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Ask A Dermatologist: Pollution Defence and Protective Skincare

The fact that pollution negatively affects our health is hardly breaking news. But it’s not just our lungs that are at risk – spare a thought for the body’s largest organ, the skin.

City-dwellers are at the highest risk. Step outside your home and your skin is exposed to traffic exhaust emissions such as nitrogen dioxide and microparticles of particulate matter. If you live up a mountain, you might dodge the bus route but you’ll still have ultraviolet radiation (UV) from the sun to deal with – not technically a pollutant but an environmental skin stressor all the same.

Skin is porous enough to be vulnerable to external aggravators such as chemicals in the atmosphere and microparticles in the air. Ultraviolet radiation doesn’t penetrate the skin in the same way, but it can trigger a damaging chemical reaction that damages the DNA of skin cells leading to inflammation, pigmentation and higher levels of skin ageing.

What can we do to protect ourselves? Wearing SPF of at least factor 30 every day is an obvious win here. In addition, there’s a growing trend for anti-pollution and defensive skincare products. 

We ask our Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Malvina Cunningham, more about how pollution affects the skin, what we can do to protect ourselves and how to negate the signs of pollution damage.

Skin + Me: How can pollution affect your skin?

Dr Malvina Cunningham: Pollution is a global epidemic that has a huge impact on global health.

The skin is our most extensive sensory organ. It protects us and has many vital functions. It’s also the most exposed to the environment and directly susceptible to the impact of pollution. 

Outdoor stressors and pollution can have a direct impact on the physiology of our skin – mainly ageing.

We all have a natural intrinsic ageing process that is genetic and inevitable but there are many extrinsic factors – essentially our lifestyle – that play a big part in our ageing process. Our lifestyle can accelerate skin-ageing through high UV exposure and factors such as high pollution, smoking, poor nutrition and stress

There are two forms of pollution. One is UV pollution and the other is ozone pollution. UV penetrates all layers of the skin depending on the type of UV and induces inflammation and wrinkle formation.

Pollution doesn’t penetrate the skin but it increases oxidative stress and decreases antioxidant defence. In turn, this leads to an impaired skin barrier, damage and inflammation which can trigger acne flare-ups and inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema. 

Pollution can also increase sebum production and protein oxidation contributing to skin barrier dysfunction. This can lead to a number of concerns from acne breakouts to dry, sensitive skin.

Skin + Me: How can you protect your skin from pollution?

Dr Malvina Cunningham: We can’t avoid pollution but we can have strategies to help protect our skin against the effects of pollution and premature ageing. These include:

+ Protect your skin from UV damage by wearing sunscreen daily. Use a broad spectrum of at least SPF 30

+ Take a holistic approach by protecting your skin from other external stressors such as smoking and stress, eat a healthy diet for antioxidant effects. 

+ Use powerful antioxidant skincare such as vitamin C containing products which are generally well tolerated and best used in the morning underneath your sunscreen.

+ Keep your skin and barrier healthy by using gentle skincare that doesn’t damage the skin barrier but replenishes it through ingredients such as glycerine, shea butter, squalene, niacinamide, and urea.

+ Replenish proteins that can be lost through the ageing process, such as collagen – our skin’s main building block–  by using repairing ingredients such as retinoids like tretinoin

Best products to negate signs of pollution damage

A note here that all skincare is anti-pollution in the sense that the best line of defence is regular, gentle cleansing and keeping your skin barrier healthy and protected. 

The takeaway

Be pollution-savvy. We’re talking SPF 30+ and covering up more when out in strong sunlight.

Protect your skin against free radicals by using antioxidants like vitamin C or vitamin E as part of your morning routine. They’ll help defend against damage to skin cells.

Sense-check your cleansing and moisturising routine. Keep it gentle, simple and effective. Be consistent. Keeping your skin barrier healthy will bolster your skin’s defence for a healthy outlook, now and in the future.

Medical facts checked by Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Malvina Cunningham 

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