• Núria Estapé, science journalist

    The skin’s invisible enemies

    30 Mar

    Modern dermatology is very familiar with the factors that most aggressively damage the skin. Air pollution and sudden temperature and humidity changes can alter the functions of the acid mantle and age skin cells prematurely. Although it is often impossible to avoid the invisible enemies of our skin, knowing what they are can help us fight them.


    Many factors and harmful habits can alter the protective function of our skin. Until recently it was believed that smoking and excessive exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays were the worst offenders. Now, however, it is known that pollution is equally harmful.


    Polluted air

    Pollution is inevitable in large cities. Traffic contaminates the air and pollution particles penetrate the skin and cause oxidative stress, the best known mechanism for causing cells to age. The pollution particles carried in the air, which include tiny specks of dust, enter the outer layer of skin cells. There they react to create molecules called free radicals, which can even alter the properties and structure of this skin layer. Fortunately, vitamin E is a potent antioxidant of lipids (fats) that acts to slow down the ageing of the skin.


    What damages the skin, ages the skin

    A recent study compared the condition of the skin of 400 women, aged between 70 and 80 years old and living in rural areas and large cities. The results revealed that women living in urban areas with high pollution levels had 20% more pigmented spots on their foreheads and cheeks. It was also observed that urban women had more pronounced wrinkles in the facial area around the nose and mouth.


    Extreme temperatures

    When the thermometer falls below 5ºC and humidity levels are extremely low, the risk of skin dehydration increases. Air conditioning devices further dry out the air and also release ozone, which, according to recent studies, can react with certain skin components to produce irritants. When humidity and temperature levels are very high, water loss through perspiration makes the skin appear damp, although in fact it needs more moisturizing to prevent it from drying out. As a general rule, temperature extremes have detrimental effects on the skin. Experts even warn that climate change, over the long term, could have negative dermatological repercussions in that it could lead to dramatic swings in annual temperatures in large parts of the world and increase exposure to the sun.


    Harmful lifestyles for the skin

    Smoking and alcohol cause premature ageing by reducing the supply of oxygen to the skin, while diets poor in fresh fruit and vegetables deprive the skin of essential nutrients. Similarly, tattoos, piercings and synthetic clothing can affect people with particularly sensitive skin, causing mild rashes or even serious infections. Readers can refer to the tips for a healthy skin provided in an earlier blog post.


    So, some of the things we can do to limit the daily aggressions that make us seem older than we really are include giving up smoking, eating healthily, avoiding extreme temperatures and properly cleansing and moisturizing the skin to reduce the effects of particle pollution.



    Journal of Investigative Dermatology