Russak.

If you’ve watched the news in the past twenty years, you know this is a greater world issue, but it’s also as personal as your own face. “We have long believed in the ravages of UV light and smog and dust, but particularly the harmful effects of ozone on the skin,” counsels Annet King, Director of Global Education for Dermalogica and The International Dermal Institute. “When you look at highly-polluted areas of India and China, there are now much larger issues around sensitivity with skin types that aren’t historically inclined to be sensitive. If you have darker skin, the inflammation and broken capillaries aren’t seen as easily, but they’re felt. People complain of skin being hot and itchy, and, upon further inspection, you see that the skin has been compromised.”

“Countries with less restrictive pollution regulations (e.g. vehicle air pollution emissions) have a higher rate of pollution affecting their population, and therefore their skin,” says Dr. Fredric Brandt, MD. “Highly-industrialized cities with poor pollution regulations are exposed to a higher rate of contaminants. Air pollution in urban environments may more than double skin damage from the sun, especially in exposed areas like the face, neck, and hands.”

What does it do to your skin?
So what does pollution actually do to your skin? “Dryness, premature aging, dull skin, clogged pores, skin irritation, inflammation, and allergies,” are just a few of the problems Dr. Brandt lists. Once pollution makes your skin extra sensitive, it becomes more susceptible to the irritation and allergies he mentions. “We’re starting to realize the effects of inflammation are far more serious than we thought,” he adds. “It can lead to cancer, heart problems, diabetes, and other health issues.”

What can you do about it?
Now, what can you do about it? Your first line of defense is to remove the toxins by cleansing. “I suggest   ‘double-cleansing,’” says King. “You have to remove the soot and the day-to-day chemicals to which you’re exposed (dust from computer screens and phones, etc.), as well as long-lasting makeup.” She suggests starting with an oil cleanser since the oil really sticks to and removes a good amount of surface dirt before finishing up with a mild cleanser to take off whatever’s left. How do you know if you’re not cleansing properly? Clogged pores. The visible result of improper cleansing is clogged skin and more breakouts. “If you see and feel bumps under your skin (especially around the chin, nostrils, and tops of your cheeks) it means the gunk hasn’t been removed from your skin,” she adds.

Do antioxidants help?
The short answer is yes, antioxidants do help. “Antioxidants are the key to fixing the effects of pollutants on the skin,” explains Dr. Russak. “They help stop the free radicals that cause oxidative stress in the body as well as increase our own internal antioxidants.” Look for products with vitamins C & E; there are plenty, from serums to mists—the latter of which shouldn’t be discounted. 

“Spritzing with an antioxidant spray during the day can at least help counteract the pollution you encounter walking around a big city,” says King. “It’s not possible to continually remove your makeup all the time, but mists do fight the inevitable damage, sensitivity, and clogging that will occur if that debris sits there for a long time.” King also recommends making sure your night cream is packed with peptides, antioxidants, botanicals, and extracts like algae and licorice to help bolster your skin’s own natural defense systems.

Anything else I can do?
Dr. Brandt adds that maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding being outside during peak pollution time is a great way to rein in the damage. “Avoid times like rush hour or days that there isn’t enough of a breeze to move air,” he says. He also suggests using a water filter, and listening to your weather forecast about reports on your city air quality conditions.

Also—surprise!—wear sunscreen. “I ask my patients to use a minimum of SPF 30 in the summer, but not all SPFs are the same,” advises Dr. Russak. “Choose one with a physical blocker like zinc and/or titanium dioxide, which help stop your skin from absorbing the sun’s rays. There are great new formulas that aren’t as thick.” And remember, you must reapply! The worst thing you can do is think it lasts all day.