May 23rd, 2007 will go down as the first year in the evolution of our species as the day of a major shift : from that date onwards, and for the first time in human history, the earth’s population became more urban than rural. At least according to scientific research carried out by some faculty from North Carolina State University and the University of Georgia. And this means that more than ever, urban areas concentrate pollutants emitted by intensified human activity which, among other things, has a direct impact on the air we breathe and on the skin of urban dwellers as a result.

It is no secret to assert that pollution is highly aggressive to our skin and one of the main consequences is that it causes premature ageing. Besides, pollution is very harmful to our system when we are exposed to it on a daily basis and for extended periods of time. According to the World Health organization (WHO), a whopping 92 percent of the global population lives in polluted environments.

In the 1980’s, the notions of acid rain and heavy metal contamination through air became mainstream, although researchers had been dealing with these issues for decades, but they weren’t heard until air pollution levels reached alarming levels and started generating citizen and political concern. But today, and on top of such sources of anxiety, we also have to deal with pollution with ozone and very fine particles, which so easily absorb into our lungs and penetrate our skin either through hair follicles or trans epidermally.

Dermatologists worldwide agree that, on an average, about 80 percent of our skin ageing is due to the environment we live in, while natural ageing and genetic heritage only account for the remaining 20 percent. For more information, you may wish to consult the following link in French : 

The different pollutants that impact our skin : 

Airborne pollutants are known as Suspended particulate Matter (SPM). They are made of microscopic solid or liquid matter suspended in the atmosphere of Earth. There are actually 2 kinds, and they are labelled as are primary and secondary pollutants. The first type encompasses all polluting agents emitted by the exhausts of engines in urban areas, such as those of cars, planes, industrial vehicles and all sorts of emissions coming from manufacturing plants in or near urban areas. Most of those pollutants are released in the atmosphere via warm or hot smoke that contribute to lifting particles up into the atmosphere where they eventually fall back down into our breathing environments.

The second category of pollutants is referred to as secondary pollutants, mostly because they appear when some primary pollutants are transformed by sun rays or the sun’s heat, or both. This is why urban areas are often subject to pollution alerts in summertime, because the heat and strong sun exacerbate the phenomenon. Among all pollutants that are present in urban areas, ozone is the one that is particularly harmful to our skin.

The main and most harmful pollutants to people’s skin : 

Obviously, carbon monoxide is the one that is very pervasive for our lungs and especially skin. It slows down our skin metabolism and it gives individuals a dull complexion and contributes to skin dryness and premature ageing. The pollutant particles in the air may also cause skin irritation and some individuals may develop allergies. Ozone, as mentioned, triggers skin inflammation, particularly on the parts of our skin often exposed to outdoor air, such as face, hands and forearms. Sulphur dioxide is an irritant as well, because it often degrades our skin’s hydrolipidic film, which is a thin layer of a complex formed from sweat and sebaceous substance, created from desquamation of the stratum corneum. This film naturally spreads over the skin’s surface and acts as a protective film.

Main consequences of air pollution on our skin : 

Therefore, one does not need to be a rocket scientist to understand the detrimental effects of such pollutants on our skin. Both primary pollutants such as carbon monoxide and dioxide, along with the secondary pollutants weaken our skin’s natural ability to regenerate itself and the lipids contained in it become less and less capable of holding back pollutants: the natural barrier that our skin has gradually diminishes. Premature skin ageing contributes to the early appearance of such symptoms as winkles, skin elasticity loss, face and hand changes in their appearance as well as gradually dull complexion. One of the main reasons why our complexion is dulled is that once carbon monoxide enters our bloodstream through pollution and due to weakened skin defenses, the carbon monoxides mixes with oxygen and generates that undesired dull complexion.

Another direct result of living in polluted environments is that our skin may develop brown pigmentation spots. Abnormal levels of pollution often generate higher amounts of harmful UV rays, which in turn cause our natural antioxidants, such as vitamin C and E to seriously diminish. This directly induces skin weakening and ageing : UVA rays interact with pollutant particles in suspension and lead to the appearance of unwanted pigmentation spots.

Skin dryness and inflammation :

Another consequence of high levels and prolonged exposure to pollution on skin is the emergence of skin dryness and can lead to the worsening of inflammatory skin diseases like eczema, acne and psoriasis. These common inflammatory skin disorders are a frequent motive of consultation to dermatologist or skin therapist from patients seeking to find solutions to counteract and protect their skin against the assaults of airborne pollutants.

Practical general advice and recommendations for skin exposed to airborne pollutants :

Avoid smoking and maintain a healthy life-style, with a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, limited alcohol intake, and plenty of sleep to help the skin naturally regenerate itself.

Daily application of a sunscreen is important to protect the skin from the sun’s damaging UV rays. However, that’s not enough to protect skin from the effects of pollution. A strong protective skin barrier is important to be able to resist pollutants and better protect the surface skin from pollution damage.

With this aim in mind it is important to try to maintain a good daily skin care regimen. Use mild cleansing rinse-off products in the evening to remove pollution from the skin surface and to reduce particle load before it can do damage.

The application an exfoliating cream with low concentrations of fruit acids such as lactic acid or encapsulated Vitamin A regularly at night can help to exfoliate the skin and help it regenerate more easily.

In the morning use cosmetic products with powerful antioxidants to improve skin barrier function and to reduce harmful effects of ozone and airborne pollutants on skin aging.

The above are general guidelines for a health skin regime. It is highly recommended to regularly consult a reputable dermatologist or skin therapist who will conduct an in-depth skin analysis and tailor for you a personalized treatment regime to meet your specific skin needs.