FROM THE ORGANIC PHARMACY FILES

How can we protect our skin against pollutants?

One of our skin’s main roles is to act as a barrier, shielding us from both physical damage and pollutants in the air around us. Nutritionist Amanda Ursell explains how we can help protect our skin from the three types of pollutants

Q

What is chemical air pollution? 

AMany of us understand that ultraviolet, or UV, rays from the sun damage our skin, leading to premature ageing and, sometimes, cancer, but UV rays are only one of the many hidden pollutants in air from which we need to protect and defend our skin. Others include complex-sounding chemicals that we cannot see, but which are colliding constantly with the surface of our skin. Many have complicated and unfamiliar names, such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; others, like cigarette smoke and pollutants from car exhausts and arsenic, are more familiar.    

Q

What do chemical air pollutants do to our skin?

AWhen they land on our skin, such pollutants are absorbed via our sweat glands, hair follicles and skin cells themselves, where they create a maelstrom of stress. In response, our skin launches a defensive action, in an attempt to make the invaders safe. The defence team includes enzymes, plus antioxidant protectors like vitamins E and C, as well as glutathione. Despite their bold attempts to limit damage, air pollutants often overwhelm our internal defences and are free to attack our collagen and elastin, which leads to lines and wrinkles, as well as being a cause of some forms of dermatitis, psoriasis, acne and even skin cancer.    

Q

What can we do to protect our skin?  

AA protective sunscreen of SPF30 or above offers a vital layer of physical protection against the sun’s damaging UV rays. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are important ingredients in sunscreen, helping to naturally block and deflect both UVA and UVB rays. Before applying such a cream, however, a ‘primer’ of extra antioxidant protection is also well worth investing in. Serums containing antioxidant rich grape stem cells and jojoba oil, plus vitamins C and E, provide an extra layer of defence against both UV and pollutant damage. Including foods rich in vitamins C and E in your diet, such as citrus fruits, green vegetables and berries, along with almonds, sunflower seeds and wholegrains, can help to replace these nutrients from the inside out. If you live in heavily polluted urban environments, choosing back streets to walk or cycle, rather than taking main roads, is an immediate, pollution-reducing option. Avoiding cigarette smoke is an important step, while investing in house plants can help to purify the air, not to mention swapping petrol- and diesel-fuelled vehicles for smaller, electric versions.    

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Q

What is natural air pollution?

ANatural air pollutants come from events such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires, but pollen is another, more familiar source. Swirling around in the air and rising in count, especially during summer, pollen can lead to direct irritation of our skin. When breathed in, pollen triggers the release of histamine, leading to skin irritation from the inside out.  

Q

What can we do to protect ourselves?

ACovering exposed skin, wearing a face mask and trying to stay inside with windows closed on days of high pollen counts can all help, as can taking a regular supplement containing the plant compound quercetin. Naturally found in onions, apples and grapes, quercetin helps to stop histamine from being released (unlike antihistamines medications, which block histamine’s effect once already released). Vitamin C may also have a natural antihistamine effect, as do, according to medical herbalists, teas made from anise, ginger or peppermint. 

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Q

What is dietary pollution?

AOur skin can also be exposed to internal pollutants, which, like UV exposure and air pollutants, can damage collagen and elastin and speed up the formation of lines, wrinkles, and uneven pigmentation from the inside. Sugar and refined carbohydrates, which are quickly digested and raise glucose rapidly after eating, can be considered to be one such dietary pollutant. Foods like croissants, muffins, biscuits, white bread and refined breakfast cereals, as well as sweets and sugar-rich drinks, lead to such blood glucose surges, after which the sugar in our blood reacts with proteins in our skin, leading to the formation of Advanced Glycolated End Products or AGEs for short. AGEs harden collagen and elastin in our skin so that it loses natural bounce and elasticity, becomes coarsened, sagging, lined and wrinkled. Some foods like cream, butter, crisps and higher-fat cheeses contain relatively high amounts of pre-formed AGEs, while grilling, frying and roasting meat can also cause their formation.

Q

How can we change our diet to help?

ATurning to sweet-tasting fruits and replacing refined carbohydrates with wholegrain versions, as well as packing our meals full of naturally antioxidant rich vegetables, can help to reduce the formation of sugar-induced AGEs and, in turn, help to reduce collagen and elastin damage in both the short and long-term. Switching to cooking methods like steaming, boiling and microwaving can significantly lower our intake of these damaging internal skin pollutants, while research also shows that herbs and spices such as oregano, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and garlic may also help to reduce the production of AGE skin pollutants.