How to Protect Skin from Pollution

Silhouette of power plant with smoke stacks and pollution billowing out.
Pollution is one of the main sources of skin damage.
© Spirit

It seems like everyone is jumping on the "green" bandwagon. People are buying organic foods, driving smaller cars, using canvas shopping bags and finding creative ways to recycle. But even if conservation isn't your thing, there's another benefit to adapting a green lifestyle: the health of your skin.

Pollution is one of the main sources of damage to the skin. As smog, dirt and dust float through the air, they often come in contact with the sun's ultraviolet rays, which create free radicals, highly charged oxygen molecules that are harmful to the skin and the body [source: Davis]. Free radicals attack cells and damage DNA, and both air and water pollution can strip skin of moisture, causing discoloration, fine lines and wrinkles [source: WebMD].


Aside from decreasing the amount of pollution in the environment, there are other steps you can take to limit the effects of pollution on your skin. One of the easiest and most effective treatments is to regularly clean your face with a gentle cleanser and use a moisturizer [sources: Leffell, Orlow]. Keep reading to learn more about the damaging effects of air and water pollution on your skin and how to prevent and reverse the damage.



Skin and Air Pollution

As you age, your skin naturally begins to lose moisture and elasticity; however, there are factors that can speed up this aging process. It's common knowledge that sun exposure causes wrinkles and other premature signs of aging, and many people now limit their time in the sun and wear sunscreen to protect their skin. But unlike the sun, there's little we can do to limit our exposure to air pollution -- particularly in urban areas. Pollution is one of the main sources of skin damage because toxins in the air cause skin to age prematurely, especially on the face, neck and hands [source: WebMD].

Smog, dirt and dust in the air can clog pores, cause acne and give skin a dull, gray appearance. And free radicals can deplete oxygen in skin cells and decrease collagen production, which leads to wrinkles, fine lines and rough, dry patches. Long-term exposure to air pollution can also cause skin allergies, eczema, asthma, nausea and blood vessel damage [source: Reuters].


To protect your skin from air pollution, it's important to wash your face daily, exfoliate your skin twice a week and use a daily moisturizer. And studies show that using products that contain antioxidants may also combat pollutants in the skin. [source: Orlow].  Drinking more water can also help because it hydrates your skin and increases cell production. But drinking polluted water can be harmful to skin. Read on to learn more.

Skin and Water Pollution

Air pollution can often be easy to see, particularly in urban areas where smog and dust from cars, trucks and factories permeate the air. But water pollution isn't as easy to spot -- especially when it's in your drinking water. Tap water contains chlorine, which can damage the skin and lead to premature signs of aging. Although chlorine is used to treat drinking water, it's also a toxic chemical that, in large quantities, can cause serious agitation to the skin and lungs [source: New York Department of Health]. Even in small amounts, the effects of chlorine can take their toll over time. When you shower, heat opens your pores and allows the chlorine to seep into your skin. Chlorine strips the skin of its natural oils and causes it to dry and crack, which can lead to wrinkles [source: New York Department of Health].

Of course, water also has many health benefits and helps the body function properly. Drinking water even hydrates the skin, which keeps it looking radiant and healthy. But drinking water shouldn't be your only source of hydration. You also need to use moisturizer to help your skin stay hydrated [source: Orlow].


To protect your skin from the effects of water pollution, you can filter your drinking water to remove chlorine and other toxins and you can limit the amount of time you spend in swimming pools and other highly chlorinated water. There are also many products on the market that can help protect you from skin damage. Read on to learn more about them.

Skin Products That Block Pollution

While there's no way to completely avoid pollutants in the air and water, there are ways to minimize the effects of pollution on your skin. To maintain healthy, radiant skin, try the following:

  • Moisturizer: Free radicals in the air from smog, dirt and dust deplete the oxygen in skin cells, causing damage. In addition, chlorine in tap water dries out the skin, which can lead to the development of fine lines and wrinkles. A good moisturizer hydrates the skin and creates a barrier between your skin and free radicals and other pollutants.
  • Sunscreen: Pollution causes damage to the ozone layer, which increases the effects of free radicals and UV radiation on the skin. Overexposure to UV radiation can cause wrinkles and even skin cancer [source: American Melanoma Foundation]. You should wear sunscreen on your face and neck every day to protect your skin from damage -- even on cloudy days.
  • Supplements: Vitamin C and antioxidants fight free radicals in the body, working to prevent and reverse damage to your skin. If you don't get enough vitamin C in your diet, take a daily multivitamin or a vitamin C supplement [source: WebMD].
  • Cleansers and Exfoliants: To remove air pollutants from your skin, wash your face daily and exfoliate twice a week. You can even use mineral water to avoid the potentially damaging effects of chlorine in tap water [source: Leffell, Orlow].
  • Water: Drinking plenty of water each day helps keep your skin hydrated and your body healthy by generating cell growth and improving circulation.

It's impossible to completely avoid air and water pollution, but by following these simple steps, you can reduce the damage pollution causes to your skin. To learn more about how to protect your skin from pollution, check out the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Melanoma Foundation. "Facts about Melanoma." (Accessed 9/2/2009)
  • Bouchez, Colette. "Banish the Bags Under Your Eyes." July 21, 2009. (Accessed 9/2/2009).
  • Davis, Jeanie. "How Antioxidants Work." (accessed 9//2009)
  • Gibson, Lawrence, E., M.D. "Is it True that Smoking Causes Wrinkles?" (Accessed 9/2/2009).
  • Leffell, David, M.D. Personal Interview. August 20, 2009.
  • New York Department of Health. "The Facts About Chlorine." (Accessed 8/19/09)
  • Orlow, Seth, M.D. Personal Interview. August 20, 2009.
  • Reuters. "Is Air Pollution Aging Your Skin?" July 25, 2008. (Accessed 9/02/2009)
  • WebMD. "Choosing Skin Care Products: Know Your Ingredients." (Accessed 9/2/2009)
  • WebMD. "How Skin Ages." (Accessed 9/2/2009)
  • WebMD. "Vitamin C May Fight Rheumatoid Arthritis." (Accessed 9/2/2009)