4 Skin Problems Associated With Air Pollution

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August 27, 2019

When we talk about the health impacts of air pollution, we tend to focus on the risks to our internal organs and respiratory system. But air pollution also affects our body’s first line of defense: our skin. Below, we’ve outlined four common skin conditions linked to air pollution.

1. Premature Skin Aging

For centuries, we’ve known that excessive UV exposure can cause permanent skin damage. In the last few decades, it has become increasingly clear that air pollution is also at fault for premature skin aging.

Back in 2010, research revealed that an increase in particulate matter (PM) due to traffic-related air pollution was associated with a 20 percent increase in pigment spots on the forehead and cheeks. In less-trafficked areas, researchers found that moderate levels of “background” (non-traffic related) particulate matter was accelerating skin aging in similar ways.

In 2017, a follow up study was done to examine the effects of indoor fine particle pollution  (PM2.5) exposure on skin aging. The results? Higher indoor PM2.5 levels (associated with factors such as cooking with solid fuels and inadequate indoor ventilation) were linked to an increase in pigment spots and wrinkles.

2. Eczema

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis (AD), is a chronic skin condition that causes red, itchy patches on the skin that can periodically flare-up in response to environmental triggers. Although the primary risk factor for developing eczema is genetic (i.e. if you have a family history of allergies and skin conditions), research shows that environmental factors like air pollution, humidity, and temperature play a significant role in triggering and aggravating symptoms. 

Aside from family history, exposure to specific indoor pollutants such as airborne chemicals (VOCs) and PM2.5 may also increase your risk of developing eczema at a young age, through what's referred to as "gene-environment interactions."

One study of primary school children in Seoul, Korea, found that eczema rates were significantly higher for children who had a family history of allergic diseases and had moved into a newly built house in their first year of life. Because harmful chemicals (VOCs) are emitted by many common building materials, fresh paint, and furniture, new houses tend to have higher levels of indoor chemical pollution. Additionally, newer houses are more airtight (to improve energy efficiency), which can cause air pollution to reach higher concentrations than outdoors. For these reasons, moving to a new home was considered an environmental trigger for the eczema gene.

Even if you live in an older home, you may still be vulnerable to air quality related symptoms. In addition to building materials, routine household activities such as cooking and cleaning can increase airborne pollution levels and trigger eczema flare-ups.

3. Hives

Hives, also called urticaria, is a spontaneous skin reaction that occurs in response to specific allergens. Most people experience hives at least once in their lifetime, brought on by specific foods, medications, insect bites, sunlight, pet dander, or another (known or unknown) environmental trigger

In some cases, it’s easy to identify what your body is reacting to. For instance, you may pet a neighbor’s cat and see hives appear on your hand immediately afterwards. Other times, it can be difficult to discern a direct cause. You may find that outbreaks occur more frequently while you're indoors, for example, but there may not be any clear pattern as to when or why symptoms appear.

If the latter scenario rings true for you, it’s possible that air pollution (indoor or outdoor) is at fault for your discomfort. For some people, an increase in airborne pollutants like PM2.5, VOCs, ozone (O3), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) can trigger a hives outbreak. A study conducted in Windsor, Canada, found that emergency room visits for hives increased in relation to short-term spikes in ambient air pollution. Similar to eczema, another study noted an association between chronic cases of hives in children and living in a new residence.

4. Irritation, Breakouts, and Inflammation

Even if you don’t have an existing skin condition, airborne pollutants can cause everyday skin aggravation. Just as large particles such as dust and dirt collect on our skin, so do fine particles that are invisible to the naked eye. This microscopic build-up of pollution can trigger acne-like breakouts and disturb our skin’s natural flora (the microbiome of bacteria that exist on the outermost layer of our skin). 

Many of the bacteria on our skin, such as Staphylococcus epidermidis, act as anti-inflammatories and help defend against potential pathogens. When air pollution upsets the natural balance of this ecosystem, it can decrease our skin’s ability to combat dryness, humidity, sunlight, UV radiation, pathogens, and allergens.

Protect Your Skin and Your Health

Although you can’t influence outdoor conditions, you can take steps to improve your indoor air quality, reduce environmental triggers, and protect your skin’s natural defenses. Using an air quality monitor in your home or office can help you troubleshoot the source of your skin-related symptoms and take steps to reduce flare-ups. To learn how Awair can help you understand and reduce your indoor allergy symptoms, follow the link below.