What is pollution (and why should I care)?


Most people are concerned with the chemicals and preservatives they ingest as part of their food, but few give a second thought to the stuff that swirls around in the air they’re exposed to every day. And it’s pretty concerning. Because the air we breathe is loaded with extremely tiny particles laced with chemicals and toxins from exhaust fume pipes, factory chimneys, woodfire ovens and power plants. Not to mention the cigarette smoke and the sticky traces of household products such as hairspray or air freshener. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates about 7 million people die prematurely from air pollution every year, placing bad air as the world’s single largest environmental health risk. Air pollution, the WHO says, is an ‘invisible killer’ that slips unnoticed past our body’s defences causing lung cancer, asthma, heart attacks and strokes. 

Vast amounts of harmful particles in our air are microscopically small, undetectable by the naked eye. They enter our airways when we breathe. And they attack through the skin – our body’s largest and outermost organ, and our first line of defence against environmental threats. 

Scientists are increasingly interested in exploring how bad air gets under our skin. What they have found so far is unsettling. A fast-growing pile of studies shows that noxious substances in our air can weaken our skin’s barrier function, penetrate our pores and cause cells to die. Toxins that have entered the skin can spread far and wide inside our body and affect other organs, making them prone to inflammation and other diseases, including cancer.

The skin-deep effects of pollution

The effects on our bodies’ internal health are clear and well documented. Then there’s the visible damage that we wear on our faces when our skin is exposed to city traffic and smog. We’ve long known that excessive sunbathing leads to wrinkly, depleted and discoloured skin. However, scientists are now finding more and more evidence that environmental pollution can be just as detrimental to our looks as the sun’s UV rays. Air pollution, studies confirm, makes the skin age faster by attacking and depleting our collagen layer, leading to premature ageing. The result: saggier cheeks, more blotches, pigment spots and fine lines. 

With all this new science at hand, it’s about time we dive deep into the dirty world of pollution. Have you ever wondered what to make of the latest global chatter about micron-sized particulate matter? Whether free radicals are a rock band or something to worry about? Or how to preserve your youthful radiance in an urban jungle? Then this article is for you. It will take you to the heart of everything you need to know about the various types of pollution in the modern world – and why you should be aware of them.

I can’t see you…but I inhaled you 

Our air is a thick soup of gases interspersed with solid and liquid particles, many of which are hazardous. This complex mixture of particles – scientists call it particulate matter – includes both organic and inorganic components, such as dust, pollen, soot, smoke, and liquid droplets. We’re walking through clouds of nanosized debris from human activity on this earth, every day. They blend with natural airborne microorganisms (most of them bugs) from humans, pets and plants. Add to that the odd volcano eruption or bushfire season and you get a good picture of all the factors that pollute our air.  

People with allergies, respiratory diseases or sensitive skin are usually the first to suffer from the pollution mix. Multiple studies found people with pre-existing skin conditions are more than 50% more sensitive to the fine particles in our air than others. Fine particles are also known to increase the risk of dermatitis and inflammation. They put stress on skin cells, which makes them age faster.

But unless you’re caught in a sand storm, it’s unlikely you’ll catch a glimpse of the myriads of scattered pollutants around you. Experts distinguish between ultrafine, fine, and coarse particulate matter, depending on their molecule size in so-called microns, or micrometres.

How big is a micron? Too small for a normal brain to make sense of, but let’s try it anyway. One single millimetre has a length of 1,000 microns. The human eye can only see particles somewhere in the range of 40 microns, which is just a tad bigger than a mould spore (10-30 microns) and slightly smaller than the diameter of a human hair (50-70 microns). The tiny water droplets in a fog cloud range from 5 to 50 microns in diameter. A grain of salt measures about 100 microns.

  • Coarse particles have diameters of 10 microns or less.

  • Fine particles are as small as 2.5 microns in diameter – about the size of bacteria (2 microns).

  • Ultrafine particles are so nanosized tiny they can only be traced with an electron or atomic microscope.

The smaller the particulate matter, the more dangerous it is, as it can travel more deeply into our lungs and cause more harm. Fine and ultrafine particles can also penetrate our skin more deeply. With diameters of 40 to 80 microns, the majority of our skin cells make an easy target for most airborne pollutants.

Cars, hairspray, perfume: just a few of the culprits

The amount of dangerous particles in the air varies, depending on where you live. Air pollution is clearly less of an issue in Iceland or New Zealand than densely populated developing countries with lax environmental standards and unchecked heavy industry. Air quality in some megacities in India, Pakistan or South Korea is among the worst globally, although – just for the record – even glamourous Paris fares poorly in current world air quality rankings.

What are the main culprits behind bad air? There are obvious ones: smoke, fumes and gases from factories and fires. What about nasties that don’t easily come to mind, such as ozone or plastic softeners? Here’s a list of the key substances that silently sabotage our health and the health of our skin.

  • Road traffic is a chief source of air pollution. Cars, buses and motorcycles blow tons of fine particles into our air every minute, mostly from diesel fumes. The WHO estimates that vehicle exhaust fumes are responsible for up to 30% of all airborne microparticles in European cities. In third-world countries, the rate is more than double as high.

  • Industry fumes add complex compounds to the cocktail of emissions. Factories and power plants release chemicals and residues of carbon, oil and heavy metals into the air, including sulfates and nitrates, ammonium, cadmium and chloride.

  • Phthalates are another pollution source with damaging effects on our general health and the health of our skin. Phthalates are chemical compounds commonly used as softeners in PVC plastic. These plasticisers are also found in hairspray (to produce a lightweight, flexible coat), perfume (to hold all elements of a fragrance nicely together) and thousands of other consumer care products from drug blister packs to children’s toys. The problem: these ‘everywhere chemicals’ can easily leach out of the products they’re supposed to make flexible and disturb the type of skin cells (keratinocytes) that form our body’s outermost shield against all sorts of harmful invaders. Once this critical skin barrier is broken, microbes and parasites, viruses and fungal spores can enter. And, of course, the phthalates themselves. Research shows that exposure to plastic softeners over a prolonged time disrupts our hormones, leads to birth defects and can cause cancer.

  • Ozone is the primary reason many cities are clogged by smog, particularly in summer. This gas forms when sunlight triggers a chemical reaction in the mix of emissions from road traffic. Did you know the layer of ozone that protects the earth is on average only 3 millimetres thick? We need ozone high up in the atmosphere. It’s the invisible shield that filters out harmful rays from the sun. But right in front of our noses, ozone is bad for our health. It may cause permanent lung damage after long-term exposure. Ozone itself doesn’t affect our skin. But it can, under certain circumstances, give birth to free radicals, which are known to accelerate our skin’s ageing process and mess with our complexion.

    Every school child today knows that man-made climate gases have punctured the earth’s ozone layer. In places where the ozone layer has thinned or disappeared, we are more exposed to the sun’s UV light, which gives us sunburn and deep, long-term skin damage. A massive ozone hole over New Zealand, Australia and Antarctica is slowly repairing itself according to latest NASA research, but it has not yet gone away. Air pollution worsens the impact of the sun’s radiation: UV rays that collide with dirt particles tend to bounce off and scatter everywhere, which increases your sunburn risk even in the shadiest corner of your garden.    
  • Cigarette smoke is a complex and unique aerosol made up of thousands of chemical substances. It puts stress on our skin and makes it age faster by disturbing the natural balance between two groups of molecules in our skin cells: antioxidants and free radicals. You might have heard of free radicals before, but what exactly are they?

  • Free radicals are a by-product of normal cell function. When cells create energy, they also produce unstable oxygen molecules, which lack one atom where normal molecules have two. That makes them dangerous. Too many free radicals can wreak havoc because they try to snatch atoms away from skin molecules to feel complete, which is why our body polices free radicals with an army of antioxidants, mainly vitamins C and E.

    Cigarette smoke and other air pollutants such as ozone can deplete our body’s antioxidant defences and in turn ratchet up the number of free radicals, including those derived from oxygen, which are called reactive oxygen species. They turn into attackers when their population gets out of control (scientists speak of ‘oxidative stress’). The free radical attack can change our skin’s genetic code, make it look older and more wrinkly, saggy and dehydrated.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, sound like something you’d find in the fragrance section of a duty-free shop, but there’s nothing pretty about them. The majority of PAHs in the air comes from incomplete combustion of coal tar, diesel exhausts and cigarette smoke. These chemicals are seriously carcinogenic and have shown to cause various types of skin tumours. On their own they penetrate our pores and damage our skin’s cellular DNA, leading to premature skin aging. Often, however, PAHs piggyback onto other particles and then become a new class of airborne hazard – such as soot, which is a mixture of carbon particles covered with PAH. Clinical studies have shown that people who are exposed to soot develop 20% more pigmented spots on their foreheads and cheeks.

  • Volatile organic compounds escape from the organic solvents found in paint, new furniture, carpets or those canisters full of lawnmower fuel in your garage. These compounds are a major source of indoor air pollution. Long-term studies show that children who move into new buildings with freshly painted walls and finishes are more likely to develop symptoms of eczema. Under sunlight, volatile organic compounds can react with other gases and turn into the hazardous smog-gas ozone.

City smog kills our skin’s bug balance

While you’re reading this article, trillions of microorganisms and bacteria are having a field day on your skin. Nothing wrong with that. We need these bugs and their gene material, which biology boffins have blessed with the poetic term ‘microbiome’. Our microbiomes keep our skin healthy. It’s in our best interest to make sure these invisible bug colonies are alive and kicking.

That’s where pollution gets in the way. Polluted air can disturb the microbiome’s balance. For example, when scientists blasted healthy skin with ozone in lab tests, the smog gas killed half of the resident microorganisms. Once the good bugs were gone, harmful bacteria multiplied – causing unsightly results, including cellulitis and acne.  

The weaker our microbiome, the easier it is also for airborne pollutants to pass through our pores and attack skin cells at a deeper level. These attacks spell stress to the system and are a sure-fire way to fail the next 10-year Instagram challenge, as too many damaged skin cells leave us looking older than we are.

Anti-pollution skincare to the rescue

It’s time to make peace with modern city life. Scientists have been studying the link between pollution and healthy skin for years. And here at Arné, they’ve come up with a solution: the Nutrifilm Daily Defence gel and mist form an invisible shield on your face against invisible airborne threats.

Anti-pollution skincare has come a long way in recent years. At Arné, researchers experimented with a rare plant extract from the foothills of remote New Zealand for over a decade before they found a way to turn it into a lightweight film with scientifically-proven anti-pollution effect. It also contains prebiotics to nurture the skin’s microbiome, as well as vitamin C and E – two potent antioxidants known to knock out free radicals and repair damaged skin.

Ingredients such as Hordeum Vulgare Extract, Glycerin, Sodium Hyaluronate and Astaxanthin (the most powerful antioxidant) also play a crucial role in protecting the skin against pollution as antioxidants help the skin defend against damage. Luckily - Our Nutrifilm Daily Defence Gel contains off of them. 

Ready to de-stress your skin? Check our out Nutrifilm Daily Defence Gel: 



Share this article
Previous article