Air pollution, especially in large and heavily polluted cities, is causing skin damage, according to emerging research. In urban areas most air pollution comes from vehicle exhaust. Among the pollutants in this exhaust are tiny particles called PMs, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
From eczema and hives to accelerating wrinkles and age spots, air pollution is being linked to damage to the body’s largest organ. However, scientists also say that some common skin routines may also be making the problem worse.
“With traffic pollution emerging as the single most toxic substance for skin, the dream of perfect skin is over for those living and working in traffic-polluted areas unless they take steps to protect their skin right now,” Dr. Mervyn Patterson, a cosmetic doctor at Woodford Medical clinics in the UK, said in an interview with The Guardian.
Jean Krutmann, MD, is the director at the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Germany. He and colleagues completed a study of over 1,800 people in Germany and China that showed when air pollution increased so did age spots on the patients cheeks.
“It is not a problem that is limited to China or India–we have it in Paris, in London, wherever you have larger urban agglomerations you have it,” Dr. Krutman said in a press release. “In Europe everywhere is so densely populated and the particles are being distributed by the wind, so it is very difficult to escape from the problem.”
The study was reported in May, 2015 in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. Pollutants are able to pass through the skin and once in the body they cause inflammation. These pollutants can increase melanocytes, the cells that create pigment in the skin, make blood vessels grow larger and trigger the enzymes that reabsorb damaged collagen. Collagen is one of the supporting structures of the skin. The enzymes can remove so much that skin begins to sag and wrinkle.
Researchers are now looking for ways to protect the skin from air pollution. Some have added vitamin B3 to skin care products as it can help heal damaged skin. Others are looking at different molecules or chemicals that may protect the skin from damage in the first place.
Researchers also noted that some of the things people do in their quest for smoother skin add to air pollution’s effects, like retinoids, glycolic acid and skin scrubs. “You can also put on a very nice physical shield in the form of good quality mineral makeup. That produces an effect like a protective mesh and probably has some trapping effect, protecting against the initial penetration of particles,” Dr. Patterson said. “But you also need always to try to remove that shield in the evening, washing the slate clean every night.”