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What Pollution Could Be Doing To Your Skin

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Pollution hasn’t just been linked to climate change, it’s thought to wreak havoc on your skin too. Here’s how to protect yourself.

It’s a reality of modern life that we have to live with pollution. It’s causing our global climate to change rapidly and those of us who live in cities see it coat our windows, rise like smoke from freeways, and maybe even obscure the sun (I’m looking at you Beijing). Even people who live idyllic rural lifestyles have to deal with pollution thanks to weather patterns blowing it in from other places, machinery, and chemical runoff.

Pollution is a complex issue with thousands of implications, but we’re here to talk about your skin. Did you know pollution is messing with your skin, too? It is, and it’s hard to avoid.

The implications of pollution on your skin are multifaceted. At the most basic, physical pollution particles from dirt, heavy metals, and smoke can deposit on your skin, clogging pores and generally making things worse. Even though these particles usually aren’t tiny enough to penetrate your skin, they can disrupt your skin barrier and make the skin beneath more susceptible to the damage from the sun’s UV rays.

It goes deeper than that too. Pollution causes the creation of things called free radicals, which are teeny tiny molecules missing an electron. They’re constantly on the hunt to steal electrons from other cells like little thieves. One of the places they commonly steal from is your skin cells because, well, they’re super tiny and can get down below your surface.

Our bodies use natural defenses against free radicals: antioxidants. They exist to help prevent the free radicals from stealing the electrons our body’s cells need to function. But when there’s too much pollution and not enough antioxidants, things get out of whack and become what’s called oxidative stress. In skin terms, free radical damage has been especially linked to premature aging.

But before you run out and get a paranoia-spurred skincare regimen, you might not need to. “We are appreciating that pollution has a role in affecting how we age and in various skin conditions, but it really comes down to using ingredients we’d recommend anyway,” says dermatologist Jennifer Chwalek, MD. “It’s all about antioxidants.”

See, antioxidants have been recommended by dermatologists for almost as long as dermatology has been around. You may even already be using a product that contains them. “Vitamins C and E are big ones,” says Dr. Chwalek. “Coenzyme Q10 and Green Tea Extract are good too.” All of these are common in all types of skincare products and chances are you’re using antioxidants already without realizing it.

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If you’re not, getting a moisturizer that contains Vitamin C is the first step, but it doesn’t end there. “It’s important that you clean your skin really well, every day, to get all the dirt and grime off your face,” says Dr. Chwalek, “especially if you live in an urban area.” She also recommends eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables since our bodies get most of our antioxidants from food. Topical skincare products should be boosters, not the be-all-end-all of our antioxidant supply.

And, most importantly, Dr. Chwalek advises to wear daily sunscreen. Not only because a pollution-ravaged skin barrier is more susceptible to sun damage, but because most of the free radical damage our skin endures is from UV rays. A daily sunscreen is your best defense and bonus points if it has antioxidants added as well.

As for the increased number of anti-pollution (antioxidant-rich) products hitting the market, as long as you’re already supplying your skin with antioxidants you may not need them. “It’s good to be aware of pollution,” says Dr. Chwalek, “but it doesn’t necessarily change our recommendations in terms of products.” That’s not to say these specific anti-pollution products don’t work - more antioxidants can’t hurt, really, when we’re talking about free radicals. Think of it this way: if you’re washing your face and using sunscreen every day, an anti-pollution product is just an added layer of protection. And who doesn’t need that