• Yasmeen Naseer

how smog and air pollution damage your skin

Gases or particles released as a result of manufacturing, transport, chemical refineries, cigarette smoke and several other processes, are collectively called air pollution. Most gaseous pollutants don’t immediately penetrate the skin. Instead, they induce oxidative stress, triggering a cascade of damage on the skin’s surface.

Even though our skin acts as a biological shield against pollutants, prolonged or repetitive exposure to high levels of these pollutants has profound negative effects. Chemicals in air pollution, the likes of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, oxides, particulate matter, and ozone, have been associated with an increase in the incidence of problems like acne and acneiform eruptions, psoriasis and dermatitis, skin ageing and pigmentation, and cancers.


Small particulate matter consists of nanoparticles that are tiny enough to penetrate, and get lodged inside, your pores where they cause ongoing damage and simply washing your face isn’t enough to get rid of them. Here they are able to wreak havoc in the deeper layers of your skin where wrinkles and discolouration form. Pollutants also impair the skin’s barrier function, making it easier for them to enter your body through your skin, so your entire body suffers the consequences.


The term ‘smog’ was first used in London in the early 1900s to describe the cocktail of smoke and fog that often blanketed the city. It is a combination of ozone, harmful nano-particles, and other pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and lead, and is particularly harmful for your skin. Like all forms of air pollution, smog also compromises skin health by inducing free radical damage, or oxidative stress. Free radical damage has been implicated as a cause in several diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. And the older you are, the more susceptible you are to damage caused by pollution, since our body’s become less able to effectively fight off free radical damage as we age.


While pollution is worse in big cities, even individuals living in rural areas aren’t safe from it since air pollution can easily travel beyond borders. Some research suggests that air pollution is as bad for skin as UV radiation from unprotected sun exposure. The list of problems that airborne pollutants can give rise to include:

  • Dullness and hyperpigmentation

  • Premature ageing

  • Enlarged pores

  • Dryness, sensitivity, redness, eczema and worsening of psoriasis

  • Chemical or pollution-induced acne


A solid skincare routine, now more than ever, is essential for protecting your skin from the harmful effects of air pollution. It is your first line of defence against pollution and the problems that it can cause. Products formulated with antioxidants can interrupt the cascade of damage that pollution gives rise to on your skin, while potent soothing ingredients are able to neutralise the damage that has already been done. You also need ingredients that are able to fortify the skin’s barrier and make it more resistant to the penetration of air pollutants, and chemical exfoliants, because they help dislodge pollutants that get trapped in your pores.


The table shows a simple routine that you can leverage to combat the effects of air pollution on your skin. Products are listed in the order in which they should be applied.

*Read more here.

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