Environmental Toxins and Your Skin
Your skin is the largest organ of your body, and while you may strive to take good care of it, it can be easy to take it for granted and forget all that it does for you daily. Your skin’s primary function is to protect you. However, just like any brave warrior, that means that your skin is the first on the front line against all potential harms, including ones that you can’t always see. Unfortunately, this also means that your skin is going to suffer from some damage in its primary protector role, and the main source of this damage comes from something that is unavoidable; pollutants and toxins from the environment that you live in.
On any given day, your skin is exposed to ultraviolet radiation and an unpleasant concoction of various environmental toxins. Some of which include:
- PAH (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons): Of all the environmental hazards you are exposed to, PAHs are the most common. PAHs are widespread in the air and come from sources such as automobile exhaust, wood burning and cigarette smoke. Exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons has been connected to hyperpigmentation, premature aging, acne and oxidative stress that can potentially lead to skin cancer.
- VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds): This category of environmental pollutants includes chemicals released from automobile exhaust, paint, tobacco smoke, cleansers, pesticides, aerosol sprays and industrial emissions. When VOCs are released into the air, they can cause inflammatory and allergen-induced skin conditions such as dermatitis or eczema and can damage your skin on a cellular level that breaks down supportive structures such as collagen.
- Ozone: You know that our planet is encased in a protective layer of ozone which helps absorb ultraviolet radiation before it reaches Earth. Ozone is also present, in much lower concentrations, at ground level. Some ozone is naturally released by plant life and soil, however when the ground level of ozone increases, it no longer serves a protective role, but instead can cause major problems for your skin, and your health. Ground level ozone concentrations increase when the ozone naturally released from plants and soil combines with other environmental contaminants and then reacts with heat and sunlight. Therefore, ozone levels are more dangerous on days when the temperature exceeds 80° If you are in an ozone rich environment you might notice changes in your skin such as it becoming dry and losing its elasticity due to the breakdown of collagen as well as other signs of premature aging, eczema and dermatitis.
- Oxides: Here we are talking primarily about nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. These are all formed as the product of some type of combustible reaction, be it emissions from the local factory or a nearby fire. The presence of oxides in the environment causes oxidative stress, which can permanently change the structure of your skin and contribute to the development of inflammatory skin conditions.
- Cigarette Smoke: Even if you are not the one lighting up, there is a pretty good chance that you are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke on some level every day. Even when cigarettes are smoked outside, such as in front of building doors or in a parking lot, they still release thousands of chemical substances into the surrounding air where they will linger. Secondhand cigarette smoke contains carcinogens and free radical-forming compounds. Premature aging and skin discolorations are common in people who smoke cigarettes regularly, but all those chemicals released in the smoke do not discriminate and they have no problem attaching themselves to smokers and non-smokers alike. Cigarette smoke has been connected to deeper wrinkle formations, acne and psoriasis.
Just to do a quick recap, everyday environmental pollutants can cause skin issues that include hyperpigmentation, loss of collagen, dry skin, fragile skin, acne, eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis and possibly even skin cancer. I don’t know about you, but this list is almost enough to make me just want to hide indoors. When facing these kinds of odds against environmental toxins that you don’t have that much control over, it is easy to feel like there is nothing that you can do. While many of these toxins are unavoidable, the fate of your skin is not sealed. All you need is a solid routine, consisting of just a few steps, that will protect your skin from all types of environmental attacks.
A good daily cleansing routine is the first step to protecting your skin. After a day of being bombarded with environmental pollutants you want to make sure that you remove as many of those toxins as possible and begin the healing process by using a gentle cleanser. Of course, the cleanser that you choose should be one that is formulated for your skin type. However, it is key that the cleanser be gentle and non-irritating to your skin, or else it will only serve to amplify the damage caused by environmental stress. I recommend our Ocean Mineral Cleanser for normal to oily skin types and our Vitamin C Facial Cleanser for normal to dry.
You also want to make sure that the cleanser that you choose is not leaving any type of film behind on your skin. Even a thin layer of film can be an invitation for toxins, pollutants and allergens to adhere to your skin and potentially trap in bacteria and other irritants. When you choose a cleanser, think natural, botanical ingredients. You might also want to amp up the protective power of this step in your routine by choosing a cleanser that contains an antioxidant component such as vitamin C which will help protect the skin, ease inflammation and reverse damage caused by UV exposure. Both OZNaturals cleansers are rich in antioxidants to accomplish this important mission.
The gentlest approach to cleaning your skin involves using warm water and cleansing your face in a circular motion, using your clean fingertips. Water that is too hot or too cold can irritate your skin and deplete natural, protective oils. There is no need to use any harsh, textured brushes or clothes to cleanse your face. Rinse your face, by splashing warm water over it until it feels clean and no residue from the cleanser remains. Then gently pat your face with a soft, clean and dry towel.
If you do prefer to use a wash cloth, make sure you use a clean one every day, since these can harbor bacteria. If you’re devoted to a cleansing brush system, such as a Clarisonic, be sure you are not applying pressure or overusing since either can cause irritation.
Exfoliation can be the key to healthy skin when it is done correctly. Unfortunately many people either shy away from it completely or overdo it by exfoliating too often. Exfoliation is a great tool for removing the dead skin cells that accumulate on the surface of your skin, regardless of how thoroughly you wash your face. Those dead skin cells can not only cause your complexion to look dull and lifeless, but they can also block pores and hold onto all the pollutants that you are exposed to. For most people, exfoliating once or twice a week is appropriate. If your skin is especially sensitive, once a week or once every ten days might be all that you can handle. If you live in a warmer climate where sweat, oil and dirt always seem to be clinging to your skin, you are going to want to exfoliate more often. Just make sure that you are not doing it so much that you damage your skin or cause an overproduction of natural skin oils.
Personally, I prefer natural enzyme exfoliants over products that exfoliate using only textural elements. Natural enzyme exfoliants come from sources such as lactic acid and bamboo. These enzymes contain a substance called protease, which breaks down the protein that keeps the dead skin cells attached to your skin. Enzymatic exfoliants also contain anti-inflammatory agents and are generally well tolerated by a wide range of skin types. If it’s not already a part of your regimen, I highly recommend our Ancient Orient Enzyme Dermafoliant for all skin types.
Neutralize with Antioxidants
Many of the environmental pollutants that you encounter introduce free radicals into your system which can eventually damage healthy cells. Aside from avoiding those things that cause free radical damage, also known as oxidative stress, you can fight back against potential damage by getting plenty of antioxidants into your system.
Those nasty free radicals are nothing more than a molecule that is missing an electron. So, they go off in search of an electron to steal from an otherwise healthy cell, which then results in damage or mutation to the cell. Antioxidants work by supplying an abundance of electrons for the free radicals to take, effectively neutralizing them and preventing them from causing catastrophic damage.
You can fight against environmental skin damage by making sure that you get plenty of antioxidants either through the foods you eat, dietary supplements or by choosing skin care products that contain antioxidants that prevent and help repair oxidative damage to the skin and the underlying support structures. The best antioxidants to look for in your natural skin care products include Vitamin C, Vitamin E, green tea and blueberry extract.
Shield and Protect
There is no question that one of the biggest environmental threats to your skin is ultraviolet light damage caused from glorious sunshine. Sunshine helps our bodies synthesize vitamin D, it banishes the blues, keeps us warm and lights up our lives, literally. We would be lost without it, however, too much of a good thing can be a really bad thing. That is why it is important to protect your skin every day, even if you don’t plan on venturing outside the comfort of your home on those overcast days. UV rays can make their way through the glummest of clouds and through that window that is perched above the desk you spend eight hours at every day.
One of the most important elements to your skin care routine is the application of sunscreen. Choose a high quality, zinc-oxide based sunscreen with an SPF rating of 30 or better. Just keep in mind that you might need to apply it more than once per day.
Your skin is over sixty percent water. Water is essential for keeping your skin healthy looking and hydrated. When you are properly hydrated, the water that you drink helps boost circulation which increase the rate at which toxins can be eliminated through your skin. How much should you drink? Well, the gold standard is eight to ten 8 ounce glasses a day, but really it depends on your lifestyle and diet. If you are active, live in a warmer climate or consume beverages that contain caffeine, you are going to need more. Staying hydrated also helps to strengthen the protective structures of your skin and promotes a protective barrier between your skin and the unavoidable environmental pollutants that you encounter every day.
In a perfect, utopian world, we wouldn’t have to worry about the effect of pollutants and environmental toxins on our health and appearance. While you can certainly do your part to reduce your contribution to the pollution of the environment, there simply isn’t a way to avoid all the toxins entirely. The good news in all of this is that protecting your skin from pollutant damage isn’t difficult. It simply requires an awareness and a commitment to a few simple steps that will keep your skin looking and feeling healthy and vibrant. When it comes to preventative skin care, it is always a good idea to keep the world around you in mind. Skin care products derived from nature are almost always gentler for your skin and the environment, which means less pollution and better health all around.
-- Angela Irish, Certified Aesthetician & Co-Founder OZNaturals