Here's how pollution affects your skin—and how to prevent it
Plus products to avoid skin damage
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
We know how air pollution negatively impacts the environment, but a lesser known fact is how it affects your skin. From breakouts and premature aging to inflammation and irritation, some argue that protecting our skin from the harmful effects of air pollution is just as important as shielding it from UV rays. And—not to alarm you—but depending on your city's level of pollution, you may be more susceptible to those damaging effects.
Here's how you can tailor your beauty routine to protect against and even reverse the effects of pollution, courtesy of Dr. Purvisha Patel, a Tennessee-based dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare.
What is air pollution?
Air pollution refers to smog as well as floating particles (a.k.a. particulate matter) present in the environment. It can come from things like cigarette smoke, fires, chemical reactions in the atmosphere, car exhausts, metal, and plain old dust. These substances are harmful to human health because they distribute cell-damaging chemicals such as sulfur and carbon dioxide into the air we breathe. Some types of fine particulate matter, like dust and pollen, have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres (referred to as PM2.5), which is significantly smaller than the size of skin pores. This makes it easy for these floating particles to seep into your skin and cause conditions.
How does pollution affect your skin?
One factor to be mindful of when it comes to pollution is how it makes your skin more susceptible to sun damage. "The diminishing ozone layer increases the amount of UV radiation we absorb from the sun, which increases our risk of skin cancer and photo damage," Patel explains.
Acne is another issue that can arise as a result of dirt-laden air. "A hot, sweaty, dusty climate can increase sweat production and follicular occlusion (a.k.a. blocked hair follicles), which can worsen acne," says Patel. Pollutants in the air can also exacerbate inflammation for those who have melasma (a mask-like hyperpigmentation that shows up as brown blotches typically on the cheeks) or rosacea (an inflammatory condition that causes redness, inflammation, and visible blood vessels on the face).
Pollution can also increase free-radical damage to the skin. "Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules that have an uneven number of electrons, making them charged particles that can cause DNA damage," Patel explains. "When DNA is damaged, weaker cells are formed and [can] result in skin sagging and aging." While city dwellers are more likely to have a higher exposure to free radicals, damage can still occur in non-urban areas.
Finally, those with dry or sensitive skin are more likely than those with oily or combination skin to experience the damaging effects of pollution, says Patel. Here's why: Skin has what's called a skin barrier, which is a protective layer designed to both trap moisture and offer protection from environmental damage. Patel notes that people with dry or sensitive skin types have a thinner skin barrier, giving pollutants an express ticket to the skin.
How to protect your skin from pollution
Particulate matter, such as dirt and soot, can create a film on top of the skin and cause physical irritation and inflammation, but unless you recently moved to an area with more pollution and noticed a definite skin change, Patel says it may be difficult to know if air impurities caused your breakouts or irritation. To be safe—and as a good rule of thumb—she recommends washing your face twice a day, once in the morning and once at night, to remove these pollutants and keep breakouts at bay. "Preventing environmental acne is best done by using cleansers that cleanse and exfoliate the skin,” she says. “This prevents follicular occlusion, decreases oil production, kills any bacterial or fungal growth, and decreases inflammation."
Also, aim for non-comedogenic skincare products (products that won't block your pores), as those containing ingredients like coconut oil and cocoa butter rank high on the comedogenic scale. Using such ingredients in an environment that is hot and dusty can cause the dust and pollution to stick on the skin, thus increasing acne.
If you live in a cold climate, air quality can still be hazardous to your skin, as pollutants caused by wood burning and idle car exhausts are still lingering—not to mention the cracked, red, tightened skin that comes with low humidity when temps drop. In this case, incorporating ingredients like ceramides is key, as they'll help fortify the skin barrier and stave off irritation and dryness caused by elements.
Certain ingredients that may be "anti-pollution" also include antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, and E, which help with combating free radical damage; niacinamide and hyaluronic acid, which help repair the skin barrier; and charcoal and salt, which help with drawing out impurities and toxins like pollutants. These ingredients can be found in everything from serums and moisturizers to face masks and eye creams.
Gentle cleansers that whisk away impurities
Suitable for all skin types, the Glamglow TropicalCleanse Daily Exfoliating Cleanser is gentle enough to be used daily but powerful enough to slough away the day's impurities for a fresh, ultra-clean complexion.
If you have dry skin, use CeraVe's Hydrating Facial Cleanser at the end of the day, as it washes away dirt while its ceramide-rich formula helps skin maintain a healthier barrier, keeping irritating pollutants at bay.
- Get the Glamglow TropicalCleanse Daily Exfoliating Cleanser on Sephora for $34
- Get the CeraVe Hydrating Facial Cleanser on Amazon for $14.64
Serums that protect and fortify the skin barrier
This SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic serum claims to protect your skin from free radicals and reduce damage from the sun’s rays and ozone pollution up to 41 percent using ascorbic acid (a.k.a. vitamin C). And thanks to vitamin E and ferulic acid, the vitamin C is stabilized and has a longer shelf life than other ascorbic acid serums.
Neutrogena's Hydro Boost Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serum has nearly 4,000 fans on Amazon, and when it comes to its pollution-fighting properties, we can see why. Hyaluronic acid strengthens the skin barrier, which makes it harder for pollutants to enter.
- Get the SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic on Dermstore for $166
- Get the Neutrogena Hydro Boost Hydrating Hyaluronic Acid Serum on Amazon for $13.99
Moisturizers that seal in hydration and protect against sun damage
Looking for a moisturizer that protects against the elements and works well underneath makeup? You'll find it in Osea's Atmosphere Protection Cream, which touts skin-shielding algae and avocado oil as its hero ingredients. Not to mention, it feels surprisingly lightweight for how hydrating it is, making it ideal as a base for your complexion go-tos.
With all of this talk about pollution, it's easy to forget about protecting your skin from the sun, but the SPF-containing Daily Facial Moisturizer from Cetaphil checks all of the boxes with its non-comedogenic formula and broad-spectrum sun protection.
- Get the Osea Atmosphere Protection Cream on Ulta for $48
- Get the Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer on Amazon for $27.88
Masks for deep pore cleansing
Origins' Clear Improvement Charcoal Honey Mask to Purify and Nourish has over 700 5-star reviews. It extracts pollutants with charcoal (which can feel drying), but it leaves behind a surprisingly hydrated feel thanks to wildflower honey.
When we think of anything related to pores, our minds race to Bioré's Charcoal Whipped Purifying Detox Mask—not just for its ability to cleanse pores from debris and dirt under five minutes, but because it does so at a wallet-friendly price tag.
- Get the Origins Clear Improvement Charcoal Honey Mask to Purify and Nourish on Sephora for $34
- Get the Bioré Charcoal Whipped Purifying Detox Mask on Amazon for $5.33
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.