Q: How does atmospheric pollution impact my skin and its health?

A: Humans are exposed to air pollution, which has major effects on  skin health. Airborne pollutants exist in multiple forms: solids, liquids, gases and fine particulate matter. These are absorbed directly through the skin into the subcutaneous tissue or through hair follicles and sweat + sebaceous glands. Global urbanization and exploding worldwide energy consumption  have exposed humans to increased quantities of atmospheric pollution. The skin, as the largest organ of the body, acts as a physical, chemical and an immunological barrier against environmental factors.  Whenever a prolonged and repetitive exposure to environmental pollutants exceeds the skin’s normal potential for defence, we see a disturbance in the [skin] barrier functions leading to the development of various skin diseases. Main air pollutants which affect the skin are UV radiation, infrareds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter, cigarette smoke, smog and heavy metals.

Air pollutants exert a harmful effect on the skin by increasing oxidative stress which counters the skin’s antioxidant (AOx) defenses. There is a depletion of enzymatic (glutathione peroxidase, glutathione reductase, superoxide dismutase and catalase) and non-enzymatic (Vitamin E, Vitamin C and glutathione) antioxidant capacity. Free radicals and reactive oxygen species (ROS) are generated that interact with the lipid-rich plasma membrane to initiate the lipid peroxidation cascade. ROS also stimulate the release of pro-inflammatory molecules which results in the accumulation of neutrophils and other phagocytic cells that further generate free radicals, thereby resulting in a vicious cycle.  Air pollution induces severe alterations of the normal functions of lipids, DNA and/or proteins in the human skin via oxidative stress/damage, leading to extrinsic skin aging, inflammatory or allergic conditions such as contact dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, acne and skin cancer.


Source:  Puri P, Nandar SK, Kathuria S, Ramesh V. Effects of air pollution on the skin: A review. Ind J Dermatol Venereol Leprol, July 2017;83:415-23

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