North America is currently experiencing a nosedive in air quality due to wildfires in neighboring Canada, with New York City reporting the worst air quality of any city in the world yesterday. According to the National Weather Service, conditions are projected to linger for the next few days due to stagnant weather systems and could even spread further west by Thursday.
Public health officials are urging citizens in affected areas to stay indoors and wear N95 masks outside to avoid smoke particle inhalation, particularly for high-risk individuals with asthma and cardiovascular and respiratory conditions.
Dermatologists also warn that poor air quality exposure can have adverse effects on your skin. “Air quality has a direct relationship with quality of skin,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., tells Glamour. “Small particles of toxic material and pollution can cause significant amounts of free-radical damage to skin, accelerating aging and increasing inflammatory flares such as rosacea, eczema, even worsening acne.”
Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and founder of Hudson Dermatology and Laser Surgery, says that wildfire smoke and air pollution was a pressing topic at the 2023 American Academy of Dermatology conference. “There was discussion around a new study showing increased dermatology appointments for eczema and psoriasis [as air quality worsens,]” he says. “There was also an increase in oral and injectable medications prescribed for eczema which could indicate an increase in severity. Speaking more broadly, with increased environmental pollutants, it would not be surprising to see more clogged pores and potential free radical damage.”
Ahead, Dr. Nazarian and Dr. Bhanusali share the effects of poor air quality, plus how to protect and maintain skin against aggressors.
Neutralize free radical damage
Both Dr. Nazarian and Bhausali recommend finding products that can neutralize the effects of free radicals. “Adherence to a strict skin care regimen can offset the extent of the damage to your skin by neutralizing some of the free radical damage,” Dr. Nazarian says. “Topical antioxidants can be very useful to decrease oxidative stress. When air quality is very poor, I recommend applying it everywhere—not just your face—and trying to extend topical ingredients down the neck as well.”
To boost antioxidants, Dr. Nazarian recommends using the Proactiv Green Tea Moisturizer. “It has green tea extract, which is anti-inflammatory and protective against oxidative stress, but also a botanical blend of natural antioxidants,” Nazarian says. Another option: SkinMedica Lumivive is a two-step system with an antioxidant-rich day serum and revitalizing night serum that gives your skin more power to resist the environment’s attack.
Dr. Bhanusali also recommends using antioxidants as well an exfoliator. “I have advised my patients to gently exfoliate each night if you’ve spent considerable time outdoors, use an antioxidant, and make sure you apply a rich moisturizer at night to help protect the skin barrier,” Bhanusali says. “In general, I tend to recommend exfoliating one to two times a week max for most, but it’s ok to increase the frequency if increased exposure.”
Use an air purifier and wear a mask
N95 masks are most effective at filtering particles from wildfire smoke but also offer physical protection from the elements. “Wear a mask when air quality is really poor to physically offer a shield against small particles of pollution,” says Dr. Nazarian. “And absolutely use an air purifier, which can keep your skin and body healthier by improving the air quality around you.” Dr. Bhanusali agrees, saying it’s “definitely a good idea” to switch on your air purifier indoors.
Use products that calm and protect skin
If you have acne, poor air quality can worsen breakouts. Dr. Nazarian recommends using topical retinoids, “which are vitamin A derivatives and somewhat protective,” to keep skin in check. “ProactivMD contains adapalane and is my preferred retinoid,” she says.
Skin irritation is common, so make sure to use gentle products if you experience flare ups. “Calming products like Avene Restorative Cream or the Rhode Barrier Repair Cream are great for supporting a healthy skin barrier,” says Dr. Bhanusali. “For exfoliating, look for products with salicylic acid or PHAs if you have sensitive skin.”
Cleanse after exposure
Washing your face with cleanser is more important than ever—and definitely not a step you want to skip. “Cleansing twice a day, morning and night, or whenever leaving the house, is imperative at this point,” says Dr. Nazarian. “Not washing your face after being exposed to high levels of poor quality air can lead to premature skin aging.” If you have dry skin, she recommends using a gentle cleanser to avoid stripping moisture.
Yes—even in hazy smoke, you need to wear sunscreen. “Look for formulas that are combined with antioxidants more an added layer of protection as well,” says Dr. Nazarian.
Ariana Yaptangco is the senior beauty editor at Glamour. Follow her on Instagram @arianayap.
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