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The Effects Of Air Pollution On Our Skin
By Dr. Derrick Adams
It is common knowledge that excessive exposure to the sun will age your skin. Dermatologists use the term “photoaging” to refer to the havoc sunlight wreacks upon us. Now a German scientist has identified another enemy in our efforts to hold back time: air pollution.
For decades air pollution has been known to contribute to heart and lung diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) names air pollution “the largest single environmental health risk.” It is estimated 90% of all worldwide city dwellers are exposed to automobile fumes exceeding WHO guidelines for air quality. Researchers had not given much thought to the possibility that the body’s largest organ could suffer as well.
It makes sense that air pollution should cause skin aging given that our skin is our interface with everything around us. But it took the elegant study designs of Professor Jean Krutman at the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Germany to prove the theory.
“It is very clear that PMs (particulate matter aka air pollution) are a problem for the skin,” said Dr. Krutman. But he is just getting started unraveling the complexity of the issues. “I think air pollution has the potential to keep us busy for the next few decades”.
His studies ranged from subjects in Germany to China. He recognized that Asians traditionally do not seek out tanning like Caucasians do, yet they often have just as many blotchy dark spots on the face. He knew there had to be another reason and suspected it was the heavy air pollution in many Asian cities. When the data was in, he observed that not only does air pollution cause dark spots but even minute worsening of the air spawns a disproportionate amount of dark spots. Dr. Krutman is promoting the idea that air pollution is the “major driver” for dark spots on the skin.
He was also able to demonstrate that women living closer to congested streets had statistically demonstrable more dark spots on their faces than women living a few blocks further away. Real estate agents take note!
Dr. Krutman also found that cooking indoors using solid fuels and exposure to chronic soot was associated with a 75% increase in wrinkling of the back of the hands as well as facial aging. And it appears that different compounds wreck the skin in different ways. In addition to the dark spots, air pollution will degrade collagen, spawn wrinkles, and cause shallow blood vessels to spider web out right under the skin. Air pollution has even been shown to worsen hives, acne, and eczema.
So what can you do? I recommend people stop scrubbing their skin for starters. Scrubbing seems to be irrevocably baked into our culture and likely is the result of advertising campaigns forty years ago. The same goes for astringents or alcohol based toners that leave your skin feeling tight and crispy. Both of these destroy the barrier function of your skin by creating microscopic tears that let in bacteria. Now we realize it gives air pollution a free pass as well.
Companies are working overtime to find compounds that block air pollution. Someday soon your sunscreen will have added molecules to protect your skin from air pollution. Perhaps it will no longer be sunscreen but environmental screen? And how safe will these compounds really be? As we see with so many well intentioned efforts in medicine, there are very few biological free lunches.
Make no mistake: the sun still causes premature aging, dark spots, and skin cancer. You should take steps to mitigate these risks. Dr. Krutman’s research is another fascinating piece of the puzzle.
If we can protect ourselves from the sun and continue to enjoy our pure North State air, we can all look forward to avoiding premature aging. Oh, and stay off the cigarettes and methamphetamine as well if you want to do your utmost.