The Biggest Threat That’s Aging Your Skin (Hint: It’s Not the Sun)

You might think that slathering on sunscreen every day is all you need to protect your skin, but now there’s an even bigger threat: Pollution. And it’s really bad news. “Pollution causes accelerated aging to the skin,” explains Dr. Howard Sobel, NYC dermatologist and founder of Sobel Skin. “Multiple studies have shown that environmental irritants in the air can cause hyperpigmentation, inflammation, and redness, plus lead to premature fine lines and wrinkles. In addition, these irritants have been shown to break down collagen and the lipid layer, impairing the skin’s barrier function.”

The reason skin is susceptible to damage from pollution and free radicals is that it’s so easy for pollution particles to penetrate it. “A pollution particle entering a pore is like a tennis ball going through a basketball hoop — it’s pretty easy for these harmful pollution particles to penetrate into your skin without any line of protection or defense against them,” says dermatologist Dr. Dendy Engelman. “The stratum corneum, or outermost layer of the skin, acts as a barrier protecting the deeper layers of the skin. Nanoparticles, the most harmful components of ambient particulate matter, can be up to 20 times smaller than human pores. When this layer is damaged by the environment, it can result in skin that is irritated, dry, dull and inflamed. It also makes it harder for your anti-aging skincare products, geared towards the collagen and elastin deeper in the epidermis, to penetrate skin.”

Surprisingly, it isn’t just a problem in big cities. “Those who live in highly polluted areas are more at risk and should take necessary steps to protect their skin and complexions,” Sobel says. However, keep in mind everyone, no matter where you live, should take precautions. “UVA/UVB rays, infrared, and high-energy visible blue light are all factors of pollution, which trigger the immune system to produce excessive melanin. Therefore, if you spend a lot of time outside, even in rural areas, you are still at risk.”

Luckily, there are steps you can take to minimize damage from pollution that will help your skin long after Earth Day. “There are actual products available that eliminate toxins within our cells and combat pollution damage,” Engelman says. “It is critical to select products that are designed to both prevent and correct damage from environmental exposures — this includes both ultraviolet radiation and pollution.”

Try these tactics to protect your skin from pollution:

Wash your face regularly — and effectively

Double cleansing helps get rid of impurities from your face. To take it up a notch, try a facial cleansing tool. Sobel recommends a Clarisonic because “it’s a smart choice that’s proven to cleanse six times better than hands alone.” Be sure to always wash your face before you go to bed. “Cleansing your skin at least once daily is critical to prevent dirt buildup caused by pollution, makeup and all the other gross stuff that has accumulated over the day,” Sobel says. “Use a gentle cleanser specifically formulated for anti-pollution use and follow up with a toner to lift off any excess debris the cleanser didn’t get.” However, don’t get carried away with cleansing too much, since that can strip the skin of its natural oils.

Look for antioxidants in your skincare products

Antioxidants help fight pollution particles and work to neutralize cell damage that is caused by free radicals. “Free radicals are highly destructive molecules that can wreak havoc on your skin,” Engelman explains. “Free radicals are unstable compounds in search of a missing electron. When they ‘steal’ electrons from other molecules, it leaves those molecules unstable as well and then in turn in search of a missing electron. Because this produces a domino effect, this further weakens the skin barrier, leaving it vulnerable to premature aging, causing fine lines, wrinkles and uneven skin texture. An antioxidant helps protect skin against free radical assaults by neutralizing oxidative stress that can cause cell damage. Antioxidants pair with free radical scavengers in search of a missing electron, so it neutralizes the damage a free radical can do if it were to pair instead with an electron from a skin protein.” Especially effective antioxidants are resveratrol and vitamin C; Engelman recommends OMI Skin Nutrition Wrinkle Lifting Power Serum.

Wear sunscreen

In addition to shielding your skin from harmful rays, sunscreen can also help with pollution. “Sunscreen should always be used year-round,” Sobel says. “Use an SPF 30 or higher, and when possible, wear a hat and long-sleeve UPF clothing for extra layer of precaution.” Engelman’s go-to sunscreen is Elizabeth Arden PREVAGE City Smart Broad Spectrum SPF50 Hydrating Shield, since it protects from both the sun and pollution and is packed with antioxidants such as green tea.

Detox with charcoal

It feels like charcoal has been trending as a skincare ingredient for ages now, and for good reason. “Charcoal exfoliators and masks are great as they work to absorb the toxins that get stuck in your pores,” Sobel says. “Facial exfoliators that have brightening ingredients to counteract the effects of environmental exposures to pollution are another smart option.”

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