how the environment is ruining our skin

It is just about a month ago since the People’s Climate March wound its way through New York City. I was proud to be one of the hundreds of thousands who were part of, as The New York Times put it, a “spectacle even for a city known for doing things big.” A couple of teenage girls made a simple but powerful statement by wearing dust masks as they marched. I think of these girls as I worry about increasing pollution levels and what they are doing to the planet. To bring it back to Truth In Aging, I also worry about the direct effect on us and our skin, which is the largest of our body’s organs.

Due to air pollution in the city, ozone quickly strips our skin of vitamin E, which is responsible for keeping our skin healthy. Pollution leads to various types of skin disorders. For example, dust can encourage or exacerbate eczema. Climate change will also have direct consequences leading to an increase in skin cancer, according to a paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Significantly for us wrinkle warriors, air pollution can be a main cause of premature aging of our skin.

I am particularly curious about how air pollution ages us, and I have been doing some digging around. So, here’s the dirt. It seems that it has to do with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and scientists are only just coming to an understanding of them.

According to Zoe Draelos, MD, consulting professor of dermatology at Duke University, most dermatologists stop at sunscreen when they think about protecting the skin from environmental damage. But Draelos said, in an article in Dermatology Times that nanoparticles in the air from pollution “operate through the creation of reactive oxygen species, resulting in the premature aging of the skin.”

Bound to those nanoparticles are the aforementioned PACs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which come from oil, coal and tar deposit. As they hitch a ride on pollutant nanoparticles, they change into fiendish things called quinones. And guess what produces premature age-inducing reactive oxygen species? Yep, quinones.

Of course, we city dwellers are more exposed to these effects than those in pristine rural environments. Studies have shown that city slickers have depleted levels of squalene in facial sebum and decreased vitamin E levels.

Although the effects of smoking and sunlight on skin are well understood and studied, pollution and premature aging is in its scientific infancy. This is changing, and there are some interesting bodies of research such as a study from 2010 that controlled for sunbeds, smoking and anything else that might cause skin damage. It concluded that those exposed to “airborne particles” had signs of aging with a larger number of “lentigines” (age spots, to you and me). It seems that PACs are responsible for hyperpigmentation as they bind to receptors found in keraticocytes and melanocytes, thereby increasing melanin.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. Ground-level ozone decreased 25% in 2012 from its 1980 level, and PM 2.5 (teensy airborne particles) fell by 33% in 2012 from its 2000 level, says the Environmental Protection Agency. And we can all do our bit, however small, to clean up our acts restrict our own use of pollutants.

In the meantime, there are some ways to protect your skin. Cleansing is essential and Clarisonic (maker of a facial cleansing brush) found a way of jumping on the bandwagon by sponsoring a study earlier this year that concluded that air pollution ages the skin. Cleansing is certainly important as a gentle, detoxifying cleanser will help remove nanoparticles.

Ensuring that your skincare regimen includes antioxidants is vital. Antioxidants are molecules that can safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before vital molecules are damaged. Antioxidants essentially act as electron donors, replacing those stolen by free radicals. There is growing evidence that antioxidant supplements may do more harm than good, but antioxidant-rich foods (basically fruit, vegetables and legumes) along with regular exercise help prevent free-radical damage (source). Topical antioxidants have been shown by research to mitigate the effects of UV-induced free-radical damage, making them an important sunscreen booster. If nothing else, get started with a good, basic vitamin C and E serum.

Finally, keep melanin production regulated by actives that focus on inhibiting tyrosinase (the the essential enzyme in the formation of melanin). These include decapeptide-12, SymWhite 377, arbutin, glabridin (licorice extract) and are often to be found in brightening serums.

Marta Wohrle is an anti-aging skin care and beauty expert and the founder/CEO of Truth In Aging. Marta is dedicated to uncovering the truth behind anti-aging product claims.