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Is pollution bad for my skin?

Jul 29,2019

Environmental pollution is a public health hazard, impacting our environment and our overall health. These effects are especially seen in those living in larger cities with higher levels of ambient air pollution. However, these particles can negatively impact and damage our skin.

Air pollution is broad term encompassing a variety of particulate matters and other toxic compounds1. These can come from industrialisation, transport, and other associations with urbanisation. Air pollution and these particulate matters have been shown to affect the development and exacerbation (worsening) of skin problems and diseases2.

How does pollution harm my skin?

Obstruction of the pores
Air pollution contains harm harmful gases, as well as particulate matter consisting of a variety of compounds in different sizes. These compounds are suspended in the air, travelling larger distances with the wind. Most of the particles can enter into our pores, blocking them. This can negatively impact sebum production in the skin, potentially leading to acne formation and the inflammation, redness and sensitivity of the skin.

Acne and skin lesions
Certain chemicals and compounds enter our systems, binding to cells and DNA. This is extremely dangerous over a long period of time, as it is known to cause severe acne-like symptoms, especially around the face, and skin lesions on the body, but also causes other systemic issues1.

Skin Irritation and Dermatitis
Many pollutants combined with UV radiation have the capability to cause inflammatory and/or allergic reactions which can result in atopic dermatitis or eczema1. This is caused by the chemicals reacting to our cells leading to an overactive response from our immune systems. This is more commonly seen among children living in cities, exposed to higher levels of pollution1.

Cell oxidation
Certain Nitrogen oxides cause damage to the skin through the generation of free radicals and therefore the oxidation of cells and other key structures in our skin and bodies1. Free radicals are destabilised molecules that ‘steal’ electrons from other molecules, causing a cascade of destabilising events through the cells.
The oxidation of cells also leads to a depletion of vitamins E and C which are crucial in neutralising and preventing further damage from free radicals1,3.

Skin dehydration
The irritation and inflammation of the skin’s barrier have been shown to negatively impact the regulation of skin hydration3. This can lead to the dehydration of the skin.*

Loss of key structural proteins in the skin
Ozone, O3, in the atmosphere provides the Earth with a protective layer from the UV rays projected from the sun. However, when mixed in with the air we breathe, it can cause a wide variety of issues including the degradation of collagen and elastin1. Collagen and elastin are important components in our skin providing the skin with strength, structure and elasticity. As we age we naturally reduce production of these proteins, however ozone depletes these proteins at an accelerated rate.

Skin Aging / Premature ageing
Many chemicals found in air pollution have the capacity to cause damage and exacerbate the signs of premature ageing. These visible signs are generally caused or exacerbated by cell oxidation, dehydration and the loss of structural proteins. Some particulate matters found in pollution can directly cause or impact pigmentation spots, nasolabial folds and wrinkle formation1.

It is also important to consider ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. These individually are harmful, however when combined with certain pollutants they can worsen the effects seen.

How can I protect my skin from pollution?

Having a good cleansing routine is essential to prevent the accumulation of toxic chemicals on your skin. By removing these chemicals, you can reduce the amount of damage incurred as well as cleaning the pores to reduce congestion and maintain healthy skin.

It is important to keep your skin hydrated both day and night, as this helps maintain the protective barrier of our skin and maintain healthy function and repair. During the day it is important to utilise a cream with SPF / sun protection to reduce damage from UV as well as reducing potential UV reactions with pollutants on your skin.

Both liquid and powder foundations have been found to have a protective effect on the skin, by acting as an extra barrier.

Many cosmetics now market themselves as ‘Anti-Pollution’, generally containing ingredients designed to block or neutralise harmful chemicals as your skin encounters them.

As many of these compounds deplete vitamins that help protect this skin and body from damage, it is important to ensure you are consuming the recommended daily allowance of vitamins C and E.


*Different skin types will react differently to dehydration, this includes becoming extra dry and sensitive or by overproducing sebum leading to an oily appearance.



  1. Drakaki E (2014) Air pollution and the skin. Frontiers in Environmental Science.
  2. Kim K. E. et al (2016) Air pollution and skin diseases: Adverse effects of airborne particulate matter on various skin diseases. Elsevier vol 152: 126-134
  3. Mancebo SE and Wang SQ (2015) Recognising the impact of ambient air pollution on skin health. Journal of the European Acedemy of Dermatology and Venereolgy 29(12): 2326-2332



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