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Does clean air mean clear skin?

As the weather warms up and we head outside, we all know to be extra vigilant about applying sunscreen to protect our skin from harmful, cancer-causing UV rays. But sunlight isn’t the only threat to our skin health during the summer months. Doctors say poor air quality can also do plenty of damage.

A major culprit is fine particulate matter that comes from both outdoor sources (e.g. vehicles, factories, and construction sites) and indoor ones (e.g. fireplaces and stoves). Other dangerous particles are formed when gasses in the atmosphere react with sunlight and water vapor. Ultra-fine particles, specifically, can travel far into our lungs and into the deeper layers of our skin, where they deplete collagen — the protein responsible for averting wrinkles and lines. And one French study found that school children in residential areas with fine particulate matter concentrations higher than 10 micrograms per cubic meter had an increased chance of eczema than children in areas with lower levels.

Nitrogen dioxide, a traffic pollutant, can also damage skin. It and other pollutants contain free radicals that travel into our skin cells. When our bodies are unable to neutralize the interlopers, our skin barriers can fail. One recent Chinese/German study found that an NO2 increase of 10 micrograms per cubic meter was associated with 25 percent more dark spots on the cheeks of women over 50 — giving NO2 a stronger effect on dark spot formation than particulate matter.

At the same time, many harmful substances in our homes can find their way into our bodies through our skin. For instance, off-gassing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) mix with nitrogen oxides and sunlight to create photochemical smog, a chemical cocktail that stresses skin cells. And, if left unmediated by an air purifier or ventilation system, VOCs like benzene, which enters many homes through attached garages, can cause skin irritations.