How Air Pollution Causes Premature Ageing of Your Skin

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I’m sure you’re aware of the damage air pollution does to your lungs. But you might be surprised to learn that it’s just as devastating to your skin. Prolonged inhalation of particulate matter, nitrous oxide, ozone, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) cut years off your life but also add years to your skin – and worsen conditions like eczema, dermatitis, and acne.

Air pollution is rampant in almost every country in the world. Coal enabled the first industrial revolution but has also sparked over a century of lung-related illnesses and skin conditions, especially for the young and elderly. Today, air pollution cuts an average 2.2 years off life expectancy across the globe, and many air pollutants increase the risk of skin cancer.

If this has you worried, it should. The electric revolution is only just underway and it’ll be years before air pollution in densely crowded urban areas falls to benign levels. But there’s hope: The first step to solving any problem is understanding it, and this article will familiarize you with the effect of air pollution on your skin and how to protect against it.

Let’s Meet the Nasties

Particulate Matter

If you’ve ever seen a hazy, reddish tint to the horizon at dawn or dusk, you’ve seen the effect of particulate matter. These tiny particles of soot, dust, and pollutants reflect longer wavelengths of light, causing a hazy glow that’s either yellowish or red depending on the time of day. The effect on your skin and lungs, however, is much worse.

At sizes of a few microns across, particulate matter causes immense damage to your skin and lungs. Anything below PM2.5 (which measures 2.5 microns across), may produce a build-up of free radicals that leads to premature ageing and pigmentation. It’s ubiquitous, too, with vehicles, factories, and power plants contributing a huge share.

Worse, particulate matter is also a source of ​​Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), which bind to particulate matter and can cause skin ageing. Since PAHs are produced when you burn any organic material at all, they’re a serious risk to those living near wood-burning facilities, power plants, or busy highways where diesel-powered trucks regularly roll by.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

If you smoke, or have hung around someone who does, or even repainted your walls, you’ve been exposed to volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They’re almost impossible to avoid since they’re produced in everything from car exhausts to industrial facilities. Not satisfied with being nasty on their own, they combine with other nasties like nitrogen oxides (NOx) to form O3 (ozone).

O3 might sound innocuous (our planet’s ozone layer protects us from the worst of the sun’s radiation, for example), but at high concentrations at ground level, can do untold harm to your skin (skip to the ozone section for more info). VOCs have also been linked with an increased level of cytokines, which can irritate eczema and other skin conditions.

Without ozone (O3), life couldn’t exist on Earth. It acts as a UV radiation barrier in the stratosphere without which all life would wither away and die. But while it acts to protect our DNA from the disruption of solar radiation in the atmosphere, at ground level, it wreaks havoc on your skin, causing a loss of antioxidants and weakening the dermis.

But where does it come from? As you read above, high concentrations of ozone at ground level are primarily the result of the interaction between NOx and VOCs. Combined with UV radiation, ozone can cause severe stress on skin and even produce inflammation. Like that drunk friend at a high school reunion, its effects are worsened in the presence of other pollutants.


If air pollution was a horror movie, oxides would be the crazy family living out in the woods. Although related, each oxide attacks your skin in a slightly different way. NOx, for example, oxidizes amino acids while carbon monoxide (CO) interferes with the metabolism of your cells. The result is the same: steady, incremental skin damage over time.

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is especially nasty – attacking the skin and mucous membranes, causing irritation, swelling, and redness. Even mild exposure to SO2 can trigger adverse reactions in your skin, and unfortunately, is a relatively common product of power generation and other industrial processes.

How to Combat Air Pollution for Healthier-Looking Skin

Now you know what you’re fighting, you can prepare your defense. Air pollution might be ubiquitous – and a scourge for city-dwellers everywhere – but you needn’t shut yourself inside with only an air purifier for company. You can roam as freely as if you lived in the Swiss mountains with the proper precautions, so here are some tips.

Stay Inside When Air Pollution is High

The first and perhaps most obvious solution is to stay inside when air pollution is at its highest. You’ll find plenty of air pollution tracking apps available to download, covering most if not all of the major cities in your country. A quick check will let you know just how bad things are and you can then prepare accordingly or just avoid going out at all that day.

Apply a Serum and Moisturizer

If you do decide to go out, protect your skin with a moisturizer. This forms a barrier between your skin and the air while also boosting your skin’s natural defences. You could also apply extra protection, such as our Skin Protecting Anti Pollution Serum, which will work beneath your moisturizer to nourish your skin throughout the day.

Cleanse When You Return Home

Even with a serum and moisturizer, air pollutants will eventually penetrate your skin the longer you’re exposed to them so cleanse as soon as you return home. Use something kind such as our Gentle Cleansing Foam since your skin might already have suffered a little and you don’t want to exacerbate things with harsh chemicals or artificial fragrances.

Keep a Consistent Skincare Routine

Yes, I know life can leave little time for self care, but you only get one body and you must take care of it if you want it to take care of you. Try different skincare routines until you find one that works (we wrote about our favorite one here) and fits in your schedule. Stick to it no matter what happens and your skin will not only have consistent protection against air pollution, but have time to heal and repair from its effects.

Love nature, love skin, love you.

Daniela Korenc | Founder and CEO