Environment, Health Impact, News, Protect Yourself

How Air Pollution Can Damage Your Skin

10 · Apr · 2021

By Jenny Han Simon

Your skin is already vulnerable and sensitive as it is to weather exposure, Ultraviolet (UV) rays, radiation, etc. While the effects of air pollution on other aspects of human health, such as the cardiovascular, respiratory, and nervous systems, take centerstage in highlighting the detrimental effects of air pollution on human health, its effects on the skin often take a backseat. The skin is actually the largest organ of the human body, and it acts as one of your body’s first barriers of defense against foreign substances. Air pollution has been associated with the following dermatological conditions: atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis or acne, and even skin cancer. 

Some of the most common pollutants in the air include Particulate Matter (PM), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), oxides, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), and, of course, cigarette smoke. Information about each pollutant will be discussed in greater detail as this article progresses; however, it is important to first understand the basics of your skin and how pollutants can damage it. 

The Layers of Your Skin

Stylized depiction of the layers of the skin
Stylized depiction of the layers of the skin

There are two main layers of your skin—the epidermis and dermis. The epidermis is made up of four to five separate layers, though it functions primarily as one of your body’s first lines of defense against external substances. It helps to combat infection from pathogens, regulate the entry and release of water from your body, and acts as a mechanical barrier against physical impact (ie. what we see as a cut or scrape is only possible because of our skin; otherwise, the trauma to the body would be much more severe). 

The dermis sits under the epidermis, and it contains structures such as hair follicles, sweat glands, lymphatic vessels, oil-secreting glands, nerve endings, and blood vessels. The dermis helps provide support and protection for the skin via collagen and is responsible for the body’s inflammatory response to prevent infection and injury. Collagen helps to anchor your skin and add flexibility, and the underlying vascular system. Additionally, the dermis helps regulate body temperature and allows us to perceive sensation via nerve endings present in the dermis.

How Air Pollution Enters Your Skin

So, how exactly do pollutants in the air enter the skin and cause havoc? The answer to this lies within a few microscopic physical and biochemical reactions from air pollutants, UV radiation, and the biological features of your body and skin. 

The two most common pathways for air pollutants to enter your skin are through processes known as transepidermal transport and via-pore transport. Both penetrate the stratum corneum, which is the first layer of the epidermis—the topmost layer of your skin. In transepidermal transport, pollutants enter your skin through either transcellular transport—through the stratum corneum itself—or through intracellular transport—through the movement inside the cells of the skin. Via-pore transport involves air pollutants entering the skin through oil glands—intraglandular transport—or hair follicles—intrafollicular transport. 

Direct contact with an irritant can cause your skin to have an immunological reaction. The result is typically inflammation of the skin, with severity depending on the toxicity of the foreign substance, your skin’s sensitivity, and other environmental factors. While air pollutants may certainly yield symptoms of contact dermatitis, the toll air pollution plays on your skin often happens more deeply within your skin via transepidermal and via-pore transport. 

Different Types of Air Pollutants

Take a look at the table below to get familiar with different types of air pollutants and their sources:

Air pollutant class Name
Potential sources of pollutants
Gaseous Carbon monoxide Fossil‐fuel combustion, vehicle emission
Nitrogen dioxide Fuel combustion, wood burning, vehicle emissions, waste incineration
Ozone Formed by interaction of VOCs and NOx compounds upon UV‐photoactivation
Sulphur dioxide Fuel combustion, vehicle emissions, maritime transport, electric utilities, industrial facilities, volcanoes
Heavy metals Lead Metal refineries, battery manufacturing, waste incineration, industrial facilities, leaded fuel, lead‐based paint, plumbing material
Cadmium Battery manufacturing, aircraft industry, television manufacturing
Nickel Casting, welding, battery manufacture
Arsenic Battery manufacture, minerals
Particulate matter (PM) Coarse PM10 (2.5–10 μm) Road dust, unpaved roads, forest fires, waste degradation including electronic waste, cooking processes
Fine PM2.5 (<2.5 μm) Fossil‐fuel combustion, industrial facilities, maritime transport, biomass burning, waste incineration, cooking
Ultrafine PM0.1 (<0.1 μm) Vehicle emission, industrial facilities
Persistent organic compounds Dioxins, dioxin‐like polychlorinated biphenyls Herbicides, pesticides, industrial processes, forest fires, volcanic eruptions
Polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) Examples: acenaphthene, acenaphthylene, anthracene, benz[a]anthracene, benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P), benzo[b]fluoranthene, benzo[k]fluoranthene, benzo[g,h,i]perylene, chrysene, dibenz[a,h]anthracene, fluoranthene, fluorene, indenol [1,2,3‐c,d]pyrene (I[cd]P), naphthalene, phenanthrene, pyrene Incomplete combustion of organic material such as biomass and garbage, vehicle emissions, fumes from asphalt roads, cigarette smoke, forest fires, volcanic eruptions and grilled or charred meats
Semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs) Examples: Butylated hydroxytoluene, diethyl phthalate, geranyl acetone, nicotine (in free‐base form), parabens Solvents, fragrances, bactericides, antimicrobial agents, flooring, furniture
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) Examples: Acetaldehyde, dimethylformamide, formaldehyde, hexane, styrene, toluene, xylene Fuel combustion, aircraft emission, household products, chemical solvents, paints, varnishes, cigarette smoke


The table above was taken from Araviiskaia E, Berardesca E, Bieber T, et al. (2019) “The Impact of Airborne Pollution on Skin” (table 1)

The Effects of Air Pollutants on the Skin

Air pollution can wreak havoc on your skin, leading to premature aging, inflammatory conditions, acne and other cosmetic ailments, and even skin cancer. For example, Particulate Matter (PM) is considered extremely harmful to the skin due to its physical properties that cause oxidative stress in the skin. Oxidative stress damages the skin at the cellular level, harming structures such as lipids, proteins, and DNA, leading to tissue damage. This can lead to external signs of aging of the skin: pigment spots, nasolabial folds, and wrinkles. An experiment in China analyzed the impact of indoor pollution, analyzing the effect of solid cooking fuel. The analysis found that the use of solid cooking fuel increased the likelihood of facial wrinkles and those on the back of the hands.

Many studies also suggest a correlation between air pollutants and acne and atopic dermatitis [5, 6]. Pollutants such as PM, PAHs, and oxides can lead to an increase in sebum production and its byproduct—acne. The body responds to air pollutants as it does to a majority of other foreign substances—inflammation. Inflammation is the body’s response Some studies even suggest that air pollution can have a long-term effect on our genes, leading to epigenetic influences—changes in one’s DNA that occur throughout life change—leaving us more vulnerable to atopic dermatitis flares and other conditions.

Furthermore, the effects of air pollutants are often exacerbated by their interaction with UV radiation and other pollutants. Ozone occurs naturally within our atmosphere and stratosphere but can also be generated through chemical plants, gasoline pumps, car shops, and more. Ozone can kill antioxidants in your skin, such as vitamins E and C, leading to damage to the outer layer of your skin and structures such as collagen. This accelerates the aging process, thereby reducing your skin’s protective function. 

The possibility of skin cancer must not be overlooked in the discussion on air pollution and its effects on the skin. Cancer is the rapid and uncontrollable division of cells in which old cells do not die but turn into a mass of tissue, known as a tumor. Air pollutants can affect the body on the cellular level, killing cellular structures and changing how they operate. This can manifest in the increased likelihood of all types of cancer. The cancerous effects of air pollutants can be further increased due to the presence of UV rays and other air pollutants. The correlation between PAHs and cancer is one of the strongest. The structure of large PM, such as PM10, allows for other pollutants like PAH to bond to its surface, which increases the risk of exposure to both pollutants and the likelihood of developing a medical condition or disease. All pollutants can damage your cells’ DNA, leading to the possibility of the development of cancerous cells. 

How to Protect Your Skin From Air Pollution

While the ultimate solution to minimizing the risk and harm of exposure to air pollutants is to stop air pollution at the source, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself and those around you as we fight to eradicate air pollution permanently: 

  • Try to limit your exposure to air pollution
  • Wear a mask outdoors and use air filters indoors to keep from inhaling air pollutants  
  • Eat healthy foods rich in antioxidants in order to relieve and protect against oxidative stress 
  • Find skin care products that contain vitamins C and E, which help to protect your skin and fight against aging 
  • Wear sunscreen in order to protect your skin from UV rays 
  • Wash your face consistently in order to remove surface-level air pollutants 
  • Drink plenty of water and keep your skin moisturized in order to optimize the top layer of your skin as a barrier from pollutants


Edited by Amarjargal Dagvadorj

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