How Do I Protect My Skin From Pollution?

how to protect skin from pollution by Sarka Botanicals

Air pollution is a major concern for people living in cities, it can wreak havoc on your skin, causing inflammation and premature aging. The effects of pollution on your skin can best be prevented buy using antioxidant rich products, proper cleansing, and maintaining a healthy skin barrier. 

The physical and mental health effects of long-term exposure to air pollution, have always been at the back of my mind since living in London. But, it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my son and I became hyper-aware of the potential damage air pollution posed to his developing body and brain, that I stumbled upon research showing the effects of air pollution on skin.

How does air pollution affect skin?

If you live in a city (or a small town for that matter) you are exposed to air pollution, including exhaust from cars (Europe is particularly bad for this because of diesel engines), smog, and chemical refineries. Some of the most widespread organic pollutants are Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are found in car exhaust fumes and especially diesel. These have been linked to skin discolouration, acne, and also in the development of skin cancer. Other compounds, such as ozone, particulate matter, oxides, volatile organic compounds are all found in elevated levels in large urban centers.

Most airborne particles do not penetrate this skin immediately, but they start to break down the skin’s protective barrier and weaken it over time. Pollution particles are smaller than your pores and once the skin’s protective barrier is broken down, they can enter skin layers more easily and kick start a number of cellular level, inflammatory reactions.

Prolonged and repetitive exposure to small particle pollutants activates multiple pathways of inflammation, some of which begin to create more pigment causing age spots, while others prompt specific enzymes to remove and break down more collagen than your body can create. Polluted air has not only been linked to signs of premature ageing, but it also worsens inflammatory skin conditions such as hives and eczema. A Canadian study showed that when air quality declined, hospital visits for hives increased.  

Pollution accelerates inflammation and collagen degeneration in the skin and it also breaks down the protective compounds found in the skin. Both squalene and Vitamin E are found in skin, they are major antioxidants and the former helps your skin to retain moisture and stay hydrated. A study in a major urban center, Mexico City, showed air pollution decreases both of these critical antioxidants.

How can I protect my skin?

If you have healthy skin with no inflammation, redness, acne, or irritation, then keep doing what you are doing! Healthy skin is a very good barrier against air pollution. But, the protective ability of the skin is not unlimited and long-term exposure to pollution may breach your skin’s natural defensive barrier. With that in mind, keeping the skin barrier strong is key to protecting your skin long-term.


Cleaning is your first line of defense and the most basic. But cleansing isn’t just slapping some soap of your face and scrubbing. To effectively cleanse we need to double cleanse.

The most common practice is to use an oil-based cleanser first to dissolve makeup, sunscreen, and draw out oil-based substances. The next step is to use your water-based cleanser to remove any remaining debris.

Hydrate and lock in moisture

Keeping your skin moisturized, hydrated and supple is critical as it helps to maintain your skin's all-important protective barrier.  Look for products that have deeply hydrating botanical oils to keep your skin hydrated. 

Use targeted products

It is so important to tackle inflammation which starts a cascade of enzymatic processes that accelerate ageing. Look for products that have a wide variety of potent anti-inflammatory ingredients, such as licorice, turmeric, hibiscus, rosehip, and many other botanicals.

Use products that contain antioxidants because they help to fight free radical damage and oxidation. The plant kingdom is full of antioxidants phytochemicals and vitamin C and E, Coenzyme Q10 and alpha-lipoic acid have well-documented benefits for the skin.  

Use your products as intended

Watch out for disruptive products and use them as recommended. Retinoids, the darlings of the skincare industry (and for good reason), ultimately reduce the barrier function of the skin through exfoliation. The more retinol used the less effective that barrier function becomes, which is why there is peeling, flaking and irritation with the overuse of retinol. So use retinol products only at night and build up your retinol use. 

Whole-body skin health

Talking about maintaining healthy skin is never complete without the whole-body perspective. In fact, skin reflects our general inner health, both physical and mental. Although today we are faced with more pollution and more complicated lives than generations before us, we also have the great advantage of having the right information available to us. 

Your diet

There is so much conflicting information about diets and food out there. I am not a nutritionist and I will not be recommending a particular diet over another. If you are vegetarian, paleo, vegan, gluten-free, etc…and that works for you and you feel great, then keep doing what you are doing!

What I will say about diet is: eat the rainbow, all day and every day.

Plants contain a plethora of vitamins, carotenoids, flavonoids, tocopherols, polyphenols, and other phytonutrients that act as potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. You can’t get these compounds anywhere else.

OK, you can buy a supplement that contains these antioxidants, but it is far more effective to eat a colourful diet than pop a pill. Why? Because phytochemicals work synergistically, which means the whole works better than the individual parts. So while you can take beta-carotene as a supplement, your skin (and your wallet) will benefit more if you eat carrot and sweet potato soup.

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are also critical for skin health because they play an important role in the synthesis of tissue lipids and healthy skin membranes. An entire post (or book for that matter), could and has, be written about EFAs and their importance in maintaining skin health.

What we need to know is that EFA deficiency increases transepidermal water loss, which affects the strength of the barrier function of the skin, and we need a strong skin barrier as the first line of defense against pollution.
We can’t produce EFAs, so we need to get them from our diet. They are present in fish, seeds, nuts, and leafy vegetables.


Sleep has been a hot topic for a while now and we are finally beginning to understanding how important good quality sleep is. Lack of, or poor quality sleep causes many detrimental mental and physical health effects, but in terms of skin health, skimping on sleep has terrible effects on your skin.

At night, the skin takes the time to recover and repair itself. In fact, our bodies and brains do all sorts of housekeeping while we sleep.  Our levels of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) peak during sleep (HGH is also secreted during exercise) and is necessary for the repair and rebuilding of muscles and tissues.  Production of HGH decreases with age and high quality, uninterrupted sleep is the best way to keep your levels high.

Your skin is most permeable at night, so if you are using targeted products, then apply them at night to get maximal benefit. Our bodies also lose a lot of moisture at night, so be sure to use hydrating products before bed and drink water as soon as you wake up.

Stay active

If there was one thing that scientists could bottle up and sell as the top anti-aging and regenerative product, it would be exercise. Forgetting about the benefits of regular, sustained exercise to your body and brain, the effects on skin can be quite tremendous. 

Regular exercise helps with skin elasticity and thickness, and it helps to accelerate wound healing.  Cardiovascular exercise also increases circulation, bringing vital nutrients to the skin cells. 

The brain-skin connection

Finally, no topic on skin health can omit mental health and especially how we deal with stress and anxiety.

Countless studies have shown that stress exacerbates skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, hives, dermatitis, acne, and rosacea by releasing chemicals to jump-start our fight or flight response, but also increasing inflammation. While stress doesn't cause these conditions, it may make them harder to manage if you have them. Even without skin conditions, stress can lead to an increased water loss, lower water retention in the skin, and impaired barrier function.

Stress and anxiety can also cause us to behave in ways that we normally wouldn’t, like skimping on sleep or exercise or letting other unhealthy lifestyle and personal habits creep into our daily lives. 

City living can feel especially stressful, with long commutes, lack of personal space and connection with nature, and worries about pollution and the environment. Luckily there are myriad resources to help cope with stress. 

Given all we know about pollution and skin health, it could be time that pollution protection becomes as ubiquitous as sun protection.