We’re officially living in smogville, whether you’re a city dweller or not. The UK has been breaching EU pollution limits consistently for the past five years, with London emerging as the most polluted city in Europe, which isn’t really surprising given that traffic-choked Oxford Street breached hourly pollution limits over 1,000 times in 2016 (*slow clap*).
In the case of London in particular, mayor Sadiq Khan has made it one of his main objectives to achieve a ‘cleaner, greener London’, through establishing an Ultra Low Emission Zone, planting more trees in the capital and facilitating the use of electric cars and buses. Until then, if you’re a Londoner you’ll be putting up with an assault of particle pollution to your body on a daily basis, and the generally impure state of our air means that it’s a similar story whether you live in an urban or rural area.
Given that the skin is our largest organ, it’s highly susceptible to the ravages incurred by pollution, along with lungs, eyes and hearts. Cosmetic Dermatologists Dr Hilary Allan and Dr Mervyn Patterson of the Woodford Medical Clinic explain the principal issues for skin exposed to pollutants:
“Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter (PM), is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets. Some particles such as soot, dust and smoke are large and can be seen with the naked eye. Other particles are very small and can only be seen by an electron microscope. Scientists refer to these as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and they arise from such things as coal fires or sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides emitted from power plants and automobiles, particularly diesel engines.
“Scientists believe that PMs are covered on their surface by the smaller PAHs. These PAHs are lipophilic, meaning they dissolve in oil, and this is why they can penetrate through the outer layers of the skin.
“The presence of PAHs in the skin alters the skin barrier and disrupts the connections between the surface cells. A healthy lipid ratio of the three key lipids, as well as strong bonds between our surface cells, are vital to protect us from daily attack from environmental agents. A weakened shield leaves the deeper skin layers vulnerable to attack.
“Once into the skin's deeper tissue, PMs/PAHs cause oxidative stress triggering many pathways of unwanted chronic inflammation. It is chronic inflammation caused by traffic air pollution that leads to unwanted pigmentation and destruction of collagen with formation of wrinkles.
“People with sensitive skin types (now estimated to be in excess of 50% of the UK population), as well as those suffering from inflammatory skin diseases such as eczema , are more susceptible to the effects of air pollution.”
experts are beginning to think that pollution has seriously sinister effects on our skin, compromising our immune barrier and potentially contributing to DNA damage
In terms of skin health the focus has firmly and rightly been on sun protection over the past few decades, but experts are beginning to think that pollution has seriously sinister effects on our skin too, compromising our immune barrier and potentially contributing to DNA damage. A recent study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology involving groups of Chinese and caucasian German women linked exposure to a high level of pollutants to a 25% increase in dark spots on the skin, while senior scientists at Olay and L’Oréal have identified an increased incidence of patients reporting to hospital due to aggravated eczema, hives and other inflammatory skin conditions in areas of elevated pollution in both China and Mexico. Whether or not you suffer from a debilitating skin condition, Dr Patterson warns that the effects of pollution on our skin will become manifest at a much faster rate than ever previously imagined:
“Unless people do more to protect their skin, they will end up wearing the pollution on their faces in ten years time.”
Clearly age spots, wrinkles and rosacea aren’t on anyone’s agenda, but given that air quality control is clearly an impossible goal for most of us day to day, what can be done about detrimental molecules that are set on gatecrashing our epidermis (and beyond)? Staging a defensive attack is a good start. Lobbying the government is the next step, but while you’re doing that a little ‘skinsurance’ won’t hurt. Here are the latest and greatest skincare soldiers to the join the anti-pollution product army.
If you can’t get your hands on them, just remember to keep your antioxidants close to help to neutralise the adverse effects of unstable pollution molecules (free radicals). Eat them, drink them, wear them; antioxidants are essential when it comes to slowing, and even preventing, skin damage. Team them with sunscreen and you’re sending a pretty clear message to potential invaders.