No question about it, traffic jams can be high blood-pressure moments. ¬†But did you know they could also age your skin? A groundbreaking research study conducted in 2010 examined the influence of air pollutants‚ÄĒsoot and particulate matter– on the facial appearance of 400 German women from rural and urban areas, between the ages of 70 and 80.

The study found that women exposed to higher levels of soot and particulate matter were more likely to have facial pigment spots and more pronounced nasolabial folds– the area between your nose and mouth. The results firmly established environmental pollutants as important skin-aging factors.

The environmental impact of skin aging will likely worsen.  True, overall air quality in the U.S. has improved since the 1970s, but measurable levels of pollutants persist. Several places in the world have experienced increased air pollution, and since air currents freely cross international borders, dealing with the harmful effects of pollutants has become a global issue.

Identifying the Bad Actors


Air pollutants come in a wide variety of gases, particulates and chemicals, all of which can come into contact with skin. Some of the most relevant pollutants affecting skin are:

  • Ground level ozone, the major component of smog, forms from the reaction of sunlight with nitrogen oxides and organic compounds. ¬†Extended exposure to inhaled ozone results in increased oxidative stress and resulting inflammation throughout the body. Ozone exposure can also deplete natural skin antioxidants and oxidize skin lipids leading to a compromised barrier.
  • Although ground level ozone can be harmful, the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere prevents more than 90 percent of UV-B radiation from reaching the earth‚Äôs surface. UV-B is the wavelength of light that causes sunburn, increased melanin synthesis (tanning) and contributes to skin photoaging. The ozone layer has become thinner in recent times, potentially exposing us to increased amounts of harmful UV light.
  • A diverse group of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) originates from the incomplete burning of fuels such as coal, gas or oil; 90 percent of indoor PAH is due to tobacco smoke. These compounds bind to a cellular receptor on skin cells, such as keratinocytes, fibroblasts and melanocytes. This stimulates the production of melanin and its visible effect of darker skin pigmentation. ¬†¬†¬†

Dust produced by the braking systems of cars and mass transit vehicles contains compounds with metals such as iron, copper and zinc. These also contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation.

Fighting Back to Protect Your Skin


Taking care of your skin means taking steps to minimize unnecessary exposure to pollutants, such as avoiding high-traffic areas and smoky rooms.

  1. Let your eyes and nose be your guide. If you can see a haze or smell car exhaust, then know your skin is at risk! A daily skin care regimen that can fight the effects of pollutants, free radical production, and UV exposure is essential.
  2. Use a facial cleanser before bed to remove dust and dirt particles that are sitting on skin.  Follow up with a toner with anti-oxidant ingredients such as vitamin C and E, green tea extract or grapeseed extract.
  3.  An anti-oxidant rich daytime moisturizing face cream protects skin from oxidative stress caused by pollutants and restores barrier function.  
  4.  The use of skin and lip care products with broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) sun protective factors (SPF) will help to prevent photoaging.

An ounce of prevention is better than the cure. Taking the extra steps to protect your skin before exposure is key to keeping skin tone bright and clear, and you younger looking and more vibrant.


Grigoratos T. and Martini G. (2015) Brake wear particle emissions: a review. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 22: 2491‚Äď2504.

Lodovici M. and  Bigagli E. (2011) Oxidative Stress and Air Pollution Exposure.  J Toxicol Vol 2011, Article ID 487074.

Vierkötter A1, Schikowski T, Ranft U, Sugiri D, Matsui M, Krämer U, Krutmann J. (2010) Airborne particle exposure and extrinsic skin aging. J. Invest Dermatol 130(12):2719-26.