Spots on the skin, early aging or irritation are some of the effects that high levels of pollution have on our skin.

The particles that affect the skin come mainly from means of transport, use of heating, incineration of waste, forest fires or tobacco. These particles induce oxidative stress in dermal cells, generating free radicals that affect the production of collagen, hyaluronic acid, and elastin.

But, what do we call pollution and what effects does it have on the skin?

Solar radiation accelerates skin aging

Ultraviolet radiation is a source of physical pollution since solar radiation causes photoaging. Photoaging is characterized by wrinkles, solar elastolysis, and uneven pigmentation. We have already analysed the effects of solar radiation on the skin in a previous post.

The sun’s ultraviolet radiation is divided into UV A and UV B according to their wavelength. UV A radiation is responsible for photoaging; it reaches the dermis damaging collagen and elastin, which reduces the stability and firmness of the skin [1]. While UV B radiation is responsible for mild sunburn due to excess sun exposure; by damaging the epidermis, the most superficial layer of the skin [2].

But, what effects does solar radiation have on skin aging? At this point we must talk about two types of aging processes [9]:

    • Intrinsic aging, that occurs over time.
    • Extrinsic aging, which is caused by environmental factors such as pollution.

The extrinsic aging process can produce dermal elastolysis, which is characterized by the wrinkled appearance of the skin, the absence of elastic fibres in the dermis, as well as an inflammatory infiltrate in the skin [3]. The action of UV radiation also produces a type of elastolysis called solar elastolysis, in which the skin acquires a reddish tone and rough texture that is usually accompanied by itching or a burning sensation. Later, the affected skin area becomes thick, yellow, and wrinkled [4].

Sol saliendo entre nubes

Smoking  increases the chances of having facial wrinkles

Tobacco smoke is an aerosol made up of a multitude of different substances; hydrocarbons, amides, alcohols, aldehydes, CO2, and a long etcetera [5]. These compounds cause increased transepidermal water loss, degeneration of skin connective tissue, and degradation of collagen fibres [6, 7]. Therefore, smoking is related to premature aging of the skin, with an increase in the depth of wrinkles around the eye being characteristic [8].

Another typical characteristic of the smoker’s skin is the so-called “smoker’s face”, which is characterized by wrinkles at the corners of the lips and eyes, deep lines on the cheeks and numerous superficial lines on the cheeks and lower jaw.

In fact, people who smoke regularly are 4.7 times more likely to have facial wrinkles than non-smokers, regardless of sun exposure. But, in addition, the combination of smoking and sun exposure can have a synergistic effect on skin aging [9].

Mujer mayor fumando

Image by Jan Steiner from Pixabay

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are a source of pigmentation and acne

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are generated during the incomplete combustion of coal, oil, gasoline, and wood. The main sources of these hydrocarbons are heating, gasification plants and coal liquefaction, as well as motor vehicle exhaust [10].

Hydrocarbons cause increased oxidative stress in the skin, which is related to the induction of skin hyperpigmentation, acne, and extrinsic aging [9].

Airborne particles exacerbate skin diseases

Airborne particles are an indicator of air pollution and whose origin are natural and human activities. As they can be suspended for a long time and travel long distances in the atmosphere, these particles can cause a wide range of diseases that lead to a significant reduction in lifespan [11]. These particles penetrate the skin, either through the hair follicles or transepidermally, and generate oxidative stress that contributes to extrinsic skin aging [12].

Airborne particles have significant health effects; small particles, those that can penetrate the skin, correlate with the increase in the progression of dermal diseases such as atopic dermatitis, acne, psoriasis and allergic reactions. Similarly, the sensitivity of the skin increases with exposure to these small particles; thus, people with atopic dermatitis have 26% more skin sensitivity, while in people with eczema it increases 47% [12].

The skin is the most exposed organ of the human body, it is our first layer of protection against environmental factors and protects us from pollution. However, this protection is impaired by high levels of pollution, influencing both the quality and health of the skin.


  1. Flament, Frederic & Bazin, Roland & Laquieze, Sabine & Rubert, Virginie & Simonpietri, Elisa & Piot, Bertrand. (2013). Effect of the sun on visible clinical signs of aging in Caucasian skin. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology. 6. 221-232.
  2. Bernard, J. J., Cowing-Zitron, C., Nakatsuji, T., Muehleisen, B., Muto, J., Borkowski, A. W., Gallo, R. L. (2012). Ultraviolet radiation damages self-noncoding RNA and is detected by TLR3. Nature medicine, 18(8), 1286–1290.
  3. Stephan, R. Haber, Enfermedades adquiridas del tejido elástico. EM consulte. 2017, ISSN 1761-2896.
  5. Liu, K. G. McAdam and T. A. Perfetti, Some Recent Topics in Cigarette Smoke Science, Mini-Reviews in Organic Chemistry (2011) 8: 349.
  6. Jorgensen LN, Kallehave F, Christensen E, Siana JE, Gottrup F. Less collagen production in smokers. Surgery 1998;123:450‑
  7. Just M, Ribera M, Monsó E, Lorenzo JC, Ferrándiz C. Effect of smoking on skin elastic fibres: Morphometric and immunohistochemical analysis. Br J Dermatol 2007;156:85‑
  8. Freiman A, Bird G, Metelitsa AI, Barankin B, Lauzon GJ. Cutaneous effects of smoking. J Cutan Med Surg 2004;8:415‑
  9. Puri P, Nandar SK, Kathuria S, Ramesh V. Effects of air pollution on the skin: A review. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2017 Jul-Aug;83(4):415-423.
  10. Hussein I. Abdel-Shafy, Mona S.M. Mansour, A review on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: Source, environmental impact, effect on human health and remediation, Egyptian Journal of Petroleum, Volume 25, Issue 1, 2016, Pages 107-123.
  11. Kim KH, Kabir E, Kabir S. A review on the human health impact of airborne particulate matter. Environ Int. 2015 Jan;74:136-43.
  12. Ngoc LTN, Park D, Lee Y, Lee YC. Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Human Skin Diseases Due to Particulate Matter. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017 Nov 25;14(12):1458.

Cover image by analogicus from Pixabay