Pollution and Aging: 5 Ways to Counteract Pollution-Induced Skin Damage

You know pollution isn’t good for you. Scientists have connected it with respiratory problems, birth defects, cancer, and more.

But did you know that your exposure to pollution could also make you look older?

In 2010, the Journal of Investigative Dermatology published a landmark study connecting pollution to skin aging. Researchers examined 400 Caucasian women aged 70 to 80 years, and gave them scores based on how much their skin had aged. They then evaluated pollution at each woman’s place of residence, measuring traffic emissions, soot, and fine dust. Finally, they analyzed the results.

Here’s what they found:

Air pollution exposure was significantly related to the signs of skin aging, in particular to hyperpigmentation, age spots, and wrinkles.

  • An increase in soot was linked with 20 percent more pigment spots (or age spots) on the forehead and cheeks.
  • An increase in traffic particles resulted in 16 percent more age spots on the forehead and 17 percent more spots on the cheeks.
  • Background particle pollution—present in low residential areas of the city with less busy traffic—was also linked with an increase in age spots.
  • Soot, particles from traffic, and background pollution were also associated with a more pronounced nasolabial fold (“smile” wrinkles).
  • Women who lived less than 100 meters or less from a busy road had 35 percent more pigment spots on their foreheads and 15 percent more on their cheeks.

“This study provides epidemiological evidence that traffic-related PM [particulate matter] represents an important environmental factor that contributes to extrinsic skin aging in humans,” the researchers wrote.

More Recent Study Suggests Additional Damage

More recently, another study reported similar results—that pollution ages skin.

This time, researchers reviewed a number of studies that had already been published on pollution and health effects, and sensitive skin. They found the following:

  • Pollution-induced skin damage is a global problem.
  • Exposure to ambient particulate matter contributes to premature skin aging.
  • Ozone depletes antioxidants from the skin.
  • Air pollution causes detrimental effects on healthy and diseased skin.
  • Individuals with sensitive skin may be even more susceptible to pollution-related damage.

According to this study, the effects of pollution go beyond age spots, to cause other damage and problems.

Great. So what can we do about it?

5 Ways to Counteract Pollution-Induced Skin Damage

The important thing to take away from these studies is that pollution is getting on your skin and potentially damaging your skin every day. The best way to counteract the effects and keep your complexion glowing is with the following five steps:

  1. Wash every night—well: Good cleansing is so important to healthy, vibrant skin, yet we often neglect this step. We think as long as we slather on anti-aging treatments, we’ll be fine. The problem is that those treatments can’t penetrate skin properly if it’s covered with grime, bacteria, toxins, and pollutants. You’ve got to get those out of the way, particularly at night. Otherwise, you’re giving them eight hours or so to eat away at your collagen and elastin. So wash every night and wash well. An electronic brush is a great addition to your cleansing routine, as it will be more effective at getting breaking through the film of dirt and grime.
  2. Tone: This step not only helps to restore the natural pH level of skin, but it can also pick up any impurities cleansing may have left behind. Don’t neglect this step, but do avoid alcohol-based toners, as they will only create more dryness and may lead to future damage. Choose a moisturizing option with natural ingredients.
  3. Exfoliate: This is another thing we know we should do, but we often neglect. Regular exfoliation sloughs off the dead layer of skin on top, getting rid of any toxins that may have escaped regular cleansing, and encouraging younger cells to rise to the surface. Choose a gentle exfoliating option (no nut or harsh scrubs) and use it once or twice a week.
  4. Beef up your antioxidants: One of the things pollution does is to create free radicals in the skin, which then damage tissues and DNA. To counteract that effect, you need plenty of antioxidants. We’re talking both internal and external. Get more antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies in your diet to help protect your skin from the inside out. Then find skin care products that are rich in antioxidants to apply to the outside. Look for ingredients like vitamins C and E, minerals selenium and zinc, and phytonutrients like reveratrol, green tea, and essential oils.
  5. Protect: Here’s another way sunscreen can protect you—it reduces the damage from pollution. If you get pollutants on your skin and then you go outside unprotected, UV rays actually exacerbate the effects of pollution, making the resulting damage even worse. Use a safe sunscreen like zinc oxide every day, even on cloudy days.

What do you think of these studies? Are you concerned about how pollution may be damaging your skin?


Britta Aragon, natural beauty expert, cancer survivor, and creator of CV Skinlabs, has spent over 13 years in the beauty industry increasing awareness of potentially harmful toxins. Her book, When Cancer Hits, serves as a guide for the newly diagnosed, and her skincare line CV Skinlabs offers clinically proven, natural and organic products for all types of sensitive skin.