Skin pollution: a survival guide for urban skin

In partnership with SA’s top medical aesthetic companies

Most of us are city dwellers and live urban lifestyles. While we may enjoy all the benefits, there are some downsides, including for our skin. How do we help our skin survive city living?

Skin pollution… is that even a thing? And yet another thing to add to our list of concerns?

Firstly, yes it is a thing and, no, it’s not new. For several decades now, as our world has become increasingly urbanised and industrialised, health scientists have been worried about the impact on our health.

American cancer epidemiologist, Christopher Wild coined the term ‘exposome’ in 2005 to describe the total number of exposures we’re subjected to in our lives, both externally and internally. External factors are those that affect us from the outside include:

Specific external environment factors, such as tocacco, products we use, physical activity, diet, water, etc.

General external environment factors include climate, green spaces, urban environment, traffic, our social environment, etc.

Internal environment factors are specific functions in our bodies, and how our body responds to these external factors.

Is pollution a big deal?

The unfortunate fact is that air pollution is rising in cities around the world. Add to this that our lives are becoming increasingly stressful. We grab fast-food meals, sleep less, indulge in unhealthy habits like our electronic addiction…

All of these factors are not good for us, and certain exposome factors have been shown to have the biggest impact on our bodies and our skin prematurely:


This is mostly ultraviolet radiation from the sun, but artificial visible light and infrared radiation (the kind picked up from our electronic devices), are another cause of damage to our skin’s fibroblasts, slowing down cell renewal and repair and collagen production, leading to premature ageing.

Air pollution

How do we avoid that?! Our skin is our body’s outer shield, so it’s at the frontline of our body’s defences. When it comes into contact with our skin, pollution particles (microparticles, gases like sulphur dioxide, heavy metals like lead and mercury, etc.) induce oxidative stress – the generation of free radicals. This affects the lipid and protein components and DNA of skin cells.

The result is inflammation of the cells and weakening of the skin’s protective barrier. This not only causes irritation, allergies and flare-ups of skin disorders, it shows on our complexions as dullness, dehydration, fine lines, pigmentation disorders, and premature ageing.

Tobacco smoke

Unfortunately, this is a key cause of premature skin ageing – we all know the telltale smoker’s face with its deep wrinkling and sallow colour. And smoking has been related to certain types of skin cáncer.

Despite all the evidence, people are still not willing to give it up. And then there is secondary smoke inhalation, which affects those unfortunate enough to be around the smoker.


Not only do food choices we make impact on the way our body functions, but the chemicals and hormones that the food we eat were exposed to is further absorbed, having an additional impact.

How do we counter skin pollution?

We actually already know what to do. Adopt healthier lifestyle habits and ensure we have good nutrition that provides our bodies with antioxidant protection as well as strengthening our skin’s protective barrier.

Then we need to be selective about protecting our skins with quality, antioxidant-rich skincare and sunscreen.

We delve deeper into the how-tos in our next feature.

To find out more about the impact of external factors and how to protect yourself against it, visit Skin Renewal at

Take the quick Beyond Beauty Survey and you could win a R2 000 Skin Renewal voucher to spend in our online store, with free delivery within South Africa. T&Cs apply.

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