A Lenox Hill Hospital dermatologist outlines the threats surrounding, and ideal therapies for, dermatological conditions brought on by pollution.
Doris Day, MD
The world is rapidly changing. Bodies, starting with the skin, is under ever greater assault from pollution and toxic elements in the environment that it has not yet evolved enough to neutralize on its own. The consequences can range from irritation and premature aging, to organ damage and, at its worst, cancer.
This is mostly from oxidative stress, which is defined as an over-production of destructive reactive oxygen species (ROS) and an inability of the body’s natural antioxidant network to neutralize them before they do damage to skin and other organs. The generation of ROS is initiated by 3 major components relating to pollution: particulate matter, ozones, and aryl hydrocarbon receptors (AhR).
The good news is that there are ways to protect against the damage and repair at least some of the damage done.
Here are some recent numbers issued by the World Health Organization (WHO):
In Europe, 1 year of life expectancy is lost for every person due to exposure to particulate matter (PM) from air pollution. This is mostly due to the increased risk of heart and lung diseases. The effects of pollution on skin are also profound and seen as increased risk of skin cancer, skin sensitivity, premature skin aging, discoloration, dryness, dullness, and roughness.
Pollution is in fact a mix of many, many components which makes it difficult to say exactly which one of the different elements are responsible for the skin changes we see. In the laboratory, it is possible to expose cultured human skin cells to certain pollutants one at a time. A few examples of specific pollutants tested include Benzo-a-pyrene, urban dust, ultrafine dust, and diesel exhaust.
Surprisingly, the real threat often doesn’t come from these particles themselves; it comes from the chemicals that find a way to attach to them. Urban dust contains a cocktail of 224 toxic chemicals — from polyaromatic hydrocarbons to pesticides and heavy metals. And, while the particles of pollution are usually too large to penetrate skin themselves, many of these chemicals attached to them are not. Cigarette smoke is another major pollutant, and that has been shown to consist of over 6,000 chemicals.
The laboratory tests are able to measure not only how the cells react to different pollutants, but also which ingredients can protect them against the negative effects caused. From there, products can be developed to protect against the damage and repair the damage done as much as possible.
The relationship between air quality and skin conditions
There is a clear correlation between spikes in air pollution and increases in the number of people suffering from skin problems such as acne, hives and eczema. It is clear that air pollution is not just affecting skin on a cosmetic level, but also poses a real threat to skin health.
A recent study done in Korea evaluated the clinical effects of outdoor air pollutants in patients with chronic eczema. Researchers measured daily outdoor concentrations of PM, nitric oxides and volatile organic compounds to estimate each patient’s exposure to air pollution. They found a direct correlation between outdoor particulate concentration and presence of symptoms, showing that ambient air pollution was an aggravating factor for these patients.
Those living in highly polluted areas have significantly worse skin hydration than subjects living in the cleaner suburbs despite making better lifestyle choices (such as cleansing routines, water consumption and greater skin care product usage). In addition, compromised skin barrier function was found in the urban dwellers.
While there is sadly a lack of in-depth research in the area of air pollution and skin health, there is clear scientific evidence that skin barrier function and skin hydration are among the most immediate and significant threats air pollution imposes on our skin.
Anti-Pollution Measures To Protect and Restore Your Skin
Protect Your Skin
The threat from pollution is real and it is not getting any better any time soon. Skin and overall health can be protected by a high antioxidant diet, select supplements, properly cleansed skin, and using products with ingredients specifically tested against the most common toxins in pollution.