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The skin is a complex organ consisting of several layers designed to protect us from the external elements. The outermost layer - the epidermis - forms a protective barrier all over the surface of the body and is responsible for keeping water in the body and pathogens out. However, it can be damaged by pollution in the air and water, affecting both its appearance and effectiveness.
Airborne toxins such as smog, dirt and dust can cause premature ageing on the face, neck, and hands - in other words the most exposed areas of the skin. The pollutants – which also include car exhausts, lead and sulphur - react with ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun to create free radicals within the body that attack cells and damage DNA. In fact, ozone, produced when UV light hits car exhausts full of nitrogen oxides, is thought to be one of the primary causes pollution-related skin damage.
Ozone and Air Pollution
Ozone oxidizes lipids found in the outer layer of the skin causing inflammation and damage to the protective barrier. This depletes oxygen in the skin cells and hampers collagen production, preventing it from keeping the skin firm and healthy, resulting in premature aging in the form of wrinkles.
The contaminants also interfere with the skin’s capability to regulate moisture leading to dryness, rough patches and clogged skin. It can also cause tissue damage and disease, and it is believed the diminishing ozone layer – which is allowing more UV to reach the Earth – is responsible for the increase in the rate of melanoma cases.
Cigarette smoke is a man-made form of air pollution harmful not only to those who smoke, but those around them too. Smoking constricts the blood vessels in the skin, hindering blood flow and preventing oxygen and essential nutrients from reaching their desired destination. This causes wrinkles by damaging the elastin and collagen in the skin, producing sagging.
Waterborne pollutants such as chlorine can also cause havoc with the skin – just think about how dry skin feels after going for a swim. The toxic chemical is used to treat water, and while somewhat safe in relatively small doses, in large quantities it can agitate the skin and lungs. Even having a shower – the heat of which opens up the pores of the skin – can allow chlorine to seep into the skin and remove its natural oils, causing dryness.
Scientists are only just beginning to understand the harm pollutants can do to our skin and how it affects the aging process. A study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology in 2016 discovered a link between brown spots found on skin and the increase in air pollution. It is impossible to avoid pollution, but there are ways of minimizing its effects on the skin by creating a barrier between the skin and pollutants.
The best way to protect the skin against this aging is to have a good skincare regime, cleansing the skin daily to remove the build-up of dirt and grime that has gathered upon this protective layer. Following this, moisturizing can provide a barrier against harmful toxins.
Some studies suggest that products containing antioxidants – such as green tea – may help to combat pollutants in the skin, and many skincare products now feature vitamins A, C and E. Major skincare brands now even promote the ‘pollution protection’ qualities of their products.
It has also been suggested that eating a diet rich in antioxidants could block the free radicals in the body – that means consuming lots of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables. Staying hydrated is also key; water not only hydrates the skin but flushes out toxins, generates cell growth and improves circulation. Doctors suggest a combination of the three – antioxidants, cleansing and barrier repair – is the skin’s best defence against air pollution.
Sources and Further Reading