Pollution is aging your skin, but you can fight back

Heather Stephen

Pollution can play havoc with your skin – irritating and prematurely aging it. But there are things you can do to combat it. Heather Stephen explains.

The World Health Organisation claims air pollution is linked to one in eight deaths worldwide,  and pollution through cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, wood burners and industry has been linked to a whole raft of diseases from dementia to heart disease to cancer.

And it’s pretty disastrous for our looks too. Our skin is our largest organ and it bears the brunt of the daily assault our environment throws at us – prematurely aging and irritating it.

Consultant dermatologist at the Cadogen Clinic in Chelsea, Dr Anjali Mahto explains how: “The ageing effects happen because pollution absorbed through the skin triggers the generation of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) or free radicals – unstable molecules which can damage DNA in skin cells.”

According to consultant dermatologist and medical director of the Tarrant Street Clinic in Arundel, Dr Justine Hextall, the pollution known as ‘fine particulate matter ‘is the most damaging as the tiny particles penetrate our skin attacking collagen and elastin leading to wrinkles and sagging.

A 2010 study found that women exposed to high levels of pollution were more likely to have pronounced ‘smiles lines’. And last year researchers confirmed the link between pollution and age spots and an American study revealed how pollutants stimulate production of ROS which can lead to wrinkles and sagging.




Not only that but several studies have shown the toxins in our atmosphere have a direct link with age spots, eczema, psoriasis and acne.

Dr Ross Perry, GP and medical director of the Cosmedics skin clinics chain, says pollution can affect us in two ways – through allergens or irritants landing on the skin and by breathing in damaging particles.

“Pollution may make acne and rosacea much worse as irritant particles in the air lead to more inflammation and can worsen allergies and dermatitis conditions like eczema,” he says. “And pollutants can also activate allergies for the first time, for example, if someone moves from the country to an inner city.”

It all paints a scary picture but we can fight back against the toxins in our air to safeguard our health and skin. Here’s how.

 1. Clean up your act

It might be tempting to fall into bed after a busy day but a super thorough cleansing regime – especially last thing at night – will remove polluting particles on your skin and stop skin nasties in their tracks.

Dr Mahto says: “Cleansing at night will remove pollution particles, microbes, and toxins from the skin surface that have collected during the day.  And once the skin is clean you can get better penetration of products used at night time that can help repair the skin.”

Dr Hextall agrees careful cleansing is key and adds opting for a gentle product to maintain the skin’s balance.

“We know that pollution often leaves our skin drier, more irritated and inflamed so make sure you choose a wash that matches the skin’s mildly acidic pH.”

Dr Hextall admits it can be difficult to tell how gentle a cleanser is from the label. She recommends a cleansing milk or oil for people with dry skin and says finding the right wash is trial and error.


“How much a wash foams is a rough guide to how it is likely to affect your skin. A soapy wash is more likely to be alkaline and unbalance the skin’s pH and if your skin feels tight after cleansing, it is likely you have disrupted your skin barrier and this leads to water loss.”

The skin’s pH is slightly acid at around 5.5.


2. Fight those toxic avengers

As pollution triggers free radical damage you can’t afford to leave antioxidants out of your daily routine. Free radicals are highly unstable molecules with unpaired electrons and they damage your skin as they bounce around in a bid to steal an electron from a healthy cell

They can cause sagging, pigmentation, fine lines, inflammation which makes acne and rosacea worse and, even DNA damage and cell mutation which can lead to cancer.

Antioxidants come to the rescue by donating an electron where needed so rebalance your skin by using an antioxidant packed serum each morning and before bed.


And boost the benefits by tucking into antioxidant rich foods like berries, beans and green vegetables like broccoli and kale.

Dr Hextall recommends a serum containing vitamin C as this can reduce pigmentation and help maintain an even skin tone.

And she says: “A diet rich in antioxidants, along with a good supplement containing antioxidants like vitamin C or lycopene will also help to support skin against daily damage from UV exposure and pollution.”

Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes, pink grapefruits and apricots.


3. Protect yourself

Decades of pollution have left a hole in the ozone layer which screens us from the harmful effects of the sun. That means it is vital to wear sunscreen (with a minimum SPF of 30) even when it looks cloudy.

Apart from protecting you from skin cancer, sunscreen has a major role to play in combating signs of ageing – especially if you live in a polluted town or city. And as many sunscreens now contain antioxidants you get to fight pollution twice over.

Dr Hextall says: “We know from studies that pollution causes skin pigmentation and this is exacerbated by exposure to certain wavelengths of light. So if you are a city dweller it is even more important to make sure you have adequate sun protection.”


4.Think pretty

Cosmetic companies now have products designed to protect your skin against nasties in the atmosphere.

There are a variety of cleansers, serums and moisturisers which have antioxidants including vitamins A, C and E as well as SPF protection and some may even provide a barrier against polluting particles and the sun doing their worst in the first place.


5. Detox your home

You can cut down on indoor pollution by using a vacuum cleaner and an air purifier with a HEPA filter. This traps tiny pollutant particles and is recommended if you are prone to allergies and rashes.

Another tip is to avoid furniture, glue and disinfectants that contain formaldehyde as this is a proven irritant and give your open fire a miss. It might look pretty but it could be one of the worst things you could do for your skin.

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