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Skin pollution is real. What are the common pollutants + How to avoid them

Skin pollution is real. What are the common pollutants + How to avoid them

“Protect you skin against environmental pollutants”.

You might have seen this phrase in some skincare products’ description while browsing online at your favorite Skincare Store. What exactly are these pollutants and how do they affect our skin overtime? In this article, we will share our research on the effect of air pollution to our skin’s health, what are the common pollutants and how to protect your skin against them.

Skin pollution has starting to gain attention in recent years, especially in the Korean beauty industry. As the levels of pollution in our external environment increase, so does the risk of harmful effects on our skin’s health. Although the skin acts as a shield against some types of pollutants, the prolonged or repetitive exposure to high levels of pollution can cause harm to our skin. Some research has shown that consistent exposure of the skin to pollutants is associated with skin ageing and inflammatory or allergic skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis or acne breakouts.


Image Credit: NPR.ORG (Buildings are seen shrouded in smog from the 102nd floor of Seoul's Lotte World Tower in December 2015. Bloomberg via Getty Images.)


What are the common pollutants?

Free radicals

  • Higher levels of pollution increase the risk of exposure to free radicals
  • Pollutants known to cause an increase in free radicals: smog, dust, cigarette smoke, household cleaners, farming pesticides
  • They’re responsible for breaking down our skin’s collagen, this damage appears on our skin in the form of wrinkles, fine lines, loose and sagging skin, dryness, unwanted pigmentation (dark spots, age spots, broken blood vessels)


UV rays

Two types of ultraviolet radiation that reach our skin

  1. UVA (aka, long wave light)
    • Accounts for 95% of the UV light that reaches our skin, more of a threat as there’s a larger percentage of them
    • Present all day long, all year round, even when it’s cloudy and the sun “isn’t out”
  1. UVB
    • Much smaller range than UVA
    • Not as skin-penetrating or ever-present as UVA but UVB is more powerful
    • Directly responsible for sunburn and other visible changes to the skin’s surface, including discolouration and skin cancer

Air pollution

  • Gases or particles released into the air as a result of human activity
  • Air pollution from traffic and soot can increase pigmentation by spots by 20%
  • The 5 types of air pollution that pose the biggest risk to your skin:
    • Automobile and truck exhaust
    • Cigarette smoke
    • Manufacturing by-products
    • Small particle matter
    • Smog (the most harmful - can disturb the barrier, resulting in dehydration, sensitivity, uneven
    • skin tone, dullness, acne and premature acne)
  • Air pollution contains microscopic contaminants which produce free radicals, stripping the skin of barrier lipids that help retain moisture and keep out impurities
  • Small airborne pollutants can get stuck in the pores resulting in acne-like breakouts, triggering damage deep within the layers of the skin
  • A compromised skin barrier can lead to increased skin sensitivity, discomfort and premature signs of skin ageing, especially pigmentation issues
  • This damage can lead to the breakdown and deterioration of everything skin needs to look healthy
  • Exposure to air pollutions can be just as bad as leaving skin unprotected against sun exposure


  • Nanoparticles in the form of dirt, dust or soot can penetrate and negatively impact your skin cells
  • Dirt particles can accumulate on the skin’s surface which can clog pores when they mix with your skin cells and oils
  • Causes premature ageing through the process of oxidation (when your oxygen atoms split and become free radicals



Some negative effects on our skin caused by environmental pollutants include:

  • Brown spots
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Uneven, dull skin tone
  • Breakdown of the skin’s supportive elements, causing wrinkles
  • Enlarged pores
  • Sensitive, redness prone skin
  • Uncomfortably dry, itchy skin
  • The breakdown of collagen

Keeping the skin’s surface intact, healthy and protected is important because as the surface breaks down, the skin becomes more vulnerable to pollutants that are small enough to enter the body through the weakened skin.



While it’s impossible to completely protect the skin from any and all visible effects of pollution, we can simply try to shield the skin as best we can to minimize the effects.



  • Most powerful weapon when fighting against the effects of free radicals, it can help neutralize and therefor prevent free radical damage.
  • Oxidation can cause your skin to age prematurely when expose to harmful pollutants, and antioxidants can help halt this process
  • Look for anti-pollution skincare products formulated with antioxidants that help interrupt the process of pollution’s harmful effects
  • It will protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun as well, which is important as pollution can worsen the effects of the sun on your skin

For products with antioxidants ingredients, we recommend:

Thorough cleansing / double cleansing

A crucial step in any skincare routine, especially at night after you have returned from being outdoors for clearing away all the impurities and pollutants that are still on your skin. You want to wash away all the harmful particles, soot, dust, etc. that may have attached themselves to your skin before they have the chance to penetrate deeper and cause irritation.

Tips: Be careful not to overdo it as striping or irritating your skin can make it lose some of its barrier function so pollutions can penetration a lot easier


Exfoliating / chemical exfoliation

  • AHA + BHA exfoliants are helpful for dislodging pollutants trapped within the pores
  • Detoxifying ingredients (eg. Charcoal/volcanic clay) can also help remove pollution on the skin

Tips: Avoid over exfoliation as it can make your skin more vulnerable to pollution

For products with AHA or BHA ingredients, we recommend:


Our skin is an important line of defense against the harmful effects that pollution can have on our body as a whole. We don’t just eat and breathe in environmental toxins but we also absorb them through our skin so it’s important to protect and have a healthy skin-barrier function.


Tips: You can check the Skin Pollution Index of your Town or City here.


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