How does the environment affect my skin?

Woman's skin blending in with background environment.
The environment can have major effects on your skin's health and appearance.
© Dashinsky

With a hole growing in the ozone layer and garbage piling up in the world's landfills, there certainly is a need to protect the environment. But considering how smog hovers over large cities and chemicals manage to find their way into water supplies, humans also need to protect themselves -- including their skin -- from the environment.

From hives to skin cancer, both natural and manmade environmental factors have been linked to several skin conditions. Mother Earth's irritants can be broken into three main categories: physical, chemical and biological. Physical factors include sunlight, heat and cold. Chemical irritants include pollutants in the air and water, alcohol, household cleaners, allergens, car emissions, second-hand smoke, and other compounds. Biological bothers include plants like poison ivy, bacteria, fungi, pollens and pet dander [source: Suskind].


Your working environment could also affect the health of your skin. In 2006, a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of occupational illnesses and injuries reported that skin diseases were the most widespread [source: Kravitz]. These types of problems are often caused or aggravated by a number of environmental factors, including physical conditions such as extremes in cold and heat, along with chemical or biological agents such as cleansers, solvents, metals or plants.

With all these irritants around, your skin works full-time to defend your body from their harmful effects. The outer layer, called the epidermis, helps keep water in your skin while working to keep harmful materials out [source: Yung]. However, while it's on guard duty, your skin is first in line for burns, rashes and diseases.

You probably know basic skin care rules, such as how your exfoliating scrub can irritate sensitive skin or how oils and bacteria can aggravate acne. But you should also be aware that even the air you breathe and the clothes you wear can cause some irritation. On the next page, find out just how harmful some environmental factors can be -- and learn how pain is the friend that can help you avoid them.


Effects of the Environment on Skin

Different types of environmental factors can have their own effects on the skin. For example, chemicals such as oil and tar can clog your pores and cause acne or folliculitis. Other materials can cause tissue to break down or fluids to build up in the skin. They can also lead to bacterial infections, burns, hair loss and changes in pigmentation -- meaning the color of the skin becomes lighter or darker [source: Suskind]. Exposure to building materials such insulation, formaldehyde and aerosols can cause irritation and dry skin [source: Rea].

As for physical factors, heat, cold, and the sun can all cause their own damage if you're not careful. For example, if you can't take the heat, you might want to avoid it. Skin exposure in hot, humid climates can cause irritation. If you sweat, that perspiration could become trapped in your skin and lead to blisters or heat rash. On other end of the thermometer, cold combined with low humidity can cause dry skin, dandruff, irritation and even frostbite [source: Suskind].


The sun causes 90 percent of skin damage, which often worsens with age [source: Poirot]. The body needs sunlight to produce vitamin D for strong bones and teeth, but when ultraviolet rays meet unprotected skin, they can cause hyperpigmentation, sunburn, wrinkles, freckles, age spots and skin cancer [source: WebMD].

If playing with your pet leaves you with a rash, or you break out if you so much as get near a strawberry, you know all too well the effects that allergens can have on your skin. Biological factors such as chemicals, foods, bug bites, mold, and pet dander can cause allergic reactions that might include hives, swelling, drying and irritation [source: WebMD].

If you find that environmental factors are wreaking havoc on your skin, you should try to avoid the irritants, even though it's not always possible. You can also take preventive steps to protect your skin, such as wearing gloves and protective clothing when dealing with chemicals or other irritants on the job, and you can apply sunscreen daily. Be sure to see a doctor if a skin condition doesn't go away or continues to get worse.

To learn more about how the environment can affect your skin, take a look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Casey, John. "Beat the Itch of Winter Skin." WebMD. March 6, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 19, 2009)
  • Freeman, David. "Mold Allergy Self-Defense." WebMD. July 24, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 19, 2009)
  • Kravitz, Robert. "Preventing Occupational Skin Diseases." Occupational Health and Safety. April 1, 2009. (Accessed Oct. 21, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Allergies." Jan.30, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 19, 2009)
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. "Acne." National Institutes of Health. January 2006. (Accessed Sept. 19, 2009)
  • Peate, W. F. "Occupational Skin Disease." American Family Physician. Sept. 15, 2002. (Accessed Oct. 6, 2009)
  • Poirot, Lissa. "A Wrinkle in Time: Preventing Damage to Aging Skin." WebMD. Feb. 18, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 19, 2009)
  • Rea, Caroline. "Environmental Illness -- Toxins in Our Environment." WebMD. Nov. 1, 2007. (Accessed Sept. 19, 2009)
  • Suskind, Raymond R. "Environment and the Skin." Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 20, pp. 27-37. 1977. (Accessed Sept. 19, 2009)
  • WebMD. "Cosmetic Procedures: Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer." April 1, 2005. (Accessed Sept. 19, 2009)
  • WebMD. "Understanding Allergies - the Basics." Nov. 10, 2008. (Accessed Sept. 19, 2009)
  • Yung, Anthony. "The Structure of Normal Skin." New Zealand Dermatological Society. June 15, 2009. (Accessed Oct. 6, 2009)