How does smog affect skin?

Can exposure to smog affect your skin's health?
Can exposure to smog affect your skin's health?
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You can see it lurking in a hazy layer over large cities. Its foul stench follows you through the streets. Sometimes you can even taste it. The culprit is smog. If the thought of breathing in a lungful of smog makes you choke because of the damage it can do to your respiratory system, you won't be surprised to know that smog can also damage your skin.

Smog is a chemical cocktail of low-level ozone (molecules of three oxygen atoms bound together), particulates (such as dust, soot and smoke), and other pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and lead [source: Rea]. When pollutants in the atmosphere are absorbed through your skin, your whole body can suffer the consequences [source: Goldsmith].


You hear a lot about the ozone layer these days, and for good reason. The ozone layer in the stratosphere, or upper atmosphere, protects you by blocking harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun, but ozone in the troposphere, or ground level, is a major component in smog [source: EPA]. When the sun's rays hit the smog, it breaks down into free radicals. If they enter the body, the free radicals bounce all over the place within the cells and chip away the cells' walls. Several diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, have been linked to free radical damage [source: LiveScience].

In addition to being a factor in serious diseases, free radical damage can also cause premature aging. When the pollutants in smog rob your skin of its oxygen supply, the result is signs of aging, such as wrinkles and loss of elasticity in the skin [source: MSN]. If you already have mature skin, you will be more susceptible to high pollution concentrations because your ability to fight free radicals diminishes as you get older [source: Poirot].

Skin damage from smog doesn't stop with premature aging. If you live in an environment where the air is polluted, your risk of getting the most common type of eczema can increase [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. In fact, reactions to the pollutants in smog can be a factor in sorts of skin conditions, such as dryness, rashes or acne [source: MSN].

Fortunately, if you live in an area with a significant amount of smog, you don't have to pack your bags. There are measures you can take to protect your skin from pollution. Developing a good skincare routine, including using moisturizer and sunscreen, is key, and your doctor might also suggest using skin barriers, such as aloe vera, or products that contain antioxidants [source: MSN].

To learn more the effects of smog on your skin and overall health, take a look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • AIRNow. "Smog -- Who Does It Hurt?" (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • Albert, Helen. "Component of Smog May Cause Skin Damage." June 19, 2009. (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Types of Eczema: Atopic Dermatitis." (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • EPA. "Ground-level Ozone." (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • Goldsmith, LA. "Skin Effects of Air Pollution." National Center for Biotechnology Information. (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • International Communication Forum in Human Molecular Genetics. "Smog Stresses the Skin." June 19, 2009. (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • Live Science staff. "Smog Could Be Toxic for Your Skin." MSNBC. June 25, 2009. (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • Valacchi, G.; V. Fortino; and B. Vocci. "The Dual Action of Ozone on the Skin." National Center for Biotechnology Information. (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • MSNBC. "Ageing Skin? Blame It on Pollution!" April 29, 2008. (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • National Institute on Aging. "Tips for Older Adults to Combat Heat-Related Illnesses." July 21, 2009. (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • Poirot, Lissa. "A Wrinkle in Time: Preventing Damage to Aging Skin." WebMD. (Accessed 8/12/09)
  • Rea, Caroline. "Environmental Illness - Toxins in Our Environment." WebMD. Nov. 1, 2007. (Accessed 8/12/09)