“Pollution” is something we have been hearing about for as long as we can remember, especially “air pollution” which is a serious problem around the world. Air pollution generally occurs as a result of motor vehicle exhaust fumes, emissions from industrial factories, and several fires burned. Air pollution can be visible, such as white or black smoke, and invisible, including particulate matter (PM). Studies into particulate matter have found that it has a number of negative effects on our skin.
Pollution produced by motor vehicles consists mainly of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which occur naturally when some forms of organic matter are burned. They also appear in exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. The burning of fossil fuels in factories during crude oil refinement produce these chemicals, and in the wood industry PAHs are often found in the chemicals used to treat wood and protect it from insects.
One of the chemicals most commonly found in PAHs is benzo(a)pyrene, which produces free radicals that can damage the skin cells upon contact with UVA rays as well as cause inflammation that results in acne. Wrinkles are also caused by these free radicals, as is an increase in pigment production.
PAH chemicals can remain stable in the atmosphere for a long time when not diluted by mist and are usually found among airborne particulate matter. They are able to combine successfully with other pollutants, particularly the various types of heavy metals found in the air, such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and zinc.
Particulate matter, or PM for short, is the name given to tiny particles, measured in microns (1/1000th of a millimeter), that are suspended in the air. Some particles are large enough to be seen with the naked eye, while others are invisible.
Particulate matter measuring smaller than 10 microns includes PM 2.5, which is a pollutant invisible to the naked eye and the most dangerous to our health. Our noses are unable to filter the particles effectively, meaning it can make its way into our bloodstream via the respiratory system, eventually damaging various organs. According to the World Health Organization, this increases the risk of chronic illnesses and cancer.
The primary chemicals that make up PM 2.5—before it mixes with steam or dust—are nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide (CO), all of which are chemicals that pose significant danger to the body. Such pollutants act as skin irritants that lead to the body producing chemicals called cytokines, which can cause inflammation, allergies and irritation.
Research studies carried out in both Mexico and Shanghai indicate a clear link between air pollution and a reduction in the skin’s antibodies, as well as a weakening of the skin’s immune system. These factors negatively impact skin moisture, and can lead to allergy flare ups and a much greater occurrence of acne than in those who are not exposed to air pollution.
Air pollution is mainly a byproduct of human endeavor, so it is essential that all of us play our part in caring for the environment and the atmosphere. Who knows, if we all take up the baton regarding climate change, be that directly or indirectly, there could be a day when our air quality returns to its former, cleaner level. Until then, protecting ourselves from the dangers of air pollution is crucial for our overall health.
The First Class Honors M.D., Faculty of Medicine, Rangsit University, 2002.