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Is The Air Around Your Skin's Biggest Enemy?

By Adam Trainor October 11, 2019

Picture this:

You’re outside on a clear, gorgeous day breathing in lungfuls of fresh, clear air.

Is there anything better?

Not really.

But the thing is, we’re exposed to far more airborne skin-damaging particles than we realize—and yes, that’s even when air looks clear. While there’s no denying that air pollution levels vary nationwide, if you live in an urban area it’s likely that you’re exposed to the not-so-fab five of air pollution:

  ○  particulate matter

  ○  ground-level ozone

  ○  volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

  ○  nitrogen oxides (NO2)

  ○  polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)

Particulate matter (usually shortened to PM) refers to any type of tiny particle that is less than 2 ½ microns in width. For reference, the average pore size is 50 microns wide—so think of how much PM is actually on your skin at any given time! PM is usually the physical particles of cigarette smoke, soot, exhaust fumes, and even dust. The finer the particle, the more pernicious it is when it comes to affecting your skin.

Annoying, right?

Ground-level ozone, aka smog, is the result of ultraviolet light reacting with VOCs and NO2 particles to create that visible haze that we often associate with polluted air. The catch is, even if they’re not visible, these compounds are your skin’s number one foes—and they’re all produced every day from a common source: traffic.

These five harmful, yet commonly occurring pollutants have been linked to prematurely aging skin—and that’s not even the worst part.

These airborne compounds are pretty much around us all the time, and we can’t exactly avoid them.

Seriously—what are you going to do, carry around an oxygen tank everywhere?

No, but that doesn’t mean we’re completely defenseless against the impurities in our environment. First off, let’s understand exactly how the air around us impacts our skin, then we can formulate a plan to defend and protect it.

Wait, how do we really know that pollution damages skin?

A tentative link between pollution and accelerated signs of aging was made during a longitudinal health study of 2,000 women, spanning 30 years in Germany.

Dr. Jean Krutmann and his fellow researchers found a link between exposure to PM 2.5, NO2, and ground-level ozone traffic pollution and spot pigment and wrinkle formation.

To put it simply, the women who lived in areas with higher levels of traffic-based pollution had more pigmentation and more wrinkles.

Obviously, this isn’t a gender-exclusive phenomenon and affects everyone equally—but now that this link has been established, we’ve gotta look into what causes it.

So, how does air pollution affect the skin?

Air pollution is incredibly annoying in that it doesn’t just affect us by settling into our skin—it can be damaging from the inside out when we breathe in these particles. Pollution particles carry along with them pesky molecules called free radicals.

The thing about free radicals is that they cause oxidative stress in the skin—and I’m sure that you can tell from the name alone that that’s not a good thing. According to the scientific director at SkinCeuticals, Yevgeniy Krol, oxidative stress directly damages the underlying skin structure.

To put it simply, it causes damage to the skin that shows as wrinkles, pigmentation, and change in skin texture.

What are Free Radicals?

Remember in chemistry, how we all learned about molecules having certain numbers of electrons? Free radicals are basically unbalanced and missing an electron, so they go around wreaking havoc trying to steal electrons from other molecules.

The truth is, free radicals occur totally naturally.

Yep, you read that right—but there’s an ideal balance to be had. Our own bodies even produce them as a metabolism by-product, so it’s literally impossible to 100% avoid them.

So what’s the actual problem?

The true issues start sticking up their ugly heads when we are exposed to too many free radicals, and too many electrons are being scavenged. It’s this process of free radicals roaming around, kidnapping electrons at will that causes oxidative stress to skin.

Free radicals are considered one of the biggest contributors to visible wrinkles, sunspots, and changes in skin according to the Free Radical Theory of Aging. That’s not even the worst part— pollution isn’t the only source of free radicals! Two other major external sources of free radicals include smoking (and being exposed to cigarette smoke) and ultraviolet light exposure.

In case you didn’t realize, we’re routinely exposed to a lot of things that are a source of free radicals and ultimately oxidative stress—but what can we do about it? 

What is Oxidative Stress?

Oxidative stress occurs when there’s an imbalance of antioxidants and free radicals. Normally, your skin (and body) has decent natural antioxidant defenses to keep everything under control and minimize oxidative stress. The average person gets enough antioxidants from food, such as Vitamin C, Carotenoids, and Vitamin E—but in an environment that’s constantly exposing us to more and more free radicals, is that enough?

Let’s take a step back for a sec— I know you might be wondering, “What does oxidative stress actually do?”

Oxidative stress ultimately has the power to alter DNA—that’s why skin prematurely loses elasticity, overproduces pigments, and wrinkles deeper. Damaged or altered DNA doesn’t replicate properly, resulting in damage to the underlying support structure of the skin—collagen.

But here’s the unfortunate truth:

By the time you’ve noticed these changes, it’s too late to completely reverse them.

The thing with oxidative stress is that you need to stay ahead of it to minimize how it affects your skin.

The good news?

It’s really, really easy to stay ahead of it! Antioxidants are hardworking powerhouses that fight off skin-damaging free radicals—and they’re all you need to deal with your skin’s worst enemy.

How Do Antioxidants Work?

Antioxidants are a major key to good health. They’re in a lot of different types of foods—fresh fruit, spices, leafy vegetables—different forms of antioxidants are literally everywhere. Their sole role is to protect you from free radicals.

How?

Well, remember how we said that free radicals are missing an electron, and basically steal them from other molecules?

Antioxidants have extra electrons to donate (without oxidizing themselves) and neutralize free radicals in their tracks, stopping them from wreaking total havoc on your skin.

That’s not even the best part—

Antioxidants can help to partly undo what free radicals have done to your skin. They’re the most effective at helping to reduce the appearance of pigmentation that pesky free radicals leave behind, and can slightly diminish the look of wrinkles—but it can’t erase them completely, I’m afraid.

However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t see some serious changes over time with the right habits!

How to protect your skin from free radicals in the air

Luckily, getting ahead of free radical damage is pretty straightforward! These are the three best ways for shielding your skin against what’s in the air:

1) Topical antioxidants

Pretty much every skincare brand has an antioxidant serum these days—it’s definitely a bit of a buzzword, but that’s because antioxidants can do so much for skin!

A classic antioxidant serum ingredient is good old Vitamin C—it’s probably the one that delivers the most dramatic results but is the most finicky to formulate.

If only we could squeeze lemon juice on our faces and call it a day—but we can’t.

The next best thing?

L-Ascorbic Acid. This is the most potent form of Vitamin C for skin, but it’s incredibly prone to oxidizing—the opposite of what you’re trying to do to your skin!

However, there’s no denying that it delivers incredibly dramatic effects to skin: brightens pigmentation, boosts collagen production, and most importantly, protects skin from future free radical damage.

Another potent oxidative stress fighter is resveratrol—aka the wine antioxidant. I mean, there’s a whole laundry list of great antioxidants that I could recommend to fortify skin against free radicals—but the key takeaway is how you use them.

To protect your skin round-the-clock, use an antioxidant serum in the morning and night. For the morning, stick to something that has Vitamin C (it’s extra-potent when combined with Ferulic Acid, and may even lend a photoprotective effect).

The thing is, pollution can continue to sap your skin of antioxidants even when you’re not directly exposed to them—so continuing to use an antioxidant overnight is crucial! This is where some of the other, less finicky topical antioxidants can step in: CoQ10, Green Tea, Resveratrol, Lycopene, Niacinamide, and Grape Seed Extract to name a few.

Here’s another bonus tip—pollution isn’t the only thing that could contribute to free radical damage. UV rays cause them too, so always follow up any skincare routine with a broad spectrum, high coverage sunscreen—or else all your hard work will be for nothing! 

2) Using an Air Purifier

I know—this is kind of a pricey option, but it’s a great way for everyone in the home to have clean air.

I can already hear you saying, “But the air on the inside of my house isn’t polluted! What are you going on about?”

First things first—household pollution is a real issue. It’s more common in homes with gas stoves, as these emit a lot of VOCs when in use. If the home isn’t properly ventilated, guess what—you’re exposed to them. 

Even things we commonly assume to be safe because they add fragrance to homes—scented candles and incense—are sources of combustion, and therefore contributing to free radicals in the air.

Who would have known?!

An air purifier worth its salt will have a HEPA filter, which can filter out all particles including tiny PM2.5 particles—truly removing any airborne free radicals that could potentially be settling on your skin and causing oxidative damage. How good is that?!

And there’s just one more thing—they’re great for filtering out allergy-inducing pollen and pet dander, so you really get two birds with one stone with this one.

3) Supplementation Antioxidants

Another great way to protect your skin is from the inside out—I’m talking supplements.

While there are a lot of great natural dietary sources for antioxidants and popular vitamins, there’s one that stands out from the rest: Molecular Hydrogen.

What makes it unique is that it’s a selective antioxidant. Meaning, it can actually target the worst, nastiest free radicals that are floating around in your body. Instead of taking a spray-and-pray approach, it takes them out with sniper-like precision.

There’s also incredibly promising new research about how molecular hydration influences specific proteins (called sirtuins) and a cofactor they rely on, called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide or NAD for short. These two together are the perfect couple for repairing damage after oxidative stress, but there’s one catch.

Basically, as we age, our natural NAD levels go down and our bodies are less effective at repairing oxidative damage, leading to visible signs of aging—and that’s where molecular hydrogen comes in. Molecular hydrogen is just the ticket for ensuring that they don’t fall as quickly, hypothetically slowing down the aging process—sounds good, right?

Well, that’s not all molecular hydrogen does.

Not only does it repair oxidative stress-related damage, but it also improves the cells’ ability to defend against it in the first place! Talk about getting ahead of the game, right?!

There’s a lot of evidence to support molecular hydrogen as one of the best antioxidants to protect your skin from the air around you, so don’t skip this as a way to protect from the inside out.

So, what’s the bottom line on air quality?

Well, there’s enough research out there to suggest that poor air quality is linked to damage in skin—premature wrinkles, excess pigmentation, and loss of volume.

Specifically, smaller pollution particles impacted skin through direct contact and releasing free radicals, which damage skin and how it looks—not exactly something that people want to happen!

While minimizing contact with free radicals is ideal, it’s just not realistic—there’s no need for Bubble Boy-like precautions!

Instead, setting up your defenses against the air around you is really as simple as a skincare routine that includes antioxidants, internally supplementing with antioxidants, and ensuring that you are exposed to as much clean air as possible.

Here's to the good skin days ahead!


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Free radicals are generated naturally — and inevitably — deep within our cells. They are a natural byproduct of the fundamental processes that enable us to generate energy from the foods we consume. There’s a reason we say we are “burning calories.” This energy-generating process literally uses oxygen to “burn” the molecules obtained from the food we ingest for fuel.

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As always, though, balance is everything. Many lifestyle activities — ranging from inactivity, to consuming fried foods, to avoiding fresh fruits and vegetables, to breathing polluted air — can affect one’s balance of antioxidants and free radicals.

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