You don’t have to be Gwyneth Paltrow or an owner of a Vitamix to have heard the hype about detoxing. The obsession with clearing your internal organs of pollutants for a generally healthier life has made juice cleanses essential popular rituals among even those who don’t think negativity ruins water.
But according to emerging research, we should all be focusing more attention to pollution’s effects on the outside of our bodies—namely, what it does to our skin. “Pollution is one of the main sources of skin damage because toxins in the air cause the skin to age prematurely, especially on the face, neck and hands,” says Debra Luftman, M.D., a dermatologist in Beverly Hills and member of the Simple Advisory Board.
“Skin is designed to work as a barrier against any irritants including pollution; however, it is not completely impenetrable,” she explains.
French researchers also found a link between skin rashes and pollution. They saw a rise in doctor visits for rashes and irritation following days when particulate matter was the highest.
What’s more troubling is that pollution is affecting almost everyone: Air quality in most cities worldwide that monitor outdoor air pollution fails to meet World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for safe levels. About half of these urban populations are exposed to air pollution that’s at least two-and-a-half times higher than recommended. Air pollution is now the “single largest environmental health risk,” says the health agency.
How the Air Can Attack Your Skin
“Skin is our first line of defense against increasing free radicals in our atmosphere,” says New York City dermatologist Dennis Gross. “Our skin absorbs these harmful impurities on a daily basis which leads to diminished health and beauty of our skin.”
Pollution in the air comes in two forms: ozone and particulate matter, explains Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., a dermatologist in Washington, D.C. Ground-level ozone (as opposed to that which makes up the ozone layer) is a gas created when toxic emissions from cars and factories combine with sunlight. The resulting molecule is highly reactive and causes free radicals to form that can damage the lipids and proteins of the skin, she says.
The other main pollution source is solid dirt particles. “Particulate matter sits on the surface of the skin and increases inflammation, which also breaks down the skin’s proteins and may accelerate the aging process,” Dr. Tanzi says.
In addition, environmental impurities such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and ozone destroy the skin’s natural oils, which act as a protective barrier, Dr. Gross says. “Once this protective barrier breaks down, skin is exposed to free radicals which lead to collagen breakdown, cell damage, redness, and irritation.”
While looking older offers legitimate concerns, there are more immediate consequences as well. Gross explains that particulate matter clogs pores, which can make them appear larger. Airborne pollutants cause a chemical reaction with your natural oils, changing them to a waxier consistency that can clog pores. And those suffering from rosacea can experience flare-ups due to irritants in the air.
And we’re not just talking about the air outside your home.
What You Need to Know About Cooking, Cleaning, and Candles
Even the air in your own home can contain some toxins that threaten the health of your skin.
“Volatile organic compounds are released from burning fuel, some paints, and glues,” Gross explains. Cooking over natural gas and the fumes from cooking oils or using a wood-burning stove can release particulate matter, as well as free radicals that weaken the skin barrier and damage healthy cells.Paint, glue and cleaning products also emit VOCs. Gross suggests using these products outside or making sure the area is well ventilated—especially when cooking with natural gas or using caustic cleaning agents.
Paraffin wax candles also release airborne toxins. Byproducts of the wax, synthetic fragrances and dyes, and soot from the wick can emit harmful pollution particles. Dutch researchers studied the air particles in churches, where candles are burned for hours at a time, and found up to 10 times as many damaging free radicals in the air inside churches as they did in the air next to a busy highway.
Burning candles in a well ventilated room will help minimize the dangers. And replace your paraffin versions with healthier beeswax candles.
Your Four-Step Pollution Protection Plan
1. Power Clean
You’re already doing the most important pollution defense: washing your face. The particulate matter in the atmosphere is up to 20 times smaller than your pores, Dr. Tadlock explains. Daily deep cleaning will remove these microscopic particles before they can cause inflammation and irritation.“In most cases, our hands alone cannot effectively remove pollution matter this size,” Dr. Tadlock says. That’s why a cleansing brush could be a powerful anti-aging tool. Clarisonic applied a tinted solution that mimics pollutants found in the air. After 60 seconds of cleansing, Clarisonic removed 30 times the pollution than manual washing. (Try: Clarisonic Mia, $99; Olay Pro-X Microdermabrasion Plus Advanced Cleansing System, $38.)
2. Spike Your Skincare With Antioxidants
Add an antioxidant serum to your routine. These concentrated treatments deliver high levels of agents that have been shown to neutralize free radicals to help decrease inflammation and lipid breakdown, Dr. Tanzi says. (Try: SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic, $118.) Eating your antioxidants will also fight pollution, Dr. Luftman says. So make sure you’re eating colorful fruits and vegetables with every meal.
3. Stay Sun Safe
You already know wearing sunscreen every damn day, no matter what, is the number one commandment in skincare. UV protection is even more crucial in light of the new knowledge about the effects of pollution.For additional defense against pollution, make sure your daily SPF includes extra skincare ingredients. Antioxidants will help fight damage from pollution. (Try: Aveeno Positively Ageless Sunblock Lotion SPF 70, $11.)
Vitamin C, while being an antioxidant, will also help boost collagen production. (Try: Ole Henriksen Protect the Truth Vitamin C SPF 50+ Sunscreen, $35; The Body Shop Vitamin C Daily Moisturizer SPF 30, $20.)
4. Keep Your Skin Hydrated
Moisture is crucial in pollution protection because hydrating agents help strengthen the barrier function of the skin. A healthy barrier can protect against pollution and irritation.
For those with dry or easily irritated skin, add a boost of omega-3 fatty acids to your moisturizer. (Try: REN Hydra-Calm Global Protection Day Cream, $45; Coola PlantUV Face SPF 30 Unscented Moisturizer, $42.)
If you suffer from irritation, soothe your skin with calming agents, Gross suggests. The anti-inflammatory benefits will help short circuit the damaging effect of irritation and pollution. (Try: LaRoche-Posay Rosaliac Skin Perfecting Anti-Redness Moisturizer, $38.)
Don’t forget your skin needs the same TLC as the rest of your body. “Treat it holistically—eat healthy, exercise and drink lots of water,” Dr. Luftman says.
And if juicing works for you, be our guest.