Is PM2.5 bad for my skin?

Air pollution doesn’t just affect our physical health. It also has a negative impact on our skin because skin is directly exposed to pollutants in the air such as PM2.5.

Some of the chemical compounds that carry PM2.5 in the air are lipophilic, which means they can combine with lipids (fats). This makes it very easy for them to penetrate human skin.


PM2.5 causes skin irritation and can worsen eczema

Short-term effects of PM2.5 on the skin include irritation and imbalances because the skin cells and barrier proteins become damaged. Skin can become dry, itchy, or red, and problems like eczema and psoriasis can worsen. PM2.5 can also clog and enlarge pores, leading to inflammation and pimples.


PM2.5 speeds up the aging process

Once PM2.5 and other pollutants are in the skin, a complex process of reactions takes place, damaging the skin through what is known as oxidative stress. Oxidative stress plays a major role in the aging process, so our skin appears older faster, with more wrinkles and dark spots. A German study compared city residents with rural residents and found that women living in cities experienced 20% more dark pigment spots on their faces.


PM2.5 can lead to skin cancer

PM2.5 is also believed to contribute to the development of skin cancers. Although most skin cancers are caused by over-exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, PM2.5 can inhibit one gene responsible for breaking down foreign chemicals called PAHs. PAHs form in the air because of incomplete combustion of coal, petrol, oil, wood, and other products. When PAHs enter the skin, they damage DNA and can support the development of cancerous cells.

There are many beauty products on the market that claim to protect our skin from air pollution, but the science remains unclear. Sunscreen is proven to protect us from UV radiation and should always be worn when outside, but more research needs to be conducted on whether certain products can stop the effects of PM2.5 on our skin.

If possible, people with sensitive skin or skin issues like eczema should stay inside on high pollution days. Houses should be well-sealed (no gaps around windows and doors, for example) and air filtration products can be used to help improve air quality.

PM2.5 isn’t just bad for our skin. It is particularly dangerous for vulnerable groups like pregnant women, children, and the elderly, and can also affect us badly if we exercise outdoors.


References

Piao, M.J., Ahn, M.J., Kang, K.A. et al. 2018. ‘Particulate matter 2.5 damages skin cells by inducing oxidative stress, subcellular organelle dysfunction, and apoptosis’, Archives of Toxicology 92:2077–2091. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00204-018-2197-9

Vierkotter, Andrea, Tamara Schikowski, Ulrich Ranft, Dorothea Sugiri, Mary Matsui, Ursula Kramer, and Jean Krutmann. 2010. ‘Airborne particle exposure and extrinsic skin aging’, Journal of Investigative Dermatology 130(12):2719-2726. https://doi.org/10.1038/jid.2010.204