Particulate matter and your skin

Environment and lifestyle greatly impact a person’s skin health. A complementary environment and lifestyle protects a youthful skin tone, delays ageing and reduces the risk of skin conditions such as eczema, acne and psoriasis. A despaired environment and lifestyle cause the opposite to occur, they speed ageing and aggravate and provoke eczema, acne, psoriasis and even androgenic balding1.

Particulate matter is an important external stressor controlled both by environment and lifestyle that can greatly effect skin health. High environmental levels of particulate matter cause skin deposition and absorption leading to premature ageing, acne, eczema and more. When particulate matter is left on skin untreated many ageing and inflammatory mechanisms are initiated, therefore it is very important to maintain skincare practises which help to control, reduce and eliminate particulate matter.

What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter is a term used to describe the air borne dispersion of physical pollution particles, which can be caused by either indoor or outdoor pollution.

Outdoor pollution includes particulate matter caused by exhaust fumes, factories and windborne dust2. It may be described as smog, smoke or even soot.

Indoor pollution includes particulate matter caused by environment and lifestyle factors such as the use of indoor fires, the presence of dust, dust mites and smoking.

There are 3 primary types of particulate matter with the smaller categories having the most visible skin effects;

  1. Particulate matter – including particles that are 10um in size and smaller, described as PM10
  2. Fine particulate matter – particles of less than 2.5um in size – PM2.5
  3. Ultrafine particles – particles of less than 100nm in diameter3

What are the most common sources of particulate matter?

Airborne particulate matter can be born as a consequence of many different environmental and lifestyle factors. Outdoor pollution is commonly recognized, however increasingly indoor pollution is becoming more prevalent and more troublesome – when taking care of skin, it is important to consider both.

The most common sources of particulate matter include;

  • Vehicle exhaust fumes
  • Industrial processes i.e. from factories, incinerators, power plants
  • Fires (both indoor and outdoor)
  • Smoking
  • Cooking

As a consequence of the above causes, often living within or close to a city, causes particulate matter exposure to become heightened. Therefore a skincare routine that treats against particulate matter is increasingly important.

Can particulate matter penetrate skin?

The main purpose of skin is to provide a barrier against stressing environmental factors such as sunlight, allergens, bacteria, viruses and particulate matter. Skin’s barrier function also ensures skin hydration levels are maintained and trans-epidermal water loss if kept to a minimum. Youthfully, healthy skin has a highly effective barrier function.

However skin’s barrier function is not absolute and both beneficial and aggravating compounds may traverse the skin barrier if of the right chemistry and size.

There are predominantly 4 ways ingredients may penetrate skin;

  1. Mechanical delivery i.e. through abrasion
  2. Intracellularly – travelling through the spaces in-between skin cells
  3. Transcellularly – travelling through skin cells
  4. Transfollicularly i.e. through hair follicles4

Of the 4 ways ingredients may penetrate skin, the fourth transfollicular route is most widely implicated for enabling the penetration of particulate matter into skin5.

Hair follicles also described as pores have a much wider size than particulate matter particles with studies showing particulate matter of 1.5um in size is easily and efficiently able to penetrate skin through hair follicles. Hair follicles inhabit a total 10% surface area6 of skin frequently exposed to the environment therefore making ingredients such as particulate matter a significant threat to skin health.

The effects of particulate matter on skin

Particulate matter is a non-skin identical ingredient that skin’s immune system perceives as foreign. When foreign substances are able to penetrate the skin barrier, skin’s immune system becomes activated. The task – to isolate and remove, the process – inflammation. For this reason increased exposure to particulate matter is linked to several skin diseases characterised by inflammation or oxidative stress.

Studies validate connections between particulate matter and the incidence and severity of;

  1. Eczema
  2. Acne
  3. Psoriasis
  4. Skin ageing
  5. Age spots
  6. Skin cancer

Particulate matter and eczema

Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition caused by a malfunctioning skin barrier. In cases of eczema a reduced barrier function allows many aggravating and oxidative compounds into skin, causing irritation, inflammation and dryness.

The prevalence of eczema is ever increasing as is the airborne incidence of particulate matter. In fact particulate matter in high concentrations is directly linked to the progression of eczema in children, with ongoing exposure to PM2.5 from exhaust fumes being a key risk factor7.

Exposure to particulate matter may provoke eczema flares, increase itching8 and prolong symptoms. Both indoor and outdoor particulate matter influences the pathology of eczema with reductions in both being associated with reduction in the severity and skin prevalence of symptoms9,10.

Particulate matter and acne

Acne in similarity to eczema is a skin disease characterised by inflammation and therefore increased exposure to particulate matter has been linked to its severity. Smoking for instance increases skin production of pro-inflammatory compounds linked to the formation of comedones in acne sufferers11.

Particulate matter and psoriasis

Psoriasis is an inflammatory skin condition in which the top layers of skin grow at an uncontrolled, unmediated speed causing the tell-tale raised, red psoriatic plaques. Particulate particles from diesel exhausts and cigarette smoke increase the differentiation and proliferation of cells implicated in psoriatic progression12.

Particulate matter and skin ageing

Rates of skin ageing are in part determined by an individual’s DNA and in part determined by environmental and lifestyle factors. DNA factors, termed intrinsic ageing factors are uncontrollable, environmental and lifestyle factors, termed extrinsic ageing factors are controllable.

Particulate matter when deposited on and within skin is able to initiate reactions resulting in the creations of reactive oxygen species. These high energy particles levy oxidative stress into skin and promote the progression of ageing. Specifically they help degrade skin proteins such as collagen13, whose decline is directly linked to loss of volume within skin.

Particulate matter and age spots

Alongside UV exposure, particulate matter exposure is quickly becoming recognised as a significant extrinsic contributor to premature ageing. Recent studies show living in an urban area with high PM10 concentrations is linked to a 20% increase in facial pigmentation spots, also known as age spots14.

Particulate matter and skin cancer

The WHO classify diesel exhaust fumes having a high percentage of ultra-fine particles as class one carcinogens. The American Cancer Society conclude that living in an area of high PM2.5 exposure is associated with an increased mortality rate15. Therefore the link of particulate matter and skin cancer incidence in recent years is not of surprise. Studies show that particulate matter is a high risk factor in the incidence of skin cancers specifically malignant melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer16.

Can cleansing help remove particulate matter?

Particulate matter particles can cause damage to skin whether deposited on the very top layers or when being more deeply absorbed. Effective cleansing can and will help remove particulate matter while also preventing them from being deeply absorbed. Studies show the detrimental effects of particulate matter are more prevalent after 48 hours of exposure than 24 hours17, making daily cleansing a very important step in the protection against premature ageing.

Gentle yet effective products such as the griffin+row gel cleanser can help to remove particulate matter being most effective when used with a mild physical exfoliant such as the griffin+row muslin cloth.

How can the harmful skin effects of particulate matter be prevented?

There are many skincare practices that can be used alongside smart lifestyle changes to help avoid and reduce the ageing effects of particulate matter. For instance;

  • Daily cleansing helps to remove particulate matter build-up therefore lessening its harmful effects. Evening time cleansing is most important and should be considered a pivotal step in any anti-ageing, anti-particulate matter skincare routine.
  • Regular physical exfoliation alongside daily cleansing aids in the removal of particulate matter particles that may have absorbed into the top layers of skin. Removing these dead and contaminated skin cells prevents particulate matter particles from penetrating more deeply.
  • Use of antioxidant skincare such as the griffin+row Enrich – antioxidant night cream helps to counteract the oxidative effects of particulate matter.
  • Daily use of sunscreen helps mediate the proliferation of particulate matter damage. Sunlight delivers intense energy into skin and can increase the damaging effects of particulate matter by initiating oxidative reactions. Daily use of sunscreen helps prevent premature ageing caused by the combination of UV light and particulate matter.

Lifestyle changes are also very important to consider. Do you exercise outside during times of high traffic? Do you walk to work alongside a busy road or beside the canal? Do you smoke? Do you regularly have indoor fires – is the chimney exhaust clean and effective? Ensuring controllable particulate matter exposure is kept to a minimum helps to maintain a youthful, healthy


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