How the Environment Impacts Your Skin

Skin Care

Kermit said it best: “It’s hip to be green.”  And never before has there been such an eco-conscious movement in modern society.  Yet, along with our biodegradable cups and rewashable containers has come the converse question: while we’re saving the planet, what is the environment doing to us?  From the long-known dangers of UV light to the new questions of whether or not your cell phone is giving you wrinkles, FutureDerm investigates what the planet is doing to your skin.

UV Light:  The Ultimate Skin Ager


In the 1980’s, it was believed that as much as 90 percent of our UV-light-induced DNA damage was incurred to our skin before age 20.  Now, the more commonly believed concept is that 40-50% is incurred in the pre-college years, whereas the rest comes with about 10% per decade of life.

With that said, dermatologists still believe that 80 to 90 percent of total skin aging comes from the sun.  According to research published in The New England Journal of Medicine, exposure to UV light directly causes an increase in the activity of enzymes that degrade collagen.  UV light has also been shown in research from Photochemistry and Photobiology to directly induce the formation of free radicals, which damage your cellular DNA and cause oxidative damage.  And, of course, UV light contributes directly to the formation of skin cancer, as shown in the journal PNAS, amongst many others.

Comparedwith photodamaged skin, sun-protected skin appears thinner,more evenly pigmented, laxer, and more finely lined, as stated in Archives of Dermatology.  So why would you want to absorb any sunlight at all?

As we all know by now, we need 15 minutes of unprotected UV exposure twice per week in order to synthesize proper levels of vitamin D (the time is on average – less at the equator and more in Paris in winter).   An editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine reports that 57% of 290 patients in one study were reported to have inadequate vitamin D levels. Another alarming 2007 study from the University of Pittsburgh found that approximately half of the pregnant women residing in the northeastern U.S. are “at high risk” for vitamin D insufficiencies and deficiencies, even when taking prenatal vitamins. Unfortunately, it does not seem those numbers are much different for non-pregnant patients in other northeastern cities.

It turns out that vitamin D may be more crucial to health than originally thought.  In a 2004 review featured in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, renowned vitamin D expert Dr. Michael Holick explains the importance of vitamin D in “cancers, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis.” Holick’s review cites one particularly alarming study by Dr. William B. Grant, Ph.D., in which “up to 25% of the deaths due to breast cancer in Europe could be [statistically] attributed to a lack of UVB from sunlight.” A similar study conducted by Dr. Grant in the U.S. found that cancer rates are approximately twice as high in the northeast compared with the southwest. The study, published in Cancer , supports this statement with a statistically significant inverse relationship between UVB exposure and bladder, esophageal, kidney, lung, pancreatic, rectal, stomach, and corpus uteri cancers.

So, with aged skin and skin cancer on the one hand, and a slew of other cancers on the other, the best thing to do with the sun is to listen to your physician:  adequate sunscreen-free exposure for at least 15 minutes, twice per week.  Moderation is key!  (And, based on current evidence, it does not hurt to take a 2000 IU vitamin D supplement daily as well – but of course, check with your physician first.)

EMF Waves (Radiowaves, Microwaves, etc.)


A few months ago, a Clarins representative recommended that I purchase the Clarins UV Plus Sunscreen SPF 40 ($42.00, for its “electromagnetic field (EMF) protection.”  As a former physics major in college, I was curious about this.  Was this just marketing hype?  Or do we actually need protection from EMF, which is caused by our numerous electronic and radio devices?

Turns out it may be a little of both.  Surprisingly alarming research from the journal Science of the Total Environment demonstrates a statistically significant difference in cancer morbidity between workers exposed to radiofrequency/microwaves and those who were not.  Additional research from Biomagnetics also questions the safety of radiofrequencies and whether they could cause damage to our DNA.  Some scientists hypothesize that EMF-induced damage is like UV-induced damage, accumulating over time.

However, it is still unknown to what degree EMF is a hazard to our skin and our health.  Which brings me back to the Clarins EMF-protecting products.  While it may be better to be safe than sorry, we still don’t know if and how EMF hurts the skin, so it is difficult to justify buying a product designed to fight EMF as opposed to, say, a retinoid, which is proven to fight free radicals and collagen-degrading enzymes.  In addition, there is no standard for EMF protection, as there is SPF for UVB protection.  As such, there is no way to gauge how effective the Clarins EMF-protecting products are in comparison to other sunscreens and moisturizers.  How do we know a basic moisturizer doesn’t provide an EMF barrier of some degree?   Although I love the company in general, this one is a hard sell for me.

Air Pollution (Ozone Exposure)


I think that two words we will hear a lot more of in the future are ozone exposure. Although the research is currently  limited, low-level ozone has been found to deplete the skin of vitamins C and E (amongst other antioxidants) and induce lipid peroxidation in upper layers of the skin, as reported in Biological Chemistry.   It is believed that regular exposure to smoke, smog, and other pollutants in the air can weaken the skin’s antioxidant levels and predispose the skin to aging UV rays, amongst other toxins.  As such, it’s our best known defense right now to consume foods rich in antioxidants, apply antioxidants topically, and perhaps even take antioxidant-rich skin care supplements.

The Take-Home Message


While we’re out saving the planet with our recyclable bottles and reusable bags, let’s not forget to save our skin from the toxins and pollutants out there.  The ozone layer of the planet is thinning and becoming more concentrated with toxins, which means that adequate UV protection and antioxidants more important than ever.   Just as all natural and/or organic products are not necessarily beneficial for you, nature itself has its own dangers.  Your best bet is to stay up-to-date with new scientific knowledge, keep regular visits with your dermatologist, and listen to your elders:  wear sunscreen!  🙂

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  • Dovie Lagrotta

    good quality articles. for the reason that you should have having access to

  • Abram Orser

    Stellar informativ post. Give thanks to U for helping data. Lookin’ forward for ur following article. Cheers

  • SkinDoc

    Great review, futurederm. I was intrigued about the EMF-blocking lotions, which I had never heard of either. I will have to do a little research on this myself.

    Another topic that may be of interest would be the effects of second-hand smoke on the skin. I wrote a blog post which dicussed the biological effects of smoking on the smoker’s skin in my 7 Deadly Skin Sins series (, but I never really touched on smoke as an environmental hazard to the skin.

    I am starting a new blog,, which looks at the evidence behind skincare products and practices as well as at common skin conditions.

  • josephine

    We’d all love to get your expert review of these two brand new do-it-all products: clinique repairwear laser focus face & eye vs. perricone cold plasma face & eye…!

  • Cas

    Thanks for a very informative article. While researching this subject, I learned the difference between UVA and UVB rays: UVA sun rays make up the vast majority of ultraviolet light because they aren’t absorbed by ozone. These rays penetrate deeply into the skin and produce the initial effects of sun tanning. UVB are less common and will not penetrate as deeply as UVA rays but yet they are considered the primary cause of sunburns and other serious skin conditions.

  • I use products from some Australian company. They work great for me.

    So, the protection is really good and I can say that we didn’t get any sun burns and it seems that the products really provides with enough protection in both UVB and UVA spectrums, making the product amazingly useful when you are in full sun light during the summer. We also got pretty nice tans, although a couple of our friends that didn’t use any kind of sunscreen were a couple of shades darker.

  • Selenite

    Agreed. There are even vegan supplements and enriched foods that contain vitamin D. I say use the sunscreen and get your D from foods and/or supplements.

  • fokerss

    just go to some place are cold so the UV not get damage to skin
    Anchor text : Beauty Care Forum

  • Satyricon331

    I’m not so sure that the need for vitamin D justifies any UV exposure. A vitamin D3 pill can provide large amounts of the vitamin without the side effects of premature aging and higher skin-cancer risk.

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