How pollution might be damaging your skin?

Your skin wants to protect you. It protects your muscles and organs from the elements, and it is strong enough to stand up to the stresses we put on it on a daily basis. But skin can’t withstand everything we throw at it, and there are several things we encounter on a daily basis that can irritate and damage the skin.

The sun, of course, is one factor that can cause the skin to become damaged and prematurely aged. Most people know this, and make an effort to prevent skin cancer using sunscreen and common sense. Unfortunately, there’s another factor that can damage the skin—and you may not even notice it. Pollution, a major issue in urban areas, can have a major negative impact on your skin without you even realizing it. To know more we spoke to Dr. Sravya C Tipirneni, Consultant Dermatologist & Cosmetologist, Columbia Asia Hospital, Whitefield.

Healthcare India: How is pollution damaging the skin ?

Dr Sravya: Pollution is made up of many different damaging particles, like soot, acid, and smoke. These particles actually burrow into the skin’s epidermis, breaking down collagen and other substances in the skin which give it elasticity and a youthful glow. Air can be significantly polluted without us taking much notice—but our skin does.

Like the UV (ultraviolet) rays emitted by the sun, pollution can cause a range of skin problems. First, it accelerates aging. It can also cause other aesthetic problems, like an uneven complexion. Pollution has even been known to contribute to skin cancer! Combined with sun exposure and stress, which also negatively impacts the skin, pollution can usher in aging, damaged skin much more quickly than normal. Fortunately, there are ways to fight back with skin detox methods.

If pollution is bad for your skin, there are some habits that are even worse: smoking. Smoking delivers chemicals, smoke, and soot particles directly into your skin and can quickly make your skin look much older than it is. Combine the effects of smoking with the effects of pollution, and it spells disaster for skin.

Healthcare India:How has it impacted the way we should approach skin care?

Dr Sravya:UV [damage from the sun] was really the topic in skin protection for the last 20-30 years. Now I think air pollution has the potential to keep us busy for the next few decades. Air pollution in urban areas, much of which comes from traffic, includes tiny particles called PMs, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). What is very clear is that PMs are a problem for skin.

Understanding exactly how air pollution causes the skin damage is at an early stage, we are just now dipping into the mechanisms. But many of the pollutants are known to pass easily through the skin and cause a variety of impacts.

These agents have a very irritating effect and once they get into the skin, they activate multiple pathways of inflammation. Some pathways ignite the melanocytes, which create far too much pigment and end up giving you unwanted sun spots.

Other pathways ignite messengers that make blood vessels grow, that’s what results in increased redness and potentially rosacea. Also, if you damage skin, it goes into repair mode and excites enzymes which re-adsorb damaged collagen. When you have too much chronic inflammation, these enzymes remove more collagen than your skin can create. This produces skin laxity and that’s where fine lines and wrinkles come in.


Healthcare India: What are the precautions we should take to help us avoid complications?

Dr Sravya: Here, your solution in three simple steps.

Step One: Clean It Off

We know we should wash our face, but many of us don’t do it that well. Washing your face thoroughly every day is a critical piece of reducing the burden that pollution puts on your skin. In the morning, wash in order to prep skin for radiance-boosting products (more on that later). Use a mild cleanser. Only people with really oily skin need anything stronger. At night, you need to go deeper to remove the film of potentially harmful pollutants, not to mention makeup and everyday dirt and sweat. The goal is to get everything off without too much scrubbing, drying or irritation, which can exacerbate skin conditions like acne. Simple washing may not be enough to remove it, but exfoliating can get those cells out of there; add a gentle scrub to your nightly routine. Limit use to every other night if either irritates. As a final step, soak a cotton pad with toner, then wipe it across your skin. It lifts off any debris that may be left behind.

Step Two: Neutralize It

When pollution gets into your skin, it creates free radicals, highly unstable molecules that have unpaired electrons. These molecules act like Ping-Pong balls, bouncing around in your skin on their quest to steal an electron from a healthy cell, thereby injuring it. They literally poke holes in the collagen, which is what gives skin its firmness. All this destruction also shows up as hyperpigmentation and fine lines. Free radicals can increase inflammation, which makes acne and rosacea worse. And that’s not all. The most severe thing they can cause is DNA damage and cell mutation, which can lead to cancer. As bad as that sounds, there is an answer: antioxidants. These nutrients can donate an electron where needed, effectively neutralizing the free radical and diminishing its havoc-wreaking effects on your skin. Research shows that antioxidants provide one of the best treatments for preventing or reducing free-radical damage. To help protect skin, layer on a serum with antioxidants after cleansing in the morning, and do the same at night to bolster its repair process. Also, eat antioxidant-rich foods such as blueberries, tomatoes, broccoli, raisins, walnuts and kidney beans. They play a powerful role in our body’s ability to repair itself, particularly the skin.

Step Three: Create a Barrier

You’re probably already using sunscreen when it’s sunny, but here’s another reason to put some on every morning: Man-made pollution not only damages skin directly but also contributes to the erosion of the ozone layer, which helps shield us from the sun’s harmful rays. So you’re getting more sun exposure than ever before, even on cold, cloudy days. We know that UV rays are stronger. That doesn’t just mean a chance of more sunburns. These UV rays become accelerants: If you have hyperpigmentation or inflammation, they’ll make it worse. Apply an SPF 30 daily to protect yourself; the latest formulas contain antioxidants, boosting their pollution-fighting powers. Utilize sunscreen, antioxidants and proper cleansing, and you won’t end up with skin that’s older than its years—or a higher risk for skin cancer.

Thank you Dr Sravya for taking the time and speaking to us.


Dr. Vikram Venkateswaran

Management Thinker, Marketer, Healthcare Professional Communicator and Ideation exponent

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