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How to Protect Your Skin From Air Pollution

Local skincare experts share their best advice for guarding against wrinkles, discoloration, and melanoma.

Air pollution has ruined a lot for Denverites—warming the globe, triggering asthma, and forcing us to exercise on a treadmill (gag) during ozone alerts. So when we learned that pollutants like vehicle exhaust and forest fire debris can cause skin irritation, wrinkles, and discoloration, we asked the experts how to stop the brown cloud from destroying our beauty, too.

Morning

Raise the Defenses
Skin is a multilayered organ, says Centennial dermatologist Dr. Maura Caufield. The outermost part, the epidermis, acts somewhat like a bouncer, warding off outsiders. Next comes the dermis, where collagen and lipids—which keep your skin firm yet elastic—party. Pollutants introduce free radicals, unstable molecules that compromise cellular function (incapacitating the bouncer and storming Club Dermis). Prevent the invasion by applying vitamin C, an antioxidant that fights free radicals and ultraviolet rays.

Light Fighter
Ultraviolet rays burn your skin and weaken its defenses. Dr. Mona Sadeghpour, a dermatologist in Lone Tree, recommends using a broad-spectrum, SPF 30-plus sunscreen with physical sun blockers like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide—even if you have dark skin. “Skin with more melanin doesn’t always burn as quickly, but you risk dark patches called hyperpigmentation, as well as cancer,” Sadeghpour says. Tinted sunscreen can prevent the less-than-chic white cast some options leave behind.

Evening

Wash the Day Away
Tiny particles like wildfire debris and construction site dust can coat your face, so Caufield recommends beginning your evening routine with a cleanser, a gentle alternative to soap. To avoid stripping away your moisture barrier—the outermost layer of the epidermis that helps retain water so you don’t get flaky and itchy—Caufield likes noncomedogenic (easy-on-pores) cleansers with moisturizing ingredients like glycerin.

First Aid Kit
Mistakes (like forgotten sunscreen) happen, allowing free radicals in. The resulting damage, called oxidative stress, causes symptoms like spots, wrinkles, and dullness. Luckily, vitamin A (retinol) can help your skin recover. “It speeds skin cell turnover, so damaged cells fall away faster,” says Alexis Mayne, a biologist and special projects manager at Louisville skincare company Sanitas. She also likes niacinamide (vitamin B3). “It gives cells the energy to divide, minimizing dark spots and soothing redness.”

Great Barrier Relief
Seal in vitamins A and B3 with a moisturizer, which prevents Colorado’s dry climate from sucking water from your skin and leaving you prone to flakiness. (You can also wear moisturizer under your sunscreen.) Mayne seeks out formulas with hyaluronic acid, a molecule that retains 1,000 times its weight in H₂0 and keeps skin extra dewy. She likes formulas with ceramides, a waxy lipid that restores the skin’s barrier, too.


Tips to Pore Over

1. Instead of slapping on numerous new ingredients at once, risking irritation, start with daily sunscreen, plus a gentle cleanser and moisturizer come evening. When you’ve settled into that routine, introduce other new ingredients one at a time, per week.

2. If a product looks discolored, it probably has expired. Toss it—the degraded ingredients won’t do their job and may even cause breakouts.

3. Products come in a variety of forms: Lotions include heavy agents like petrolatum that keep water from evaporating, while serums tend to be thinner and should be layered under a moisturizer.

4. An additional bonus of tinted sunscreen? It contains iron oxide. The chemical compound helps filter out blue light, which emanates from both the sun and our computer screens and can cause hyperpigmentation (a condition in which patches of skin become darker in color) in people with more melanin.

5. Skincare is personal, so always talk to a dermatologist about your specific needs.

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