The effects of toxic fumes on skin are being seen in both western cities, such as London and New York, as well as in more visibly polluted Asian cities and in some cases may be the primary cause of ageing. The pollution is also being linked to worsening skin conditions such as eczema and hives.
The scientific discoveries are now driving the world’s biggest cosmetics companies to search for solutions, including medicine-like compounds that directly block the biological damage. But doctors warn that some common skin care routines, such as scrubs, make the damage from air pollution even worse.
Poisonous air is already known to cause millions of early deaths from lung and heart diseases and has been linked to diabetes and mental health problems. But perhaps its most visible impact, the damage caused to skin, is just beginning to be understood.
“With traffic pollution emerging as the single most toxic substance for skin, the dream of perfect skin is over for those living and working in traffic-polluted areas unless they take steps to protect their skin right now,” said Dr Mervyn Patterson, a cosmetic doctor at Woodford Medical clinics in the UK.
“Unless people do more they will end up wearing the pollution on their faces in 10 years’ time. It is definitely something people now need to take seriously.”
Prof Jean Krutmann, director at the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Germany, said: “UV [damage from the sun] was really the topic in skin protection for the last 20-30 years. Now I think air pollution has the potential to keep us busy for the next few decades.”
Air pollution in urban areas, much of which comes from traffic, includes tiny particles called PMs, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). “What is very clear is that PMs are a problem for skin,” said Krutmann, whose work has shown PMs increase age spots and wrinkles.