Air pollution has long been acknowledged as a public health menace. In places like China, it’s estimated that industrial fumes from coal powered factories are so bad that in Beijing and other cities, the average lifespan has been slashed by 5.5 years.
If you’re an expat living in East Asian developing cities like Bangkok, you have to wear a mask whenever you’re outside or you’ll developed the classic “gravel-throat voice”. You’ll end up sounding like Christian Bale in the recent Dark Knight trilogy.
It’s not just the third world; living in busy sections of places like London can increase your risk of lung cancer, inflammatory bowel disease, and even Alzheimer’s…
You might have guessed by now that in addition, air pollution is a big cause of acne.
Air pollution – constantly bombarding you with free radicals
The first villain on our list is ozone, which is formed from the pollutant nitrogen dioxide.
When cars burn petrol, the combustion process leads to the formation of nitric oxide (NOx). This gas then reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere and morphs into nitrogen dioxide (NO2).
This gas, one of the key pollutants plaguing Beijing and many industrial cities, is a big culprit behind the common lung problems caused by pollution. Nitrogen dioxide can cause asthma, bronchitis, and can weaken the general efficiency of your lungs.
The problem we’re concerned with is NO2’s power to morph into various other pollutants. Another type of pollutant is the “volatile organic compound”, which includes various substances formed from burning coal, gasoline, paint, rubbish, factory chemicals, and much more.
One volatile organic compound is the hydrocarbon, and when NO2 reacts with this, the pollutant ozone is formed. Ozone naturally occurs in the upper atmosphere and it helps to block the strongest UV rays; hence why the whole world panicked about the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica.
However, when found in high concentrations at ground level, ozone can be deadly. The dreaded smog, with its suffocating, cancer-causing powers, is one highly visible example of ozone pollution. You can discover the American cities with the worst ozone pollution here.
With the roads in our cities full of cars and vans, ozone is one of the most ubiquitous pollutants around. Mexico City has the highest concentrations in the world. Ozone pollution is a big worry in American cities like Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Sacramento…
…and that’s bad news for your skin, because ozone is potent at causing oxidative damage to your skin. Ozone isn’t a free radical itself, but it easily leads to free radical reactions in living organisms. Ozone snatches the electrons from the molecules that form your skin cells. These molecules become highly unstable and the structure collapse.
Free radical damage is why people in polluted cities age so quickly, and why their skin is grey and unhealthy looking. Avoiding free radicals is a popular strategy among health gurus for slowing the tide of aging, and getting healthy and glowing skin at any age.
As for your acne, free radicals can damage many compounds important for your skin health.
Firstly, ozone can oxidise sebum, the oil on your face. Sebum is what blocks your pores, but when a compound in sebum called squalene is exposed to free radicals, it forms squalene peroxide, which is twice as potent. Squalene peroxide causes a localised increase in sebum production and glues your dead skin cells together.
These two factors combine for the perfect pore blocking recipe. If you’re a regular reader here, then you’ll know that sebum oxidation is one of the biggest causes of acne out there. Ozone, as well as other pollutants like nitric oxide, is a major culprit behind it.
Secondly, ozone and its free radicals worsen the general appearance of your skin, making you look old and tired. Simply go on holiday to the Alps with their clean mountain air for a couple of weeks and you’ll look like a whole new person.
Thirdly, ozone is the arch enemy of your skin’s vitamin E stores:
- An old 1997 study by UC Berkeleyfound that exposure to air pollution in urban areas and in particular, areas with high concentrations of ozone strongly depleted levels of Vitamin E in the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the skin’s epidermis. According to researcher Jens Thiele, “It was very striking how readily vitamin E was depleted.” After just two hours of exposure to heavy air pollution, vitamin E content in thee stratum corneum plunged by 25%. After six consecutive days of similar exposure, only 25% of the vitamin E survived.
Vitamin E is the main fat-soluble antioxidant in your body. Importantly for us, it is your skin’s main inbuilt defence against sebum oxidation. That fact makes ozone twice as potent at creating squalene peroxide. Vitamin E can also improve the resistance of your skin cells to ultraviolet light, and prevent all kinds of sun damage like sunburn, skin cancer, and most importantly, inflammation of existing pimples.
There’s evidence that increasing vitamin E concentration in the skin can have a general anti-inflammatory effect too. Studies find that vitamin E can inhibit interleukin, COX-2, and prostaglandin production (all inflammatory immune system chemicals), and help inflammatory conditions like eczema, edema, and erythema. That’s useful because acne is an inflammatory disease at its root.
Finally, free radicals can weaken the collagen structures in your skin and also morph any new collagen being manufactured into unusable forms.
Collagen is the skin’s main protein which plays a big role in wound healing and the fading away of old acne. Collagen is so important for structural purposes that increasing your levels (by eating more vitamin C and dietary protein) can strengthen the entire skin against inflammatory threats like acne. It’s through damaging collagen that free radicals exert most of their aging effects.
It should be stated that ozone is simply the main free radical generating pollutant. There are tons more lurking in cities that can have all the above effects, including manmade nitric oxide, hydrocarbons, and other volatile organic compounds. In fact, it’s estimated that a smoker is exposed to 300 times more free radicals from air pollution than from their cigarettes.
Particulates – another inflammatory villain
A chief villain behind this is particulate matter. Particulates are one of the most scientifically studied forms of air pollution. Particulate matter, which is common in cities worldwide, is made up of extremely small solid particles or liquid droplets. It can be composed of any number of toxins, including soil, organic chemicals, metals, or dust.
Fine particulate matter, meanwhile, is officially defined as particles which are equal to or less than 2.5 micrometers. These particles can originate from anywhere; smoke from chimneys and forest fires, gases emitted from power plants, industries, and in particular, automobiles, particularly those with cheap and impure fuel.
The rule of thumb is that the lower the diameter, the more damaging to your health the particulate becomes. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers any particulates that are 10 micrometers or less to be a health risk. Tiny particles can easily pass through otherwise tightly regulated bodily membranes and into your lungs, causing breathing problems, and into the heart.
The important point for acne is that they can easily enter your intestines – your digestive system.
Basically, when you breathe in particulates they get stuck in the mucus of your respiratory tract. This mucus ultimately ends up being digested in your small intestines – and the fine particulate matter goes there with it.
There, your body gets completely confused. There’s not supposed to be small by-products of coal and wood burning in your body. Your immune system thus responds with a large inflammatory response on the particulates.
This causes collateral damage to your gut lining, weakening its semipermeable membrane and leading to a condition called leaky gut syndrome.
Normally, the human gut only absorbs beneficial substances are absorbed from food – vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and proteins. Meanwhile, damaged proteins, unhealthy bacteria and viruses, and any other compound that doesn’t belong in your bloodstream is rejected. The absorption is controlled very tightly.
Leaky gut syndrome is when all those unwanted substances do pass through, in a steady unregulated stream. Particulates can cause that:
- This study on mice found that breathing particulate matter weakened epithelial cells (which form the lining of your gut), disrupted the function of tight junctions (which open and close to allow nutrients to pass), and generally increased gut permeability. The mice also had higher levels of inflammatory chemicals like interleukin-6 in their guts.
With all these foreign molecules flooding in, your body gets completely confused. Those unwanted substances are simply not designed to enter your bloodstream. Many of the substances are dangerous in their own right; agrochemicals from produce, viruses, natural plant toxins.
Hence, your body treats them to inflammation again, but this time, it’s in your entire body. This adds substantially to your burden of chronic inflammation, and that’s bad news, because chronic inflammation is one of the two main root causes of acne. The damage to the gut lining can heal with time, but with continuous exposure to particulates, that process cannot begin.
What really whacks the nail on head is that because fine particulate matter has such a tiny diameter, it can pass through your gut’s semipermeable membrane before it even weakens. Air pollution can add to your burden of inflammation even if your gut isn’t leaky.
That’s important news for any acne patient because particulate contamination is still running rampant. According to the American Lung Association, over 44 million people in the United States live in areas that exceed federal health standards for fine particles. Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, El Paso, Phoenix all have a big problem with particulates.
With that said, particulates are the tip of the iceberg. There are ever more studies these days finding links between air pollution and digestive problems of all kinds.
One study on hospital admissions in Wisconsin reported that in 2002, high air pollution levels were associated with a 40 percent increase in the rate of bowel disease hospitalizations. Chemicals accounted for in the study included carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, volatile organic chemicals and fine particulate matter.
Another study by Dr Kaplan and colleagues found that British people between the ages of 5 and 23 with higher exposure to nitrogen dioxide were over twice as likely to develop Crohn’s disease as young people with less exposure. Crohn’s disease has similarities with leaky gut syndrome as the root cause is overactive inflammatory response in your gut.
The conclusion is clear: air pollution of all kinds is bad news for your digestive system, and bad news for your skin too.
Air pollution is an underestimated cause of acne
Air pollution has many indirect effects as well. Particulates can block UV rays and thus it’s much harder to make enough vitamin D while living in a city. Some of the chemicals can cause direct inflammation to the skin, and the digestive problems can also worsen your absorption of important nutrients like zinc and magnesium.
The truth is that if you live in a busy city, air pollution is likely to be a big cause of your acne.
I’ve noticed the effects vividly while on holiday. Whenever I spend a week in Austria for a skiing or mountaineering holiday, I nearly always notice that my skin becomes far more glowing and radiant after approximately three or four days. I don’t get any pimples at all. When I’m there I usually relax and bombard my body with greasy frankfurters and fries, rustic Austrian bread (made with wheat, which is a nightmare for acne) and sugary Schokoladetorte.
In spite of that, my skin never seems to deteriorate. In the days when I was using chemical face washes, I found it interesting that the cotton puff I’d wipe my face with would be covered in far less grime and dirt afterwards compared to in England.
There’s no question from my experiences that clean mountain air is a godsend for your skin. Basic village air is far better too.
Your guide to breathing clean air
The next question is what to do about it. If you’re considering moving, then you should factor the quality of the air into your decision. Rural areas are nearly always cleaner. However, moving house just to clear your skin clearly isn’t an option for most people. Leaving the window open will bring in fresh air in a village, but in a city the outside air is actually much worse than inside.
Therefore, if you live in a highly polluted area, it’s far smarter to boost the air quality inside your home. You can create a sanctuary of pure, acne-friendly air. Domestic air is usually quite polluted itself, but freshening it up is easy.
Here’s a guide to get you started:
Replace chemical based products – products like deodorants, scented candles, air fresheners, and perfumes are loaded with inflammatory chemicals like phthalates and parabens. If you spray them every day, the fumes will build up in your house and so will the chemicals. The gases pump pollutants directly into your breathing air. Search for natural alternatives instead.
Avoid non-stick cookware – when heated while cooking, the Teflon releases many chemicals directly into the air. These include PFIB, a chemical warfare agent favoured by dictators everywhere.
Buy natural cleaning products – instead of chemical cleaners, try using recipes on the internet with vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, or Dr Bronner’s liquid castile soap. With the ongoing exposure of many “safe” chemicals, there’s tons of recipes available. This step will further minimise pollutants in your house.
Buy house plants – when you walk into a flowery meadow you immediately notice how pleasant the air is to breathe. Many plants have the ability to remove toxins from the air and they can do so in your house too. Some excellent air-freshening house plants include species of ivy, like English Ivy, Devil’s Ivy, and Parlor Ivy. Just about any plant will do; basic flowers from the grocery store or raising a colony of spider plants will help. In fact, the more the better. Get plants that last for ages and you can make your air seriously fresh and pleasant.
Hoover regularly – dust in your household isn’t just dead skin, it often contains high concentrations of chemicals like phthalates. Additionally, fine dust or powders, like talcum powder can cause inflammation similarly to particulates. They linger in the air after usage as well.
Don’t smoke inside – it’s best not to smoke at all, but if you stop doing it inside you can at least prevent the build-up of free radicals and other contaminants.
Air pollution is one of the biggest hidden causes of acne which people rarely discuss. It causes inflammation and massive free radical damage to the skin.
The fact of the matter is that if you live in a polluted city, you’ll always be exposed to more inflammatory contaminants compared to other people. Nevertheless, the steps above can make a good difference.
If you can’t move, then it’s doubly important to work hard in other areas. For example, cutting your cigarettes intake down or to zero will actually save you money. Taking vitamin D tablets will make up for the loss in UV light exposure.
Another smart idea is to arrange your daily face washes to minimise the contact of pollutants with your skin. You should give your face a wash with cool water and natural soap as soon as you get in from work or shopping, to remove any particulates as fast as possible.
If your village or town isn’t polluted, then this article might explain why your acne gets worse during a trip to the big city.
Thanks for reading!