Planet Earth- the dazzling blue gem of our solar system is as fragile as it is resilient. As caretakers of this life-sustaining planet, we are responsible for maintaining the health and condition of the troposphere (the lowest layer of the earth’s atmosphere) and all that lies beneath. Unfortunately in today’s day and age, we, as a collective human race are facing a dilemma of massive proportions. An invisible stressor exists with visibly harmful consequences to general health, specifically skin health. The skin being the largest organ of our body is particularly vulnerable to these invisible aggressors.
This invisible stressor as many of you might have guessed is air pollution. In our essay we will explore the various sources of air pollution with an emphasis on man-made chemical air pollution and the toll it can take on skin health. We will also outline an evidence based protocol on how to combat air pollution through the topical application of products containing compounds harnessed from natural sources. I hope that through this guided essay, you will understand the importance of skincare as it relates to you individually and to our current global situation as it relates to air pollution.
The major sources of air pollution can be broadly divided into four groups.
- Fossil fuel combustion
- Exhaust emitted from vehicles
- Industrial processes
- Agricultural sources
Airborne pollution is a combination of particles of various sizes, composition, and toxicity. These particles are capable of negatively impacting the integrity of the cutaneous barrier by interacting with various cells and enzymatic pathways in our skin, releasing DNA damaging free radicals. The biochemical reactions are discussed in more details below. There are thousands of known airborne pollutants but the one that warrants scientific concern is airborne particulate matter or PM. PM is the most notorious of the lot and is released from all the four major sources mentioned above. Airborne PM ranges from coarse, fine to ultrafine particles. These rather dangerous particles act as carriers, latching on to other kinds of toxic pollutants (nitrates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and sulfates) delivering them literally into our backyards, onto our skin and into our lungs. PM has a tendency to concentrate in densely populated cities of the world and follows seasonal fluctuations. The World Health Organization known as WHO outlines recommended or acceptable levels of PM, but due to the rise in air pollution these levels are increasing at alarming rates.
So how does this relate to skin-health?
The skin is the largest organ of our body covering 1.6 m2-1.8 m2 of our body surface area. Even though it is our first line of defense from environmental aggressors, it also makes it the prime target for toxins that can enter through the dermal route and cause damage. Anything less than 1000 Daltons (measure of molecular weight or molecular mass) is capable of passing through the skin via intercellular, intracellular and transappendageal routes. Many airborne pollutants will fall into this category, especially gases and vapors, compromising not only skin health but general health as well. This fact in itself is quite disconcerting and warrants the need for active intervention.
Scientists have examined the toxicological profiles and compositions of various air pollutants and have concluded that these particles are a direct threat to the health of our skin. They are also involved in the development of certain cutaneous pathologies. Airborne pollution can worsen existing skin disease, cause premature aging, hasten photo-aging, disrupt skin immunity, lead to alternations in pigmentation, lead to acne, eczema and atopic dermatitis.
The pollutants of main concern are PM and ozone. So now let’s have look what happens at a biochemical level when the skin comes in contact with these and other kinds of airborne pollutants. We’ll start by examining particulate matter, and then move on to ozone in the next section.
Skin Interactions with Particulate Matter
Airborne Pollution-Skin Tissue Interactions & Anti-Pollution Ingredients
Adapted by Cuticonscious from publication:(Juliano, C.; Magrini, G.A. Cosmetic Functional Ingredients from Botanical Sources for Anti-Pollution Skincare Products. Cosmetics 2018, 5, 19).
These aero-dynamic amorphous particles that are heavily coated with various toxins are capable of inducing a series of scientifically validated biochemical processes within our skin that are a precursor to serious and more damaging pathologies.
- Release of reactive oxygen species (ROS) – highly damaging oxygen free radicals.
- Release of pro-inflammatory cytokines such as TNF-α, IL-1α, IL-8.
- Generation of high levels of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) that play a key role in dermal collagen degradation.
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and quinones are a by-product of fuel combustion but quinones can also be produced when PAHs in the air hit the skin and are biotransformed through complex dermal enzymes. Both PAHs and quinones cause heavy oxidative stress.
- PM with a high concentration of PAHs can induce direct damage to keratinocytes (epidermal skin cells) and melanocytes (pigment cells).
- Activation of various genes that encode xenobiotic enzymes (substances capable of fighting off foreign particles in the skin). This process in itself is exhausting and causes the skin cells to undergo severe oxidative stress.
- Disruption of the cell cycle and interruption of the junctions that keep the skin cells tightly bound together leading to a fragile barrier with impaired water retaining properties and increased trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). This will result in dry, itchy and highly irritated skin.
- Might interfere with sebum secretion and alter surface lipids such as squalene.
- May alter the microbiome of the epidermis.
- Disrupt immune functions within the skin, making the skin more prone to infections and possibly lead to autoimmune disease.
Simply put, natural and manmade airborne pollutants are everywhere and are slowly wreaking havoc on your skin without you even realizing it.
That’s what I was alluding to in the first section- the invisible aggressors.
Skin Interactions with Ozone
Even though ozone is found in low levels beneath the troposphere, it is however the main element in photochemical smog that is found in many heavily populated urban cities.
However, ozone can be formed by UV radiation interacting with certain air pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds and leak into the urban environment.
Ozone is capable of initiating toxic biochemical chain reactions within the human epidermis.
- The human epidermis is a direct target for Ozone particles and once in contact with Ozone, living skin cells will undergo severe oxidative damage.
- Ozone particles will deplete levels of vitamin E, vitamin C, glutathione, and other vital antioxidants present naturally in the skin.
- Release of heat shock proteins.
Oxidative Stress & Skin Dysfunction
In a nutshell, airborne pollution results in severe oxidative stress and causes rapid depletion of natural anti-oxidants found in our skin and body. Cells are unable to replicate or renew themselves normally and skin dysfunction occurs.
What can we do?
Now that we know a little bit more about the various side effects of air pollution on our skin, what can we do to alleviate the situation?
Anti-pollution skincare has a scientifically valid background that involves a multitiered approach.
To understand how we can manage pollution-induced skin damage we must understand the pathophysiology of the process itself and identify the root cause.
We must care for our planet and try our best to reduce the sources of air pollution to begin with. This is a collective effort that will require years of legislation and a global change in outlook in the way we live our lives and manage our industries.
But what role does skincare play in managing the immediate and long term after effects of air-pollution?
First let us establish a sound methodology that will equip the skin with compounds that are able to fight oxidative damage and enable/empower the skin to cope with various airborne pollutants.
- Aim to introduce stabilized anti-oxidants into the skin via topical means.
- Aim to rehabilitate the skin surface.
- Harmonize and balance lipid production.
- Balance and stabilize the microflora of the skin.
- Fortify skin protective abilities.
- Hydrate the skin.
- Introduce multivitamins and micronutrients into the skin.
- Strengthen the immune functions of the skin.
- Promote natural processes that lead to optimal skin health.
- Introduce substances that reduce inflammation, calm the skin, reduce irritation and help the healing process of the skin.
A Topical Solution to Air Pollution
A three step methodology will allow us to isolate and treat the root cause of pollution-induced skin damage based on scientific rationale.
Our aim is to restore skin functions by introducing formulations containing compounds that will aid in the healing process. The three main steps that one should follow are mentioned below after which we will explore some of the natural compounds that may help us maintain our skin-health and minimize pollution-induced damage.
So look out for products containing these compounds, they might just be your skin-saviors!
- Deep cleansing. This step will purge the skin of toxic particles and detoxify and unclog the epidermis, allowing it to breathe. Cleansers, exfoliation, peels, scrubs, and professional cleansing will all help rid the skin of pollutants.
- Protecting the skin by allowing botanical and marine based ingredients to form a thin protective barrier or ‘second skin’ so to speak, making it impermeable to toxic particles and preventing dehydration. Humectants, emollients, activated charcoal masks, and moisturizers will all help form a thin protective film on the skin surface, fortifying the barrier.
- Equipping the skin with anti-pollution substances, enabling the skin to rejuvenate, replenish and renew itself three dimensionally across all layers. This step will empower and support the cells through targeted applications of scientifically backed compounds. This is the restoration phase. Essences, boosters, serums, infusions and creams enriched with anti-oxidants and nutrients will help upregulate the skin functions, allowing it to heal and regain vital processes. Light based devices, professional detox facials, oxygen infusion, and mesotherapy can all be considered as more intensive modalities for managing pollution ravaged skin.
Combatting Pollution Induced Skin Damage via Natural Compounds
- What is red, green, orange, purple and brown, extremely hardy and found in great abundance in our oceans? You guessed it- its marine algae. These ingenious aquatic plants have been around for billions of years, evolving and developing natural protective mechanisms for the survival of its species and maintenance of the oceanic ecosystem. Teeming with a host of nutrients such as phospholipids, phenolic compounds, complex sugars, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, pigments and trace elements, these humble looking water loving plants have one of the most complex biochemical compositions found in nature. They have the ability to withstand temperature extremes and shield themselves from solar radiation (due to the presence of photo-pigments), ocean contamination and air pollution. Marine Algae are thus capable of combating extreme oxidative stress on a continual basis. The success story of marine algae is due to the diverse biochemical complexity of the plant itself. A lot of the antioxidant capacity of marine algae is largely due to the extremely high polyphenol, flavonoid, and phlorotannin content. In fact, anti-oxidant percentages found in marine algae far surpass that found in any terrestrial plant. This makes them ideal candidates for anti-pollution cosmetic applications. Apart from potent anti-oxidant abilities, extracts from marine algae reduce inflammation, calm irritated skin, have anti-tumor, deep hydrating, corneoctye regenerative, anti-aging and high solar protective actions. Talk about miracle healers of nature!
- The bare truth is that ‘bear weed’ can help battle the damages that air pollution can cause on your skin. High in eriodictyol and homoeriodictyol (flavinoids) that protect against ozone and UV, along with mucopolysaccharides and glycoproteins that act as powerful humectants, extracts from bear weed can help moisturize and shield your barrier. Scientific data indicates that almost 30% of moisturization was noticed after application of a bear weed extract containing topical product. An added bonus is that these plant flavonoids exhibit free radical scavenging ability.
- Green tea is not a stranger to the health and skin care world. Green tea extracts are complex mixtures of bioactive compounds, including tea polyphenols, primarily green tea catechins (epicatechin, epicatechin-3-gallate, epigallocatechin and epigallocatechin gallate), 40% to be exact. These compounds actually protect your DNA from destructive free radicals that are released when the skin is exposed to environmental aggressors, especially aero toxins. Measurements of lipid perioxidation (breakdown of natural fats into extremely dangerous oxygen species capable of damaging DNA) were observed in skin treated with UV radiation. The skin was then treated with compounds containing esterified polyphenol and subsequent measurements using reliable markers of perioxidation indicated that esterified polyphenols had a higher anti-oxidant ability than vitamin E. Another remarkable benefit of green tea polyphenols is that they increase collagen production by 40%, allowing for a strong dermal infrastructure and increased skin volume.
- Marrubium Vulgare is an interesting edible flowering plant with anti-pollution abilities. Extracts have shown potent free radial absorbing and anti-inflammatory actions. Rich in phytochemical cellular protective compounds, (flavonoids, terpenoids and phenylethanoid glycosides) plant extracts from Marrubium Vulgare are evidence based compounds that can be included in pollution fighting topical products. They are real detoxifiers.
- Pretty in pink, the Peruvian Pepper tree is loaded with miquelianin and quercetin 3-O-β-d-galacturonopyranoside which is purported to hold extremely high anti-oxidant activity. As a bonus effect, it has wrinkle reducing, oil balancing and skin detoxing actions. Now that’s what I call red hot chili peppers!
- The romantic and mysterious Orient holds many botanical secrets. Traditional Chinese doctors have been using Schisandra Chinensis extracts for thousands of years as a beauty tonic and over-all health promoting botanical. It has been demonstrated through multiple clinical studies to lower markers of inflammation, deactivate environmental toxins and upregulate skin immunity. Extracts from the fruit, stem and leaves contain a certain kind of phenol called lignan. Lignan not only detoxifies the skin by eating up harmful oxygen species, but deactivates surface toxins that may have accumulated throughout the day. A study using Schisandra Chinensis extracts on human skin showed improvement in the water retaining capacity of the skin, improved radiance and better microcirculation, hence the term ‘beauty tonic’.
- Some Roses like to dwell on cold mountains. The Winter Rose hails from Japan and is a beautiful and hardy plant that survives in the wild, in extremely cold climates and at high altitudes. It has developed unique biological defensive mechanisms which allow it to survive in cold climates and handle environmental stress with much elegance. High levels of anti-oxidants such as quercetin and kaempferol glycosides make it an ideal botanical compound for pollution damaged or stressed skin. Another unique function of winter rose extract is that it actually deactivates toxins such as heavy metals and hydrocarbons upon contact. If that’s not flower power, than I don’t know what is?
The Future of Pollution Fighting Ingredients in Topical Applications
Our beautiful planet is indeed a wild and wondrous botanical garden of promise. So much is still left unexplored and the biotechnological industry has just landed on the tip of the iceberg. Botanical compounds hold great power through their diversity and unique evolutionary adaptations. It is evident from the article above that the future of skin care is one where pollution fighting products will become the cornerstone of intelligent eco-centered brands worldwide. With pollution on the rise, especially in urban areas, it becomes all the more important to take care of your skin-health by employing the 3 step pollution solution in your daily skincare regime.
There is more than sufficient scientific evidence to support anti-pollution claims in products containing certain phytochemical based products, but it up to you to select products that contain these important pollution fighting substances in sufficient percentages.
Just like our planet cares for us, it is our human responsibility to care for it with compassion and passion.
I hope we, as a collective human race can reduce air and other kinds of pollution so that our future generations can enjoy and benefit from the health-giving plant life that only keeps giving back.
This truly is our Garden of Eden and Heaven is place on earth.
Stay aware, stay safe.
- Io Antonopoulou, Simona Varriale, Evangelos Topakas, Ulrika Rova, Paul Christakopoulos, Vincenza Faraco Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 2016; 100: 6519–6543. Published online 2016 Jun 8. doi: 10.1007/s00253-016-7647-9 Enzymatic synthesis of bioactive compounds with high potential for cosmeceutical application
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