Climate Change Might Make Your Skin Concerns Worse, But Experts Say These Tips Can Help

by Jenn Sinrich · Updated May 12, 2022
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The environment isn’t the only thing taking a hit from climate change. Some research points to the impact of pollution and climate change on your skin health. Find out what you can do to protect your skin and the planet. 

At this point, chances are, you know climate change is an issue. You’re hit with it in your newsfeed, social channels, and hear newscasters and talk show hosts alike discuss its devastating effects. 

Most often, when climate change is the topic of conversation, the subject matter is pollution and how it affects the environment, but the message that often gets left out is just how much our day-to-day lives are impacted by our environments. Now, science is bearing out that climate change has a direct effect on your skin.

The Connection Between Climate Change and Skin Problems

climate change and skin

Being our largest and most exposed organ, our skin is vulnerable to dangerous UV radiation that can cause significant damage, notes cosmetic dermatologist Michele Green, MD. She also points out that the increasingly unpredictable changes in weather—more floods, droughts, intense rains, and frequent and severe heat waves—may trigger skin conditions and make it harder for our skin to cope. “Pollution, on top of climate change, can result in detrimental effects on our health and exacerbate chronic conditions, like asthma, and make our bodies more vulnerable and prone to skin flare-ups and vice versa,” she says. 

The burning of fossil fuels also directly contributes to climate change and causes increased air particles and pollutants and contributes to airborne irritants by expanding pollen seasons—increasing wildfires, and entrapment of pollutants with stagnant urban air, explains New York City-based cosmetic dermatologist, Elaine Kung, MD. “Higher temperatures and humidity also cause more sweating, which can trigger rashes like hives, eczema, intertrigo, and athlete’s foot.”
  

The havoc that climate change can wreak on our skin is relatively limitless, according to dermatologists. Here, they share some of the most concerning ways climate change is affecting our skin health and what to do about it. 

The Most Common Skin Concerns Exacerbated by Climate Change

Higher Rates of Skin Cancer

One major concern is the link between skin cancer and climate change. In fact, incidences of skin cancer have been increasing over the last few decades, with an estimated 2-3 million non-melanoma skin cancers and 132,000 melanoma skin cancers occurring each year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

One clear cause for this increase in skin cancer is the increased level of  UV radiation that’s reaching Earth as a result of climate change, notes Dr. Green. “The increased amount of greenhouse gas emissions has led to the thinning of the ozone layer, which functions to protect our skin from UV radiation,” she says. “As a result, there is more UV radiation that is being absorbed by our skin and causing damage to the DNA within our skin cells.” Over time, this DNA damage accumulates and can cause cells to grow and change abnormally, which ultimately can lead to cancer. 

Frequent Acne Breakouts

Just as with skin cancer, the rates of acne are increasing, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD). Approximately 85 percent of Americans between the ages of 12 and 24 experience some degree of acne, and this can continue well into a person’s 30s and 40s. “Climate change can stress out your skin by altering the pH balance and impairing your skin’s ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions, leaving your skin prone to acne breakouts,” explains Dr. Green. “As the temperatures rise, individuals may also experience increased greasiness and oiliness, which can exacerbate acne and result in increased acne breakouts.” 

Premature Aging

Most of us know that sun exposure can lead to premature aging over time. Well, environmental pollutants can also cause free radical damage by breaking down our skin’s collagen and making wrinkles, dark spots, fine lines, and saggy skin more prominent, explains Dr. Green. “Applying certain antioxidants like vitamin C serum can help to neutralize free radicals and reduce the effects of climate change on skin aging,” she says. “If you already have sun damage in the form of hyperpigmentation, sun spots, and age spots, chemical peels, and the Fraxel Laser are great treatment options for improving skin tone and texture.”

Eczema and Atopic Dermatitis Flare-Ups

Research, including one study published in the British Journal of Dermatology, has shown an increase in the prevalence of eczema and atopic dermatitis flare-ups in urban areas—and this is no coincidence, according to Dr. Green. “Pollution compiled with increasing temperatures play a significant role in triggering flare-ups,” she says. “Exhaust from cars and smoke from tobacco has negative pathophysiologic effects on the skin by disrupting our skin barrier function and the activation of immune responses.”

How to Combat Climate Change Effects on Skin

climate change effects on skin protection

Ultimately, reducing the impact of climate change on your health and skin comes down to everyone doing their part to live more sustainably. While you can’t ward off climate change on your own, there are things you can do to reduce its negative effects on your skin. Here, dermatologists share their best tips. 

Apply Sunscreen—Even on Cloudy Days

The single most important thing you can do to keep your skin protected from environmental changes is to use a protective mineral sunscreen with at least SPF 30 every day on the skin, according to Alain Michon, MD, an Ottawa-based aesthetic medicine doctor. “Since the UV rays from the sun are one of the harshest effects of skin damage, it is important to use sun protection daily (even on cloudy days),” he says. He recommends applying sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or above and reapplying every 1-2 hours to ensure your skin is effectively protected, especially when outdoors.

Stay Hydrated

Another easy way to support your skin is by consuming adequate fluids. This, Dr. Green explains, helps maintain the skin’s elasticity and helps keep it plump. She recommends that women aim for 12 cups of water per day and men aim for 16 cups per day. “I like drinking my water from a marked reusable water bottle since it encourages me to drink water throughout the day,” she says. “It is also environmentally friendly and cost-effective as you don’t have to buy bottled water.”

Use a Vitamin C Serum

Topical antioxidants, such as vitamin C, are a helpful approach to protecting the skin against the impact of pollution on the skin, explains Marisa Garshick, MD, a dermatologist at Medical Dermatology & Cosmetic Surgery (MDCS) in New York. “Since environmental stressors, such as pollution, may contribute to free radical damage, using topical antioxidants to help neutralize the free radical damage can prevent and treat skin changes.” 

Cleanse Your Skin Regularly

While washing your face twice daily is the goal, washing it at night is the most important. Using a gentle cleanser every morning and before you go to bed can make a difference in your skin by removing any dirt, oil, or other unwanted debris on your skin,” says Dr. Green. “Especially with daily mask-wearing, a lot of bacteria and germs can accumulate and clog your pores—cleansing your face regularly will therefore remove these impurities.” Great gentle cleansers that she recommends include Cetaphil, CeraVe, and my MGSKINLABs.

Incorporate Antioxidants Into Your Diet

The old saying “you are what you eat” rings true when it comes to skincare. Dr. Green recommends making sure to include a lot of antioxidant-rich vegetables in your diet, including broccoli, spinach, carrots, and potatoes. (Want more ideas? Try these 12 foods for healthy skin.) “Antioxidants are substances that protect your cells against free radicals that are a result of exposure to UV radiation and environmental pollution,” she says. 

For a daily dose of the antioxidant vitamin C, you can supplement with HUM Nutrition’s Air Patrol, which contains esterified vitamin C to help reduce oxidative stress and damage from toxins as well as citrus bioflavonoids to help fight free radicals.


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