The Scary Side Effects of Air Pollution on Your Skin

And three dermatologists’ top products for keeping your skin clean.

The Scary Side Effects of Air Pollution on Your Skin
When we wash our faces at the end of the day, it’s usually with the goal of removing makeup, maybe some dirt from the city streets, and probably some finger oils from stressfully rubbing our eyes, temples, or forehead at work. But what about stuff that’s in the air? The pollution that gets emitted from warehouses, cars, and tobacco, and then gets absorbed into our skin?

According to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, the pollution that affects the skin “is a combination of smog (smoke) and particulate matter (small, floating particles) in the air.” These pollutants come from everything from car exhaust to metal smelting to smoking, industrial gasses, and regular old dust, releasing harmful chemicals into the environment (think carbon dioxide, PAHs, sulfur, and dioxide) and then into your skin. Elizabeth Jones, advanced instructor at Dermalogica and International Dermal Institute, says that “particulate matter is especially dangerous, as it can be a mixture of these compounds and can range in size from 10 microns and 2.5 microns.” According to Jones, your skin pore, most likely is around 5070 microns, which means that even particulate matter can easily get into one of your pores and do some damage.

One of the biggest factors in air pollution is the ozone, adds Dr. Anne Chapas, dermatologist and founder of Union Square Laser Dermatology. “This toxic gas forms when UV light hits mono-nitrogen oxides, and it’s suspected to be one of the main causes of pollution-related skin damage,” she says. From the air, these pollutants get directly absorbed into that pretty, porous skin of yours.

The effects of air pollution on skin are vast and serious, and the number one repercussion dermatologists have found? Premature wrinkling and irregular skin pigmentation (i.e., hyperpigmentation and hypopigmentation). Dr. Zeichner says that this is caused primarily by free-radical damage and chronic inflammation from these air pollutants. The “collagen fibers become fragmented and weakened,” he explains, “and pigment-producing cells go into overdrive, causing dark spots.” Jones adds that these pollutants also strip our skin of essential vitamins: “The particulate matter and air pollution stick to our skin and cause a depletion of vitamins.” This, again, damages the collagen fibers and creates free radicals that leads to premature aging. How else might air pollution be affecting your skin? “Sensitivity, irritation, dehydration, breakouts, pigmentation, and fine lines and wrinkles,” according to Jones.

Yuck. Got it. So what are some things we can do to protect our youthful, dewy glows besides becoming a real-life version of Bubble Boy?



“The main goal of our skin is to be an immune barrier,” Dr. Chapas reminds us. “If you have a compromised skin barrier, it’s letting things in.” Because air pollutants cause a depletion of vitamins in the skin, it’s your duty to put them back in there and strengthen your barrier. “Arm your skin with antioxidants every morning,” says Dr. Zeichner, focusing on ingredients such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and hexinol. These can help heal effects caused by free-radical damage in the skin and keep your immune barrier healthy.

Dr. Chapas rec:SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic


Find a skin-care product that is made of agents that will pull out harmful toxins and pollutants. Jones recommends Dermalogica’s Daily Superfoliant, which “draws on activated charcoal to absorb or pull out pollutants from the skin.” It also has “a red algae and tara-fruit-extract ingredient complex” that goes a step further to prevent future pollutants from attaching to or being absorbed by the skin, according to Jones.

Elizabeth Jones rec:Dermalogica Daily Superfoliant


Washing your face with cleanser is a great first step, but when we’re talking about particulate matter that has penetrated the outer layers of the skin, most cleansers do not work deeply enough. Dr. Zeichner recommends an exfoliating device. In fact, “Washing your face with a sonic cleansing brush has been shown to be superior to manual cleansing in terms of removing pollution from the skin,” he says. A recent study by Clarisonic found that their cleansing device “has the cleansing power to remove 30 times more harmful age-accelerating pollutants than manual cleansing” by flushing the pores of dirt, grime, and other environmental aggressors that have penetrated the skin.

Dr. Zeichner rec:Clarisonic


Because chronic inflammation from air pollutants may weaken your outer skin barrier functions, over time it will lose its ability to protect itself and retain hydration. “Make sure to use a high-quality moisturizer with petrolatum on a regular basis,” says Dr. Zeichner. According to the doc, this will help your skin “form a protective seal of the skin, maintain hydration, and to heal itself.”

Dr. Zeichner rec:Vaseline Intensive Care Deep Moisture Jelly Cream


Once you’re armed and ready to go with your vast skin-protecting army, take one step back and use your brain. “Do not be fooled into thinking that air pollution doesn’t affect your skin,” Jones says. “Particulate matter is in every environment, whether the smoggiest city or most pristine beaches,” so don’t assume you’re invisible.

Elizabeth Jones recs: Avoid outdoor exposure when pollution levels are high, and if you smoke cigarettes, time to break that habit! Doctor’s orders.

Shot on site at 6 Columbus, a Sixty Hotel; On Solveig: Pajamas, Morgan Lane; Ring, Baker & Black; Hand Mirror, Tom Dixon; Hair, Angela Soto; Make-up, Andriani.

Want more stories like this?

Brace Yourself for Pat McGrath’s Holiday Collection
What Happens to Your Skin When You Drink Too Much
Curious about Oil Cleansing? Start with These 9 Oil Cleansers

More From the series Skin
You May Also Like