If you live near a big city known for having smog, air pollution, or overall poor air quality, you may wonder how to protect your skin from air pollution. Just like wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen to shield your skin from sun exposure, you should take precautionary measures to care for your skin when exposed to environmental aggressors related to polluted air.

While moving to a new place with less air pollution may not be an option, there are some ways you can safeguard your skin from the harsh environment. Knowing how to protect your skin from air pollution may be beneficial for your long-term skin health, given that poor air quality is linked to accelerated skin aging, increased risk of skin diseases, and weakened skin barrier.

Understanding Skin Pollution from Poor Air Quality

There are many factors that affect your skin health. Some internal factors are related to age, hormones, and genetics. Others are external, such as temperature, humidity, sun exposure, and air quality. If you want to protect your skin as best as possible, consider all the factors that affect skin health, starting with the air around you.

Types of Air Pollution

"Air pollution" is a broad term that describes the various particles and gases in the air, according to MedlinePlus. This includes dust, car emissions, chemicals, ozone (a.k.a. smog), pollen, mold spores, particulate matter, and so on.

Your eyes may fool you when it comes to air pollution. You may be able to view thick layers of smog looming over the world's biggest cities, but you can't always see air pollution. This is evidenced by the fact that at least 90 percent of people breathe air that exceeds pollution guidelines set by the World Health Organization.

A common misconception about air pollution is that you're only exposed when you're outdoors, but indoor air pollution should also be on your radar. Some indoor air pollutants include asbestos, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, lead, secondhand smoke, and nitrogen dioxide. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent indoor air pollution.

How Air Pollution Affects Skin

Being aware of air pollution is important to protect your skin health, seeing as studies confirm that pollutants can enter the body through our skin. A recent study by the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology found that exposure to airborne pollutants can result in oxidative stress, reduced levels of vitamin C and E, and increased dark spots and wrinkles.

Further, skin pollution isn't limited to just premature aging. Many inflammatory skin diseases are exacerbated by air pollution. Asian studies have established a link between pollution levels and skin conditions like acne, atopic dermatitis, and eczema. This may be due to invading pollutants that weaken the skin barrier and dehydrate the skin, increasing susceptibility to inflammation.

Environmental stressors like aggressive air pollution can also affect one's risk of cutaneous diseases like skin cancer. When air is polluted, particulate matter hangs in the atmosphere. According to a Frontiers in Pharmacology study, particulate matter affects more people than any other type of air pollution. Chronic exposure to particulate matter is associated with increased risk of various cancers, including skin cancer.

Risk Factors

Metropolitan areas have higher levels of air pollution than smaller cities. Big cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Las Vegas are some of the most polluted cities in the United States. Worldwide, big cities in India and China have the highest levels of pollution.

Protecting your skin from air pollution is especially important if your occupation requires you to spend time outdoors or handle hazardous materials. This is known as workplace pollution. People who work in construction, mines, auto repair, and gas are at higher risk of occupational exposure.

How to Protect Your Skin from Air Pollution

Living in a city with low pollution levels and preventing indoor pollution can help minimize skin pollution. Knowing how to protect your skin from air pollution also involves incorporating some skin care practices and products formulated to repair the skin barrier.

Thoroughly Cleanse the Skin

At the end of the day, there is a buildup of dirt, oil, and pollutants on your skin's surface. Thoroughly washing the skin with a facial cleanser is key to preventing pollutants from accumulating on the skin and, ultimately, in the body.

Protect with Antioxidants and SPF

Antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E and sun protection like zinc oxide are examples of ingredients that protect skin from oxidative stress and free radical damage. Look for toners, serums, and moisturizers that can neutralize free radicals from pollutants and a broad-spectrum sunscreen that can shield your skin from ultraviolet (UV) exposure.

Repair with Amino Acids

Amino acids help restore skin damage caused by environmental stressors, like UV exposure and air pollution. The EltaMD Skin Recovery System contains three amino acids—taurine, arginine, and glycine—which work together to hydrate skin, reduce damage and irritation, and strengthen the skin barrier.

Hydrate with Serums and Moisturizers

In places where air pollution levels are high, skin hydration levels tend to be lower. This can leave skin vulnerable to irritants and pollutants and even increase the risk of sensitivity and inflammation. Serums and moisturizers formulated with hydrating ingredients, like hyaluronic acid, can encourage healthy moisture levels.

Knowing how to protect your skin from air pollution is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to maintaining healthy skin from the inside out. Take the necessary precautions to limit your exposure to airborne pollutants, and always incorporate skin care products with ample antioxidants, hydration, reparative properties, and sun protection.


  • Lacey Muinos

    Lacey is a Southern California-based freelance writer who combines her passions—fitness, health, and a vegan lifestyle—with her work to help readers feel and be their best. Her work has been featured in Healthline, Livestrong, Verywell Fit, Eat This Not That, KinderBeauty, and more.

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