Environmental Pollutants and their Effect on the Skin


Environmental Pollutants and their Effect on the Skin

— Discover how the common pollutants found in the air we breathe and what we can do to help neutralise the effects.


Katherine Guerrero.png

Kat Guerrero
Noéma contributor


Breathe in. Breathe out.

The air you’re breathing is composed of more than just oxygen. In that delicious and nourishing fresh breath of air you’ll also find nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, and trace gases, lingering, manoeuvring and being absorbed by your respiratory system and skin.  

If you’re in a city or area with high pollution, that air cocktail just became much more complicated. Not to mention potentially detrimental to your health. 92% of the global population lives in an environment that fails the World Health Organisations air quality standards. And that pollution? It’s been tied to 6½ million deaths globally.

When air contains small nanoparticles of dust, soot, and ash as well as high levels of gases, the skin's natural barrier function is weakened, collagen levels lower, and underlying skin issues are highlighted.  It’s been claimed that women who live in urban areas have skin that looks up to 10% older than their more rural counterparts.

It’s a no-brainer that synthetic and manmade pollution can have a negative effect on our natural system.

Image via  @leeorwild

Image via @leeorwild


The World Health Organisation describes pollution as the ‘contamination of the indoor and outdoor environment by any chemical, physical, or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere.’

When air is polluted, small nanoparticles of external matters (think: dirt or dust) can penetrate the epidermis and influence skin cell health. Our skin has evolved to act as a biological shield to foreign chemicals and pollutants but only to a certain extent. Once the size of the pollutants become microscopic and overwhelming in numbers and consistency, skin to pollutant interaction is nearly unavoidable.

The effect of air pollutants is often amplified in environments with high levels of ultraviolet light and can disrupt the normal functions of DNA and proteins through oxidative damage. Oxidative stress, the overproduction of reactive oxygen species (what happens when the skin is in a shocked state) increases with higher levels of pollution. Polluted air makes it difficult for skin to breathe, leaves the epidermis dehydrated and contributes to a build-up of clogged pores.


Common Pollutants to Know

Nitrogen Dioxide

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is emitted by stationary and mobile combustion sources like cars, manufacturing, gas stoves, cigarettes and energy production. Nitrogen dioxide reacts to sunlight and other chemicals to form smog, a common skin irritant.


Most commonly correlated with the ozone layer, ozone is simply an unstable toxic gas found in the highest atmospheric layer. When the atmosphere is disrupted by an array of pollutants, the ozone layer thins, and ultraviolet light becomes harsh, directly affecting the skin.

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon Monoxide (CO) is a by-product of the combustion of carbon-rich fuels like gasoline, oil, coal and wood. High levels of CO can cause tissue hypoxia (limited oxygen to skin), inflammation, and skin ageing via free-radicals.

Sulfur Dioxide

A gas or liquid produced from the burning of fossil fuels and smelting of ore. All you need to know: it irritates the skin and causes internal and external inflammation. We’ll pass.

Image via  @shambhalove

Image via @shambhalove


How does pollution affect the skin?


A range of pollutants contain free-radicals, single molecules desperate to find a pair. When they can’t they latch on to the next best thing – stable skin cells. Once a free radical attaches itself to a skin cell, the body goes into a state of stress that damages DNA, collagen and skin elasticity. Free radicals have a destructive effect on the skin and increase visual skin ageing through cell disruption.


Our natural skin barrier can only withstand so much stress. Overexposure to pollution weakens the barrier, dehydrates skin, and aggravates skin conditions like eczema and rosacea. Small particulate matter damages skin cells by increasing oxidative stress and exacerbating skin pigmentation.


Clogging Pores

Exposure to grease, soot and oil in the air is bad news for our pores. Environmental pollutants can cause a specific type of acne – chloracne – a dramatic irritation that result in blackheads, whiteheads and cysts. Without a proper cleansing routine, pollution can do some damage on pores.

Vitamin E Deficiency

Ozone, oxygens mysterious friend, decreases vitamin E level in the skin, resulting in free-radical damage and a serious Vitamin E When the skin lacks Vitamin E, moisture cannot be retained and the epidermis dries out.

Image via  @_marieyat_

Image via @_marieyat_


What can be done to minimise pollution effects?

Cleanse often, stock up on antioxidant rich products, and eat strategically. Taking the time to clean your face thoroughly will eliminate excess dirt, smog or pollutant on a surface level. Choose a cleanser with no added sulphates to minimise skin irritation. Additionally, regular exfoliation can help minimise pollution’s effects by eliminating a dirt, oil and debris build up.

We mentioned free-radicals, those single molecules looking for an electron to pair with. The best way to counteract excess free radicals? Increase antioxidants in your skin products and diet. An antioxidant rich lifestyle counteracts free radical damage by providing some of their own electrons. That way, the skin’s protein, DNA or cells aren’t being compromised.

Damage from pollutants can be counteracted internally as well. By eating a diet rich with antioxidants, greens, fruits and Omega 3’s, you’ll provide your body with the necessary tools and strength to fight external pollution stressors. Hydrate excessively to counteract skin dryness.

Our relationship with pollutants and how we react to it highlights how the human body adjusts to an environment but only to an extent. We have yet to evolve to neutralise the effects of pollution fully.

The question is: will the human body ever adjust to pollution? Or do we have to target the effects of pollution strategically until they are eliminated?


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What practices do you incorporate into your routine that minimise free radicals?

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