The New Pollutants
04 Apr 2021

How the post-Covid “new normal” is challenging skin.

Our lives have changed irrevocably over the past year, and our environments and lifestyles shifted in ways which present new challenges to skin.

Time spent in homes rather than offices or outdoors and socialising on screens rather than in-person introduced a new, different set of aggressors for skin. As a result, clients will have had a dramatic increase in exposure to indoor air pollution and blue light, two potentially damaging elements for skin and overall wellbeing.

Indoor air pollution

On busy streets and traffic-filled town centres, air pollution is obvious. Dr Gaby Prinsloo, medical director at the iiaa states that long term exposure can lead to respiratory and cardiovascular disorders as well as neurological diseases and numerous other complications.

Being indoors does not protect us from air pollution.  

It is estimated that indoor air pollution levels can be five times higher than outdoors. Our homes have their own unique air pollutants, distinct from those typically found in city centres and offices, with equally damaging impacts on the skin.

According to the British Lung Foundation, indoor air pollution is linked to factors including cleaning materials, how homes are heated, damp and poor ventilation – which contribute to the blend of microscopic particles and gases in the air.

After more than a year being advised to “stay at home”, the proven impact of these pollutants on skin is likely to become increasingly apparent.

Microscopic aggressors

Three key culprits for indoor air pollution are Polycyclic-Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and airborne microorganisms such as bacteria or fungi.

PAHs are microscopic particles emitted during the burning of fossil fuels. In our homes, they are produced by heating mechanisms, cooking methods, plastic or oil-based building materials and fabrics. They are found in significant levels in household dust, and are common in home environments, as industrial air conditioning units typically filter such particles from the air in work places and shops.

Free radical damage, microbiome disruption, pigmentation, skin barrier harm and skin conditions including acne and atopic dermatitis have been connected with exposure to PAHs.

“Long term-exposed skin to PM [Particulate Matter] bound PAHs [e.g. in dust] either through hair follicle or transepidermal absorption may lead to oxidative stress and skin aging,” notes one study, which explains that PAHs also trigger “acneiform eruptions” and pigmentation as PAHs induce melanocyte proliferation, disrupting the usually stable population of melanocytes in the skin.

Recently, PAHs were found to negatively impact skin microbiome diversity. A 2020 study showed that PAHs cause “profound modification” to the skin microbiota and the function of the microbiome, compromising skin health and increasing the occurrence of conditions such as atopic dermatitis or acne.

VOCs are a similar compound, with an equally profound effect on skin health. These are emitted by scented items and self-care products including: household cleaners and sprays, aerosol deodorants and even scented candles.

As with PAHs, VOCs increase the likelihood of free radical damage and photoageing in skin, and can trigger problem skin conditions. Research shows exposure to VOCs increases cytokines (signalling molecules) in skin, which can lead to the development of inflammation or allergic reactions, manifesting as atopic dermatitis or eczema.

Irritation, inflammation and problem skin can also be caused by the bacteria, mould, spores and fungi that occur in our homes. As with our own microbiomes, many of these microbes are harmless, however, researchers have shown that urban home environments are far more likely to host problematic, pathogenic microorganisms. One study discovered home environments host particularly high levels of bacteria related to acne, atopic dermatitis and other skin conditions.

Blue light

Since the beginning of the pandemic our screen time has soared. Research from Ofcom shows that during 2020, adults in the UK were spending half their waking hours watching screens for entertainment  – plus the daily eight hours many spend working at a laptop or computer.

Concern over how screens effect health has been growing for some time, and blue light is a particular focus for its detrimental impact on skin health and overall wellbeing.

Blue light is a high energy, high frequency component of the natural light spectrum – with a wavelength between 400 and 450 nm. It is emitted in particularly high amounts by electronic screens and LED lights.

Recent research suggests high intensity exposure – like our current screen habits – dramatically impact skin, eyes and sleep. “High-energy blue light can increase the amount of DNA damage, cell and tissue death, and injury, eye damage, skin barrier damage, and photoaging,” explains a study released in November 2020.

Even in small amounts, research shows that exposure to blue light triggers increased free radical activity in skin, leading to premature ageing. “Exposure to light emitted from electronic devices on human skin cells, even in case of short exposures, can increase the generation of reactive oxygen species,” explains one recent study.

Protection and skin health support

When tackling the new pollutants, antioxidants are imperative to safeguarding skin health and protecting against free radical damage.

Lorraine Perretta, head of nutrition for the Advanced Nutrition Programme, recommends green tea, astaxanthin, zeaxanthin, pine bark extract, grapeseed extract, lutein and lycopene as powerful antioxidants to incorporate into the diet or via supplements.

Ensure clients are including both topical and oral antioxidants in their skin health regimen – as a dual defence against skin aggressors.

Dr Des Fernandes, founder of Environ, explains topical products are particularly important to protect from blue light. “If the molecule that absorbs blue light is on the surface of the skin it will work even more efficiently than if it is absorbed into the skin,” he explains. “Your best blue light protection would be something that lies between the light source and your skin.”

Niacinamide (vitamin B3) is known to be a particularly potent anti-blue light ingredient. Applied topically, the molecule has antioxidant properties to protect and has also been shown to be effective in reversing blue-light induced pigmentation.

For clients experiencing irritation or problem skin: calming, balancing ingredients and skin barrier support are crucial to restore comfort and clarity.

“Omega 3 fatty acids, found in oily fish, can help replenish and support a compromised skin barrier, and have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties,” notes Perretta. “New research shows that combining omega 3 with omega 6 can help to address problem skin,along with other common conditions.”


  • Mahfouz, Mohamed M et al. “PAH concentrations and exposure assessment from house dust retained in air-conditioning filters collected from Greater Doha, Qatar.” Environmental geochemistry and health vol. 41,5 (2019): 2251-2263. doi:10.1007/s10653-019-00271-0
  • Wendy Roberts, Air pollution and skin disorders, International Journal of Women's Dermatology, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2021, Pages 91-97, ISSN 2352-6475,
  • Christina Antoniou, E. Drakaki, and Clio Dessinioti. “Air Pollution and the Skin.” Frontiers in Environmental Science 2 (2014): n. pag. Web.
  • Leung, M.H.Y., Tong, X., Bastien, P. et al. Changes of the human skin microbiota upon chronic exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon pollutants. Microbiome 8, 100 (2020).
  • Callewaert, C., Ravard Helffer, K. & Lebaron, P. Skin Microbiome and its Interplay with the Environment. Am J Clin Dermatol 21, 4–11 (2020).
  • Gold, Michael H et al. “Clinical Efficacy of Self-applied Blue Light Therapy for Mild-to-Moderate Facial Acne.” The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology vol. 2,3 (2009): 44-50.
  • Coats, Jahnna G et al. “Blue Light Protection, Part I-Effects of blue light on the skin.” Journal of cosmetic dermatology vol. 20,3 (2021): 714-717. doi:10.1111/jocd.13837 
  • Arjmandi, N et al. “Can Light Emitted from Smartphone Screens and Taking Selfies Cause Premature Aging and Wrinkles?.” Journal of biomedical physics & engineering vol. 8,4 447-452. 1 Dec. 2018
  • Campiche, R et al. “Pigmentation effects of blue light irradiation on skin and how to protect against them.” International journal of cosmetic science vol. 42,4 (2020): 399-406.