A recent study by the World Health Organization (WHO) calls air pollution “the single largest environmental health risk” which caused an estimated 6.5 million deaths in 2012. The presence of Fine Particulate Matter that comes from fuel combustion is threatening to our cardiovascular, respiratory, brain and skin health. After this study was published, the IUF-Leibnez Research Institute for Environmental Medicine decided to take these findings a step further and investigate the role of these particles on our largest organ, the skin, and how they affect this important barrier and accelerate the aging process.
The goal of the study was to determine the role of extrinsic factors on the only visible organ to understand the aging process (when exposed to particles) and how other organs react to environmental pollution. It has been long known that certain cancers and disease processes have a direct correlation to exposure of particulate matter, but more studies are being done on its role in aging human skin. More evidence delineates how environmental particles, particularly from traffic sources, can penetrate skin transepidermally and through hair follicles which contribute cell damage. The conclusion is that these harmful chemicals age the skin and increase the amount of oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress increases the number of free-radicals in a particular organ which prevents proper cell turnover and healing to occur after exposure to toxins. The effect of oxidative stress on our skin is quite impressive and determines that sun exposure is not the sole cause for aging and skin cancer. The study further shows that an increase in exposure traffic fuel and soot leads to an overall increase in lentigines (brown spots) and wrinkles. Two chemicals, PAH and nitrogen dioxide, found in pollution, increase melanocytic proliferation (pigment) which can cause an increase in brown spots and malignancies.
Historically, Asian women avoid the sun and excessive sun exposure but they have an increased number of brown spots and wrinkles compared to Caucasian women. This is most likely due to the high pollution, exposure to particulate matter and engine fuel. A study of women in China reported a 5-8% increase of severe wrinkling on the face and a whopping 75% increase of wrinkling on the hands. A similar study showed a significant increase in brown spots (15% on the cheeks and 35% on the forehead) in Chinese women, compared to Caucasian women.
While sun-exposure is still the leading cause for aging and skin malignancies, the lack of environmental protection and increase in exposure to chemical agents is alarming. Treating the skin should consist of a broad-spectrum sunscreen but should also encompass a diet and skin care routine rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants have been shown to repair the skin and combat the effects of oxidative stress and free radicals. Perhaps the most potent of all is vitamin C and green tea. You should not only consume these antioxidants orally, but should include a serum rich in these antioxidants and apply twice a day.
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