Your skin is your largest organ and first line of defence against harmful airborne pollutants, ultraviolet radiation and infections. Over the years, an increase in environmental pollution has had major effects on human skin and the tiny microorganisms that live on it (also known as the skin microbiome).

You may be aware that repetitive or long-term exposure to pollutants has a detrimental effect on human health, but did you know that long-term exposure to pollution also has a negative effect on your skin?

Around 99% of the world’s population live in areas where air quality levels exceed WHO guideline limits. With ambient air pollution levels still rising, what can you do to help protect your skin?

What Is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is the presence of any chemical, physical or biological substance that changes the natural characteristics of the atmosphere. Depending on lifestyle factors and where you live, your skin is exposed to different levels of various types of environmental pollutants on a daily basis.

The main types of air pollution are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and ground level ozone. Most outdoor airborne pollutants are produced by vehicles, industry, power generation and waste incineration. However, particulate matter (particles of varying size suspended in the air), can also be generated by environmental sources such as forest fires and natural windblown dust.

Airborne pollutants can be found indoors as well, as volatile organic compounds are also emitted from household items such as paint, varnishes and aerosol sprays. Cigarette smoke is another common air pollutant as it is made up of thousands of chemicals including nitrogen oxides and known carcinogens.

How Do Air Pollutants Affect Your Skin?

Environmental exposure to air pollution has been linked to premature skin ageing, acne, and worsening of skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and contact dermatitis.

Previous studies have shown that individuals living in areas with high levels of urban pollution show signs of a decrease in skin barrier function, significantly worse skin hydration levels, and a different skin microbiome compared to those living in less polluted regions.

Your Skin Microbiome

Your skin microbiome is made up of millions of bacteria, fungi and viruses on your skin. Some of these bacteria are beneficial and produce substances to fight off harmful bacteria and alert your immune system!

However, too many or too few of certain types of microbes has been linked to irritation, dryness and inflammatory skin diseases.

Environmental factors such as pollution can decrease the size and diversity of bacterial communities in your natural microbiome population. This disruption of the skin microbiome balance can make room for particular strains of potentially harmful bacteria on your skin.

Pollution particles can also physically settle on the skin, blocking pores and trapping bacteria inside. This creates an airless, oily environment, perfect for the growth of Cutibacterium acnes – the main bacterial strain responsible for inflammatory acne.

Skin Barrier Function

Maintaining a healthy, balanced skin microbiome is also important as it contributes to the barrier function of your skin surface. Your epidermis is the outermost layer of your skin and forms a natural protective barrier to keep hydration in, and allergens and bad bacteria out.

You can think of it like a brick wall, where your skin cells are the bricks, and the mortar in between is made up of lipids like ceramides and essential fatty acids.

Unfortunately, high levels of pollution can affect the lipids in your skin barrier and create tiny gaps and cracks between skin cells. This means that moisture escapes from the deeper layers, leading to dry or dull skin.

A weakened skin barrier also allows more environmental triggers and allergens to sneak through, which can cause inflammation or skin disease flare ups such as atopic dermatitis and eczema.

Oxidative Stress

When certain types of air pollutants come into contact with your skin, they don’t just sit on the skin surface. Tiny particles are able to pass through to the deeper skin layers and cause inflammation, dehydration, and reactions in your cells. Air pollutants are associated with oxidative stress which contributes to premature skin ageing.

But what is oxidative stress?

Your cells naturally produce free radicals (also known as reactive oxygen species) which are very unstable and reactive. Free radicals have a signalling role in normal biological processes but they can also cause damage to your cells by reacting with things they shouldn’t, like the lipids in your skin barrier. Luckily, your cells also produce antioxidants which neutralise excess free radicals to counteract these adverse effects.

Frequent exposure to high levels of air pollution disrupts this balance by reducing the amount of antioxidants (such as vitamin C and E) in your skin. This results in a build-up of free radicals, leading to oxidative stress, cell damage, inflammation and premature skin ageing. Typical signs of skin ageing include wrinkles, dark spots, and loss of elasticity and collagen.

How can you help your skin?

So what can you do to help protect your skin from the harmful effects of pollution? Here are a few tips to help you build a skincare routine that minimises the effects of air pollution:

  • Use a gentle cleanser to avoid stripping moisture and natural oils from your skin. Cleansers that are too harsh can impair your skin’s barrier function, leaving it more vulnerable to environmental stressors. We recommend cream, oil or balm cleansers.
  • Apply antioxidants to help defend your skin from the effects of pollution and ultraviolet radiation (UV). Look out for ingredients like tocopherol (vitamin E), ascorbic acid or ascorbyl palmitate (vitamin C), and niacinamide (vitamin B3).
  • Always moisturise! You could also consider using hydrating humectants such as hyaluronic acid, as well as emollients like plant oils, to really seal in the moisture and reduce water loss.
  • Ceramides are one of the most important lipids in your skin barrier. If your skin barrier is damaged, using a product containing ceramides may help improve its function.
  • Use sunscreen daily to prevent damage from UV radiation. Not only can UV exposure cause skin cancer, it is also a big contributor to signs of skin ageing.

Want to know more about your skin? Join us at Skin Trust Club!

We combine science with real-time pollution and weather data from your location to build your unique skin microbiome profile. A diverse, balanced microbial community promotes a healthy, hydrated, blemish-free complexion.

With one of our plans, you can learn about the changes in your skin microbiome over time, and receive tailored suggestions for your personal skincare routine.