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Effects from Pollution for Looks

Pollution settles on the skin almost the same way it settles on the windshield of a car. Some fairly potent acids in the atmosphere of large cities may act like a chemical peel on skin, slowly dissolving and breaking down the stratum corneum, or outermost layer. As a result, this important layer is less able to protect against harmful bacteria and other environmental culprits and could make skin and body more vulnerable to irritants and infections.

“City pollution is a problem,” agrees Jerome Z. Litt, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. “It gets on exposed skin and hair and greases them up, creating an excessive amount of oil that can cause blemishes and make hair limp.”

Adds Paul Lazar, M.D., professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University School of Medicine, “What may happen is that air pollution in major cities may create a ‘mini-greenhouse effect’, trapping warm air and contributing to increased heat and humidity. The result is that you perspire more and end up with more oil and dirt on the skin’s surface.”

He adds, “The only pollution I know of that’s toxic to looks involves serious chemical leaks, like dioxin, which can cause acne if it gets on skin. But this could only come from, say, the derailing of a train with chemical taker cars. You don’t have to worry about dioxin while walking down a city street.”

Experts are still examining the effects of environmental nasties such as exhaust-produced sulfurous acid on skin and hair, but most scientists concur: Pollution, no matter what its source, puts more dirt into the atmosphere. And dirt can wreak havoc with your looks.

The solutions, says Robert M. Bernstein, associate professor in clinical dermatology, Columbia University, are simple:

Wash your face often, using a soap or cleanser that’s suited to you skin type.

Avoid alcohol-based products that interfere with the protective stratum corneum.

Don’t clog pores with oily products.

And have bumps and blackheads treated by a dermatologist.

In some instances, acne is triggered by touching your hands to your face during a hectic workday, or keeping cosmetics on for long stretches without giving skin a breather.

Last but not least, don’t overlook the protective power of sunscreen. Although your darker pigmentation gives you some extra protection against the skin cancer-causing, ultra-violet rays of the sun, the fact is that unremitting pollution is depleting the protective ozone layer of the atmosphere, thus letting more and more ultra-violet rays penetrate.

According to Joseph P. Bark, chairman of dermatology at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Kentucky, Miami Taxi-drivers often develop skin cancer on their left arms, as a result of driving with that arm leaning out of the rolled-down window. “The same risk is probably true for drivers in any potent-sun region,” says Bark.

CRIMES AGAINST HAIR

Even hair can’t escape pollution fall-out. Urban life makes hair dirtier and greasier, requiring more frequent cleansings; in fact, frequent washing should be the norm in heavily-polluted areas.

Also helpful: alcohol-free styling lotions that act as a buffer between hair and pollutants in the air.

VISIONARY TACTICS

Eyes are especially vulnerable to pollution, which can cause redness, itchiness and discomfort. “Particles of sulfurous acid from exhausts and other common city pollutants dissolve in the tear film,” explains Richard Koplin, director of the eye trauma center at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. People with an existing ocular problem or who wear contact lenses are even more prone to irritation since their eyes are usually more sensitive.

Pollution is hard on anyone who’s getting older, but particularly on women. As estrogen diminishes, so, too, does the eye’s natural tear film, making it easier for toxic materials to accumulate. Contact-lens wearers should try to use their lenses for shorter periods of time to prevent irritation.