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Everything You Need to Know About Air Pollution and Your Skin

In case the other thousand or so reasons to hate pollution weren’t enough for you, we’ve got some bad news. On top of the havoc it’s wreaking on the weather, glaciers, animals, plantsand oh yeah, humans—pollution is also playing fast and loose with your complexion. Here, we break down everything you need to know about air pollution and your skin.

It’s no surprise that with Asia staring down the barrel of some of the most polluted air in the world (China’s ongoing battle with smog has become legendary) Korean skincare brands, (which are ever at the forefront of skin beautifying) have coined the term “polluaging” to describe the wrinkle-inducing, skin-sagging, age-spotting effects. Read on to learn everything you should know about pollution and how to treat your skin if it’s been affected.

You can’t really see the pollution that’s messing with your skin.

As anyone who has ever walked through a big city in sandals can tell you, grime is a fact of life, but it’s not just surface level muck sticking in your pores that you have to worry about. “Unless there is true smoke, pollution isn’t going to clog your pores” explains dermatologist Annie Chiu, “It’s the cellular elements of smog and smoke that causes oxidative free radical damage that you should worry about.” 

What’s so bad about free radicals?

Air pollution, especially the stuff pouring out of car tailpipes, often contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PHAs, which play a role in the formation of free radicals. For the non-science majors out there, free radicals are atoms, or groups of atoms, whose structure allows them to attach to other cells and start remodeling. And we’re not talking the kind of house-flipping that ups your property value. These cellular shifts are often a culprit in serious health issues like cancer, but they can also lead to less dangerous (though still unpleasant) changes, like the breakdown of collagen production in skin, or the development of discoloration.

A study last year found that traffic-related air pollution is linked to an increase of dark spots and hyperpigmentation in the face. “Excessive pollution can also irritate sensitive skin, causing low grade chronic inflammation that may break down healthy skin barriers,” says Chiu.

You’re not so safe if you live in the suburbs.

While urbanites, of course, are regularly exposed to air pollution thanks to cars, trucks, and buses and the close proximity they live in, don’t assume that the ‘burbs are a “get out of polluaging free” card. In fact, in the American Lung Association’s assessment of US air pollution in 2016, the four most polluted cities in the country—Bakersfield, Fresno, Visalia, and Modesto—were all in California’s agricultural regions. 

That’s right, fertilizers and chemicals used in some types of farming contribute to “bad air,” while geographic factors can also trap both local pollution and smog that blows in from neighboring areas, making everything worse. (If you want to check the air quality where you live, try, which will give you a daily Air Quality Index rating for your area)

The good news:

The upshot is that unlike so many other pollution-related ills, there are things that you can do to combat the negative mix of air pollution and your skin. Anti-pollution products are steadily making their way from Korea’s best beauty brands to US shelves, featuring potent antioxidants to keep free radicals at bay, but you don’t need to snag a product with anti-pollution on the label to get the benefits. In fact, many of the factors that have made Korean beauty stand out—like their dedication to pure ingredients—are exactly what you need to make sure urban grunge stays a fashion movement, not a facial one.

“Cleansing your face twice a day is important so the pollutants do not stay on the skin overnight, or get occluded into the skin more with your pillowcase,” says Chiu. Using micellar cleanser, like the Neogen Real Flower Cleansing Water Calendula, morning and night will sweep away the smog gently, so that the frequent cleansing won’t leave your skin irritated.

“But the best way to defend against ‘city dweller’ premature aging is the use of quality antioxidant products, like a stable vitamin C, vitamin E, or green tea,” says Chiu. “They ‘soak up’ the extra free radicals in the environment before they can attack your skin cells.” Try steeping yourself in a green tea mask—we like the Skinfood Everyday Green Tea Facial Mask Sheet—to give your skin a chance to reap all the benefits of tea’s antioxidant goodness. Then follow up with a vitamin C-rich serum, like the Klairs Freshly Juiced Vitamin C Serum, which not only protects you from future pollution damage, but also works to erase any brown spots or uneven tone that you already have.

+ Have you noticed any air pollution damage on your skin? How do you combat it? Let us know below!

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