The Damage Air Pollution Does to Your Skin

You might not even notice it. but everyday, all of us are surrounded by invisible particles in the air. And they are damaging our skin slowly and silently. If you live in a concrete jungle then you’re already familiar with it, and if you’re traveling to one you need to know about it.

Heavy air pollution can wreak havoc not only on your overall health but also surprisingly deep down in your skin.

What is air pollution made up of?

Pollution is any contaminant that causes disruption by altering healthy and natural processes. This can be in the environment or in our bodies. When we speak about pollution in urban areas, we are mostly referring to air pollution. This appears in the form of smog, soot and dust in the street, but at its worst can build up to form acid rain. This pollution is made up of ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and more substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (that’s a mouthful!).

What causes pollution?

Pollution is generally the result of processes like combustion that give off a byproduct. This includes burning fossil fuels like what happens in petrol and diesel cars, and industrial processes like coal burning that releases smoke from factories. Cigarette smoking also leaves behind carcinogens and pollutants. Even household activities such as heating can produce pollution.

The worst pollution accumulates in big and overcrowded cities with lots of traffic. While there are worldwide safety limits in place, cities like Beijing and London have an average pollutant level ranging from ‘Unhealthy’ to ‘Hazardous’, where it is unsafe to do physical activity outside. We can compare this to the levels found in almost all Australian cities which are usually well within safe levels, due to our comparatively small population and relative lack of extreme urbanisation.

The negative effect pollution has on your skin

There’s no way around it: pollution is absolutely terrible for your overall health. But if we’re focusing on what pollution does to skin, it definitely wreaks havoc there too.


Fine particulate matter (aka. PM2.5) is like tiny specks of dirt that are much smaller than pores. When they enter and interact with the skin, they cause minute irritation and inflammation. Over time, this can trigger hyperpigmentation and even cause issues as severe as rashes like eczema and hives.

Oxidative stress

In general, the gases pollution is made up of are volatile and put the skin under oxidative stress. This means that it reacts with our cells, breaking down the body and causing rapid ageing in the form of loss of collagen and a thinned epidermis. If you’re curious about the science, you can read more about free radicals here.

The result? Dull, dry, red, irritated and damaged skin that will age much faster than it would naturally, showing wrinkles and age spots.

Simple ways to reduce air pollution damage

Now that you’re totally aware of how damaging pollution can be, you’re probably looking for ways to avoid all the nasty effects. Luckily, there are things you can do to protect your skin from pollution to mitigate the downsides while still enjoying the city life.

Get some fresh air

This is easier said than done, but try to limit your time spent in the most polluted areas. If you can take a break from the city in the form of weekend away then do so. Avoid spending lots of time outdoors in the smog and traffic fumes, especially during the day when pollution is worst.

Keep irritating products to a minimum

You can get a head start on pollution by keeping your skin strong with a natural barrier that repels damage. Make use of ingredients like ceramides and oils that support strong skin. That also means avoiding overuse of products like AHAs and retinol, as while they offer great skin benefits they definitely increase your susceptibility to the elements, including pollution, by temporarily thinning the skin and potentially causing sensitivity and dehydration.

Break the cycle of damage with antioxidants

Antioxidants in your skin care products interrupt the ageing process triggered by free radicals. I’ve written a post all about antioxidants, how they work and my product suggestions. Consider them a counter measure to reduce the severity of not only pollution-induced ageing but also sun damage and stress.

Neutralise the pollution

This is yet another exciting area where skin care meets cutting edge science. In recent years, companies have developed targeted new ingredients that can prevent the damage of pollution by neutralising it before it has a chance to cause harm. Many are still in the testing and evaluation stage, but expect to see these on the market very soon. ‘SymUrban‘ is one example of a new anti-pollution ingredient. Some companies have already jumped on the bandwagon and released their own pollution skin care ranges: there’s Clinique Dramatically Different Hydrating Jelly Anti-Pollution and Nivea Essentials Urban Skin Day Cream.

Use a shield to protect your skin

Get friendly with silicone and mineral makeup, which will prevent the pollution you encounter from having direct contact with your skin and pores. My favourite silicone-based cream is Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel Cream, or you can use a silicone-based sunscreen like Sunplay Super Block or a primer like CoverFX Mattifying over your normal moisturiser. For mineral makeup, try something like L’Oreal Paris True Match Mineral Foundation.

Cleanse well to remove particulate matter

At the end of the day, remove all traces of dirt and your protective products to remove the lingering pollutants on your skin. if you feel like one cleansing isn’t enough, double cleanse by using an oil (either natural like Jojoba or an emulsifying oil like Kose Softymo Speedy) first to break down makeup and skin care products, before following up with a cleanser on a cleansing brush. I use my Clarisonic Mia 2 and Hada Labo Gokujyun Foaming Face Wash after a day in the city.

I think it’s important to remember that you can’t protect your skin from everything in the environment. Life is for living, and if your career or family means you live in a busy city, so be it! Do your best with your skin care by using antioxidants and limiting sun damage, and don’t stress over the details you can’t control.

Where is the world has the worst pollution that you’ve ever been exposed to?



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