Protecting Your Skin From Environmental Pollution

By: Coco Sandes

While city living has an infinite number of upsides, one of the biggest detractors is undoubtedly pollution. It comes with the territory, literally: millions of people squeezed in together means plenty of car fumes, cigarette smoke, and airborne debris - and not enough greenery.


While we can see some of this environmental pollution - things like dirt, smoke, and smog - much of it is too small for our eyes to pick up. For example, free radicals are unstable molecules which can cause damage to our skin cells through a process called ‘oxidative stress’. This stress has been linked to a host of illnesses and diseases, contributing to everything from autoimmune disorders to the onset of fine lines. Free radicals aren’t exclusively found in the outside world - in fact, our bodies produce them. Stanford University found that exposure to environmental pollution, however, increases the production of free radicals within the body.


Along with free radicals, studies show that other pollutants such as ozone and blue light can wreak havoc on our skin if left unchecked. Long-term, excessive blue light exposure can affect the skin in a similar way to UVA and UVB rays, inflaming and weakening our skin’s surface. 


Even if we aren’t spending a lot of time outside, UVA and UVB rays are something we should all be vigilant of. Living in Australia, I am hyper-aware of our increased skin cancer risk compared to places that get less sun and am always doing what I can to protect my skin.


But whether you’re in New York, Tokyo, or Sydney, minimizing the impact of environmental pollution on our skin is something we can all benefit from. While there’s no one-size-fits-all fix, taking preventative steps on a daily basis can help our skin thrive in urban climates. And after all, prevention is better than cure!

Wear SPF

This one is obvious, sure. But sunscreen is one of the easiest ways to decrease your skin cancer risk, as well as helping ward off premature aging. For sun protection, there are two ways to go: chemical or physical. Chemical sunscreens penetrate deeper into our skin, absorbing and breaking up the UV rays. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, deflect UV rays. There are pros and cons for both varieties. Chemical formulas are generally thinner and less pasty, whereas physical SPFs do not get absorbed by our body, therefore decreasing their risk as endocrine disruptors.  Whichever formula you choose, don’t just stop at your face - our ears, necks, and décolletage all need protection too. 


Eat (and Apply) Antioxidants

Antioxidants are a compound found in foods which can help prevent the effects of free radicals. Primarily, antioxidant-rich foods are fruits and vegetables: mango, grapes, berries, oranges, spinach and broccoli are all excellent antioxidant sources. The Mayo Clinic notes that consuming foods high in antioxidants is linked to a decreased risk of many chronic illnesses which can be exacerbated by environmental pollution. In addition, antioxidants can also be applied topically. Studies have shown that a vitamin C serum, worn during the day, can help boost the protection of SPF whilst also preventing oxidative damage. 


Seek out Green Spaces

Urban green spaces are increasingly popular, and for good reason. Studies show that green spaces - trees, parks, and community gardens - assist in the filtering and subsequent removal of air pollution from urban environments. As green spaces are generally away from major traffic areas, they can also serve as a place of relaxation and calm, reducing our stress levels. Personally, I love to run in my local park early in the morning, before peak hour traffic begins. Take a yoga mat, book, and some water, and try to spend an hour each week in a green space near you. Your body (and mind) will appreciate it.