How Air Pollution Affects Your Skin

how pollution affects skin

There are legions of factors on our planet that contribute to our skin ageing more quickly due to damage. The skin is an organ® (I do actually have that registered, thieves beware!) and in this, it is susceptible to degradation and being compromised on different levels. We know that the sun (UV rays) causes damage to our skin year round and we definitely have heard of pollution-related skin damage… but what are the actual facts? How in the name of nerd does pollution affect our skin?

Well, my friend, that’s what I’m talking about today: air pollution and the effects it has on the skin. Currently, in Ireland, we are within the EU’s limits for air pollution but our levels of particulate matter (small particles found in the atmosphere, in this case, in the air) are worrying and nitrogen dioxide levels are on the rise in our cities and large towns, as per the Environmental Protection Agency [i].

London reached their annual limit for air pollution one month into 2018 [ii]. Yikes, Londoners, I hope you’re slathering yourselves in antioxidants galore (more on this later).

how pollution affects skin

The phrase “air pollutants” is a little vague but it would be incredibly boring to list and explain each type of air pollutant. Under the umbrella term “air pollutants”, we find gases, particulate matter (the tiny particles mentioned earlier), heavy metals and traffic/toxic pollutants. Does that sound bad? It should sound bad.

We are being exposed to these pollutants every day. Of course, levels vary, but even if you’re living on a tiny farm in the middle of nowhere, people still smoke, drive cars and burn fossil fuels in your area. All of these things are pollutant producers.

How does pollution affect the skin

What we do know: pollutants have negative effects on our skin, specifically with regard to its immunity, with the overproduction of pigment (age spots/sun spots), the function of the stratum corneum or our protective uppermost layer of skin and inflammation.

What we don’t know: exactly why this happens. However, in one study [iii], some possible causes were theorised.

Pollutants cause an increase in free radicals which cause cellular damage to the skin.

First of all, what is a free radical? It’s simply an atom or molecule with an unpaired electron. This electron HATES being single and so runs around like a headless chicken trying to pair itself up so it can settle down (aka stabilise). This electron will do anything for another electron, so it steals one from a nearby (stable) cell, thus destabilising it and setting off a chain reaction. Has that put Diana Ross in your head? This stresses the skin and damages cellular DNA, fat cells and proteins – no, not our collagen and elastin, anything but our collagen and elastin!!

Hang on… why doesn’t our skin do anything about this? Well, it does. Antioxidants are the natural predator to free radicals in a sense and our skin does make them but they can be depleted. Pollutants, specifically ozone in this instance, deplete naturally-occurring antioxidants (such as vitamin C & vitamin E) within the skin whilst increasing the amount of free radicals so it’s a bit of a landslide effect

Our skin’s friendly bacteria is altered by pollutants

Our skin has it’s very own microbiome made up of different bacteria that help it work like a well-run factory. When they’re properly balanced, these bacteria are good, friendly bacteria, not scary bacteria.

When this microbiome is off-balance, sometimes you’ll see acne, rosacea, redness or eczema or other skin concerns. You’re not going to like this next bit: in a study, ozone, a major air pollutant, reduced human microflora up to 50%. If you’re a city-dweller (a Londoner, perhaps), this may explain something about your skin!

Pollutants trigger inflammation in the skin, impairing our skin’s protective barrier

The purpose of our skin’s barrier is to keep the bad out of our skin and the good in so how ironic is it that the very thing it’s trying to protect us from is damaging it?! Impaired barrier function can mean dehydrated skin as our skin’s moisture can escape and exacerbation of conditions and concerns like eczema, psoriasis and rosacea.  Inflamed skin is red, itchy and can be flaky.

Some other things to note about how the skin is affected by pollution…

  • In one study on women between 70-80, deep wrinkles and pigmentation (age spots/sun spots) were much more likely in those who lived in air-polluted urban areas
  • There is a known correlation between particle pollution and pigment

Are you afraid of pollution now? Yep, thought so. Don’t fret – there are things you can do – yippee! We are looking for topical antioxidants [iv].Will any topical antioxidant product do? Unfortunately, no. It needs to be able to penetrate into the skin and be optimised for the skin aka it needs to be a high-quality antioxidant product.

Book in for your first consultation with our team of expert Nerdettes and we will guide you on how best to protect yourself from pollution – all your pollution protectors will be shipped directly to your door too!

how pollution affects your skin

How to protect the skin from pollution

Which specific antioxidants?

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E (vitamin E actually scavenges for free radicals

When vitamin C & E join forces, they are more powerful!

how pollution affects skin

IMAGE’s Vital C Hydrating Antioxidant A C E Serum (€72.50, stocked on The Skin Nerd store) contains vitamins A, C & E (it’s in the name, folks) as well as green tea extract (camellia sinensis) and hyaluronic acid. It’s a protective cocktail for the skin and it’s full of peptides too.

how pollution affects skin

On the more affordable side of things, we have Avène’s A-Oxitive Antioxidant Defense Serum (€31.50, stocked in Boots and other pharmacies nationwide), which contains the precursor to vitamin E and ascorbyl glucoside (a form of vitamin C) as well as hyaluronic acid to plump up the skin.

Camellia Sinensis/EGCG/Green tea polyphenols

how pollution affects skinCamellia sinensis is found in Dermalogica’s cult Daily Superfoliant (€72.00), as well as a host of other antioxidants as well as mild exfoliants. It is the activated charcoal in the formula that makes it stand out, as it helps to absorb pollution particles after a long day of exposure. It’s recommended as a post-cleanser but because it’s a powder, it can be added in to your cleanser to superboost it if you value efficiency like moiself.


how pollution affects skin

Grapeseed oil is a highly potent antioxidant that helps to make up Urban Veda’s Purifying Facial Oil (€39.99, stocked on The Skin Nerd store). I adore how Urban Veda are a natural skincare brand that work with ingredients that can help to protect and correct the skin rather than simply soothe and moisturise it.

This facial oil contains many other antioxidants too, such as moringa, neem and gotu kola (otherwise known as centella asiatica), an incredibly healing plant with antioxidant properties.

Coenzyme Q10

YonKa’s Vital Defense (€49.50, stocked nationwide) is a daily cream that contains coenzyme Q10 (aka ubiquinol/ubiquinone) as well as vitamin E & C and moringa peptides. It’s a tonic for the skin that shields it whilst hydrating it and it’s perfect for someone who can’t live without something a bit creamier in their skincare routine.


Resveratrol is considered to be one of the most powerful of the topical antioxidants. It’s the mack daddy, in a sense. The optimal amount of resveratrol is 1% of it but you want it to be pure and stable too – there’s no point in paying for something with a potent antioxidant if it’s not getting into the skin or if it’s wrecked upon contact with air.

how pollution affects skin

Caudalíe’s Resveratrol [Lift] Face Lifting Moisturiser Broad Spectrum SPf 20 (€42.00, coming to The Skin Nerd store very soon) contains vine resveratrol – they are inspired by vineyards, after all – as well as hyaluronic acid to plump and hydrate the skin. It’s ideal as an additional boost of SPF!

Sometimes, you want a protective product that you can top up. This is where Académié Scientifique De Beauté’s Stop Pollution Anti-Pollution Mist (€30.70, stocked in salons nationwide) comes in.

how pollution affects the skin

This creates a more physical shield across the skin containing their secret anti-pollution active ingredient. It also contains ingredients that stop transepidermal water loss (moisture leaking from the skin due to impaired barrier function) and bind hydration to the skin. It can be used over the whole body and to protect the scalp and hair.

It also doubles as a makeup setter but it’s not sticky like you’d imagine and you can pop it in your handbag for top ups.

 The nerdie recap on how pollution affects the skin

  • Air pollutants such as ozone and tiny particles can…
    • Cause our skin to age faster
    • Destroy our skin’s balance of microflora
    • Exacerbate inflammatory skin conditions like eczema
    • Trigger inflammation in the skin
    • Contribute towards pigmentation
  • You don’t just find air pollution in cities, people drive, people smoke
  • We need topical antioxidants to boost our skin’s own reservoir of them and pollution protectors to keep the baddies out

Do you want access to a one-stop online shop for IMAGE Skincare, Skinceuticals, YonKa, Urban Veda and Dermalogica (as well as Environ, REN and Pestle & Mortar)? Join us now!

how pollution affects your skin


[i] Information on Irish air pollution – Environmental Protection Agency Ireland, <>

[ii] London’s air pollution – The Guardian, 30 Jan 2018.<>

[iii] Mancebo, SE, and SQ Wang. “Recognizing the Impact of Ambient Air Pollution on Skin Health.” Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology : JEADV 29.12 (2015): 2326–2332. PMC. Web. 1 Aug. 2018.

[iv] Poljšak, Borut, and Rok Fink. “The Protective Role of Antioxidants in the Defence against ROS/RNS-Mediated Environmental Pollution.” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity 2014 (2014): 671539. PMC. Web. 1 Aug. 2018.