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Air Pollution and Skin Aging

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Air Pollution and Skin Aging

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Over the years, the increased air pollution had harmful effects on human skin. The article highlights how exposure to air pollution leads to skin aging.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Kartikay Aggarwal

Published At July 12, 2022
Reviewed AtDecember 21, 2023


The human skin acts as a barrier against environmental stresses. Therefore, it is responsible for causing the skin to age and inflammatory or allergic skin diseases such as atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, acne, and even skin cancer. However, prolonged exposure to these environmental factors negatively affects the skin. Major air pollutants that influence skin aging includes ultraviolet radiation (UVR), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM), and cigarette smoke.

How Does Air Pollution Cause Skin Aging?

The air pollutants which induce skin aging include:

Ultraviolet Radiation:

  • The solar spectrum consists of ultraviolet A, B, and C. Approximately 95 % of ultraviolet A and one to five percent of ultraviolet B reach the earth's surface. At the same time, the ozone layer and oxygen absorb most ultraviolet C in the atmosphere.

  • The stratospheric ozone depletion by environmental pollutants, including photochemical smog, supersonic aircraft flights, and refrigerant gasses, poses a threat to human health as it causes an increase in the penetration of the ultraviolet radiations of shorter wavelengths to the ground level.

  • The severity of ultraviolet radiation effects on human skin depends on the wavelength.

  • Exposure to ultraviolet A is linked with extrinsic skin aging (photoaging). Photoaging clinically manifests as coarse wrinkles, solar elastosis, and pigment irregularities.

  • Aging results from the combined action of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. The intrinsic aging of the skin is genetically determined and naturally occurring, bypassing time. Whereas extrinsic aging, on the other hand, is induced by lifestyle and environmental factors.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs):

  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are one of the most widespread and dangerous organic pollutants.

  • The atmospheric polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon benzo(a) pyrene is mainly found in residual wood burning. The other sources include automobile exhaust, diesel fumes, metallurgical industry, production of plastics, pesticides, dyes, cigarette smoke, and smoke from the combustion of organic material.

  • These pollutants are associated with extrinsic skin aging, pigmentation, cancers, and acneiform eruption. In addition, prolonged skin exposure to particulate matter-bound PAHs through a hair follicle or transepidermal absorption may lead to oxidative stress and skin aging.

Cigarette Smoke:

  • Cigarette smoke is a complex aerosol composed of various chemical substances such as reactive oxygen species, carbon monoxide, reactive nitrogen species, and electrophilic aldehydes.

  • Reactive oxidants and free radicals from cigarette smoke cause oxidative stress and inhibit antioxidant mechanisms.

  • Smoking causes premature aging, which is characterized by deeper periorbital wrinkling. The term "smoker's face" refers to premature facial skin aging in smokers, with a characteristic pattern of wrinkling and orange-purple skin discoloration. Heavy cigarette smokers are 4.7 times more likely to develop facial wrinkles or lines than nonsmokers, independent of sun exposure.

Particulate Matter (PM):

  • Particulate matter is air pollutants consisting of complex and varying mixtures of different sizes and composition particles suspended in the air.

  • The primary sources of particulate matter include factories, power plants, refuse incinerators, automobiles, construction activities, fires, and natural windblown dust.

  • Particulate matter penetrates the skin either through hair follicles or transdermal mode. Prolonged exposure to particulate matter causes coarse wrinkles and pigment spots on the face and nasolabial folds.

  • The generation of oxidative stress by particulate matter contributes to extrinsic skin aging in humans.


  • The significant sources of nitrogen oxides are mobile and stationary combustion. They react with ozone or radicals in the atmosphere to form nitrogen dioxide.

  • Among nitrogen oxides, nitrogen dioxide is responsible for oxidative damage, leading to free radicals that oxidize amino acids in tissue proteins and initiate lipid peroxidation of polyunsaturated fatty acids.

  • Atmospheric sulfur dioxide is another pollutant from fuel combustion from industrial processes and natural sources such as volcanic activity and forest fires.

  • Carbon monoxide, formed from incomplete combustion of mobile sources, acts on cell metabolism, which binds to heme and alters its function and metabolism. Flexural eczema is associated with traffic-related air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide.


  • Ozone, a ubiquitous pollutant, exists in the stratosphere and the troposphere. Usually, ozone is present at ground level in low concentrations. However, ozone formed as a by-product of the interaction of sunlight (UVR) and hydrocarbons.

  • Volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides are major active components of photochemical smog. In addition, ozone can damage the barrier function.

  • The epidermis decreases the level of antioxidants such as tocopherols (vitamin E) and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

  • When combined with ultraviolet A rays and cigarette smoke, ozone acts as a powerful oxidizing agent of squalene. Oxidation of squalene produces a peroxidized form of squalene by-products, leading to comedogenesis, which aggravates inflammation. In addition, the epidermal lipids are oxidized, and the activity of matrix metalloproteinases is disturbed, which clinically manifests as wrinkling and extrinsic skin aging.

How to Minimize the Risk of Air Pollution?

Natural sources of pollution such as volcanic eruptions or forest fires are difficult to prevent. However, there are some ways by which human-made sources of air pollution can be controlled.

These strategies include:

  • Less use of personal vehicles.

  • More use of carpools and public transport.

  • Supply of low-sulfur petrol, shifting industries in outskirts of the cities.

  • Usage of eco-friendly industrial machines and methods.

  • Avoidance of burning garbage in the open.

  • Avoiding cigar smoke.

  • Avoid using wood and crop residues as fuel for household cooking and heating.

  • Reduce traffic-induced pollution. For instance, all public transport vehicles use biofriendly fuels such as compressed natural gas. The odd-even formula for private cars is an excellent example of steps taken.

  • As a cleaner and greener alternative, using electric vehicles such as electric scooters and cars is a good approach to sustainable transportation. They are fuel-efficient and cost-effective.

How to Protect Skin From Air Pollution?

Some easy ways can be beneficial for personal protection, such as:

  • Wash skin before bedtime using a cleanser to eliminate the pollutants accumulated on the skin.

  • Use sunscreens before stepping out of homes.

  • Reducing exposure to air pollution by avoiding areas around industries and public smoking.
  • Use topical antioxidants, such as vitamin C and E, and sunscreen.

  • Use of indoor air purifiers and ventilators while cooking.

  • People working in high occupational risk areas such as traffic police, street vendors, and sweepers should wear masks.


Skin is an essential organ of the human body. Protecting the skin from environmental stresses is necessary as any factor affecting the whole body impacts it. Major air pollutants affecting the skin include solar ultraviolet radiation, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, ozone, and cigarette smoke. Ultraviolet radiation, cigarette smoke, and ambient particulate matter are the main factors causing extrinsic skin aging. Human-made sources of air pollution can be controlled by taking crucial, environment-friendly steps. Some personal protection strategies to minimize skin aging risk can be helpful.

Frequently Asked Questions


How Does Air Pollution Influence Skin Aging?

The human skin acts as a barrier against air pollution. Various air pollutants are cigarette smoke, particulate matter, ozone, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Prolonged exposure to these pollutants adversely affects the skin. It is because they are responsible for atopic dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis, acne, and skin cancer.


Does Air Pollution Speed Up Skin Aging?

Various studies have found a link between environmental pollutants and signs of aging (wrinkles and age spots). High exposure to poor levels of air can change cells. Exposure to air pollutants affects the ends of chromosomes (telomeres) that protect deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from damage. Shorter telomeres are characteristic of aging.


How Does Air Pollution Result in Skin Diseases?

Air pollutants affect the skin by generating oxidative stress. An increased amount of oxidants in the skin leads to chronic inflammation. It can result in collagen fragmentation (a skin component), disorganization of collagen fibers, and disrupted skin cell functions. Thus, it contributes to skin diseases. The human skin poses as a biological shield against chemicals and physical air pollutants. Hence, repetitive exposure to high levels of air pollutants can have intense negative effects on the skin.


Is Air Pollution Harmful to the Skin?

Air pollution has major adverse effects on the skin. Exposure to UVR is associated with skin aging and skin cancers. Cigarette smoke leads to premature aging and increased incidence of psoriasis, acne, and skin cancers. It can also aggravate allergic skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis and eczema. PAHs can cause skin aging, pigmentation, cancers, and acne eruptions. Volatile organic compounds are implicated in causing atopic dermatitis.


What Are the Measures to Recover Skin From Air Pollution?

The following tips can recover the air pollution effects on the skin.
- Wrinkles & Premature Ageing: A well-balanced diet can reduce skin aging. A nutrient-rich diet maintains skin elasticity.
- Increased Sensitivity: Skin cleansing is more important in removing impurities and pollutants. A cleansing cream or gel is recommended. Facial scrub also can be incorporated into the routine. 
- Changes in the Skin Colour: Applying sunscreen is critical to prevent damage from UVR exposure and harmful chemicals. 
- Skin Diseases: Good sunscreen and serum protect the skin from UVR. it further forms a protective covering over the epidermis (topmost skin layer).


How Can One Shield the Skin From Air Pollution?

Some convenient tips beneficial for personal protection from air pollution are:
- Cleanse skin before bedtime using a facial cleanser to remove the pollutants deposited on the skin.
- Use sunscreen of minimum sun protecting factor (SPF; 15) before stepping outside.
- Reduce pollution exposure by avoiding areas near industries and public smoking.
- Use antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, and sunscreen. Antioxidants bind to the harmful free radicals formed due to skin exposure to air pollutants. 
- Use indoor air purifiers and ventilators during cooking.  
- Traffic police, street vendors, and sweepers (high occupational risk areas) should wear masks.


Which Age Individuals Are More Prone to Air Pollution?

Children and young individuals are the most vulnerable to air pollution. Several factors explain why the risks for young children are highest. 
- Air pollution harms children during the developmental stage of their life. As a result, it can lead to asthma. Exposure to air pollution at a young age can interfere with lung growth and brain development. 
- An additional factor is height. Children are shorter than adults. Hence, they are closer to the ground and the vehicles’ exhaust pipes. 
- Young children also breathe faster. It is because they breathe more air as compared to their body weight.


How Does Air Pollution Result in Wrinkles?

UVR prompts free radical development in the skin. Subsequently, they damage elastin fibers. Elastin contributes to skin elasticity. Hence, UVR leads to skin wrinkling. People with fair skin have less protection against UVR and develop more wrinkles than dark-skinned people.


What Environmental Factors Trigger Skin Aging?

Recurrent exposure to environmental factors triggers skin aging. The environmental factors that increase skin aging damage cellular structures in the skin. They further interfere with skin repair. Chronic inflammation, infection, metallic chemicals, UVR, smoke, and oxidative stress are notable environmental factors.


Do Weather and Climate Cause Skin Aging?

Dry climates remove skin moisture. It is because the air is devoid of humidity. The skin's lack of moisture can aggravate skin wrinkles and fine lines. The dry air and cold winds can lead to skin dryness. Hence, humidity can provide moisture to the skin to appear supple and youthful.


Is Vitamin C Protective to the Skin?

Normal skin contains high vitamin C. Vitamin C stimulates collagen synthesis and aids in antioxidant protection against UV-induced photodamage. Hence, Vitamin C plays a crucial role in maintaining skin health. For this reason, Vitamin C serums, sunscreens, and creams are becoming more popular.


Can Skin Damage Be Reversed?

Skin damage is irreversible. It is because of the alteration of the skin cell DNA that is irreversible. Hence, most of the skin damage is permanent. However, it does not mean one cannot change the skin's appearance. The effects of damaged skin can be reduced or repaired to some extent.


How Can One Improve the Skin Fast?

Some activities that may promote skin health and restoration are:
- Staying Hydrated: It is one of the most effective ways to ensure skin hydration. 
- Exercise: The body clears out anything clogging the skin pores. Hence, exercise acts as a deep cleanse. In addition, when the blood starts pumping, the body quickly gets restorative nutrients to the skin.
- Antioxidant-Rich Diet: A diet rich in antioxidants and beverages has restorative properties for the skin. 
- Sun Protection: Protecting the skin from the sun will preserve the skin and repair skin damage naturally.
- Frequent Exfoliation: By removing the excess skin cells, the body regenerates cells quickly and enhances collagen production


Is Sunscreen Effective to Save the Skin From Pollution?

A good sunscreen shields the skin against UVR and infrared (IR) radiation. However, antioxidants in sunscreen provide full protection from pollution. Further, a mineral sunscreen can protect from both UV rays and pollutants.


Does UV Radiation Prompt Skin Aging?

UVR accounts for about 80 percent of visible signs of skin aging. It includes dry skin, wrinkling, sagging, and impaired pigmentation. All these correlate with an increased skin cancer risk. Furthermore, UVR alters the DNA structure in skin cells. Hence, it augments premature skin aging.
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Dr. Kartikay Aggarwal
Dr. Kartikay Aggarwal



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