Your Skin Has Entered The Climate Conversation
What you do for your skin is a metaphor for what we need to do for the planet.
In recent months, I have had so many conversations with friends about where to move given the climate crisis. Which places will flood? Catch fire? Drop into the sea after a cataclysmic earthquake? It is overwhelming (to say the least). As a species, we are having a hard time grasping the scope of the changes that we are no longer just “confronting”—as if in some distant, unnamed future—we are actually living with. It’s like someone is waving a flag right in front of us, but we just can’t see it.
Not only is the climate crisis right under our noses, the skin on our actual faces is feeling it.
Yes, your dermis gives a shit about climate change. Our increasingly damaged and depleted environment are interfering with our skin’s natural ability to heal itself. Or, to put it another way, the single greatest existential threat to our species is showing up right on our faces. I guess the question is: Will we be able to look into the mirror and do something about it?
Environmental Stressors Are All Around Us
The skin is a beautiful metaphor for the planet, because holistic skin care is about “bringing skin back to itself.”(1) If you want to heal it, you have to identify the things that knock it off its course and try to bring it back to its pre-stressed state.
The common stressors are:
Air pollutants—this catch-all category harms skin by inducing oxidative stress. Your skin is an amazing biological shield against chemicals found in the air, but repeated exposure has profoundly negative effects on it nonetheless. “Oxidative stress” on the skin is usually discussed in terms of “anti-aging,” but the real issue here is not that you are getting older, it’s that the chemical makeup of the air is changing the cells in your skin, in your body, and even in your DNA. (2)
Air pollutants occur indoors and out and can include (but are not limited to): “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), particulate matter (PM), heavy metals, gaseous pollutants, such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitric oxides (NOx ), sulfur oxide (SO2 ), ozone (O3 ), and indoor air pollutants (solid fuels consumption).” (3)
UV rays & blue light—the depletion of the ozone from aerosols and other pollutants has increased ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Sun and heat are expected, everyday stressors for the skin—we use sunscreen to deal with them—but their effect has only increased in recent years as the climate has continued to suffer and the ozone layer has become more depleted than ever before in human history.
You’ll see the effects of UV rays on your skin in a sunburn immediately. Over the long term, dark spots, wrinkles, and changes in elasticity can occur. Studies are mixed on whether or not the light from our technology messes with our skin, but it seems intuitive to me that something that we stare at for longer than we ever have before, historically, as a species, would have some impact on us—if not on our skin than on our mental health or our sleep habits or the way we move through the day. It’s all connected.
What Pollution Does To Skin
Skin that is dealing with pollutants, as almost every face on the planet now is, has a weakened skin barrier, aka, the skin’s natural defense system. As skin cells are damaged, collagen production is slowed and the skin is less able to recover. Its microflora is also weakened, meaning it can’t fend off intruders or bounce back as readily. (4)
You’ll see the signs of this in your complexion, the feel of your skin, how refreshed (or not) it looks and feels to the touch.
We’re lucky, in a way, that the skin actually shows some of these effects. So many of the effects of pollution on our bodies are hidden from view, making them harder to address. You can see a dark spot; you can’t feel your DNA changing.
How To Help Your Face
Let’s be clear about something: Capitalism created this problem (the climate catastrophe) and Capitalism is not going to fix it (by selling you more stuff). Although of course, it will try.
We are not pitching you on a product line, and I would be really skeptical of product lines that are created to address this (e.g., fight free radicals! reduce wrinkles caused by pollution! is your phone screen making you age?!). These are tidy and catchy and click-inducing, but they are also distractions.
We need to start looking for solutions outside the model of consumption to fix a problem caused by overconsumption. Sorry in advance if this seems super obvious, current legislation would indicate that it is not.
Your skin is an organ—one of the most important (yet fragile) in the human body—and it actually knows how to repair itself; but skin that is experiencing stress, damage and inflammation can not perform its normal, self-healing functions.
We can help it along, in a product-agnostic way:
Cleanse: Do it gently and thoroughly, especially at night, to remove the smoke, dust and particulate matter that may have accumulated on your skin. We suggest you cleanse gently so you don’t weaken your skin barrier, which is responsible for keeping threats out and regulating moisture loss.
Protect: Hydrate and moisturize skin to protect it (remember, hydrating and moisturizing are not the same thing!). It’s a good idea to use ingredients that are rich in antioxidants and nutrients that fight free radicals. We did not invent this idea. Plants did. Interestingly, the volatile oils that occur in plants that protect their cells from environmental stressors (like pollution) are what we humans call “essential oils.” So we can look to the plant world for tips here, by identifying plants growing in stressed environments, and borrowing their oils. More on essential oils here. You should also wear sunscreen every day.
Repair: Your skin will do this on its own, it just needs a chance to stop fighting the causes of inflammation and damage so that it can get back to its job of making new cells, producing collagen and elastin. Do the above to give it a helping hand and then get out of its way.
Reduce Exposure: This could mean various things depending on where you live, as well as your lifestyle, but a few ideas are: wear a hat outdoors, add air purifiers to your home, lessen screen time, monitor air quality in your air and reduce outdoor activity on heavy pollution days.
I think it goes without saying that we need to tackle the climate crisis on a global rather than dermic scale, breaking down power imbalances, so that the people who are most impacted by climate change have a voice in solving it (in other words, not the handful of elites who are planning to colonize the moon). This issue is so much bigger than our skin and it is staring us in the literal and metaphoric mirror. So put on your sunscreen. Then get in on the fight.
Written by Vera Kachouh
- Tara, co-founder
- Effects of air pollution on the skin
- The impact of air pollution on skin and related disorders
- Recognizing the impact of ambient air pollution on skin health