Dirty Air Could Make Your Skin Crawl

It’s not just asthma and heart disease: Air pollution harms your health in less noticeable ways, too.

May 18, 2009

Something in the air? Study suggests that air pollution can make your skin itchy.

05-18-09 RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The next time you develop a strange skin rash, don’t automatically blame it on the guy at the gym who used the treadmill before you did. It may have come from a less-obvious source, like the air. A new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology has found a link between certain types of pollution and itchy skin, irritated eyes, and headaches.


THE DETAILS: French researchers analyzed the air’s levels of nitrogen dioxide, small particulate matter, and ozone in urban areas around Bordeaux, an area of France with pollution levels that are often slightly higher than what the World Health Organization considers safe. They then gathered medical case reports from SOS Medicins, a public health-care network that makes emergency house calls, focusing on the number of visits related to complaints of respiratory problems (such as tonsillitis, sinusitis, laryngitis, asthma, bronchitis, or cough). conjunctivitis, skin rash, headaches, and asthenia (a condition defined by general feelings of weakness usually triggered by allergies).

While they did see 1.5 percent and 2.6 percent increases in doctor visits for upper- and lower-respiratory diseases, respectively, within a few days after levels of particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide rose, they saw the most significant increases in doctor visits for the other diseases. On days when particulate matter was highest, visits due to skin rash or conjunctivitis rose 3.2 percent and headaches or asthenia rose 3.5 percent. When ozone spiked, visits for those conditions rose 3 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively. High levels of nitrogen dioxide were associated with a 2.8 percent increase in visits for headaches and weakness.

WHAT IT MEANS: It’s long been known that air pollution hurts your heart and irritates your lungs, but it’s these subtle impacts on human health that will likely affect more of us as pollution worsens. “Once you start looking at the entire body, we start to realize this is not as benign as we think,” says Neil Kao, MD, an allergist at the Allergic Disease and Asthma Center in Greenville, SC, and a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. “It’s not just bad for your heart—it’s bad for everything.” Unlike pollen, which can trigger obvious reactions like sneezing, the subtle effects of pollution may take a while to show up, says Kao, which is all the more reason to stay inside on sunny-but-polluted days. “As much as I promote a healthy, happy lifestyle with lots of exercise,” he says, “there are certain days just can’t reset your immune system.”

If you think polluted air may be affecting your skin, here are a few strategies to avoid it:

• Check the air forecast. You probably pay attention to the weather forecast, so factor high-hazard air-pollution days into your planning, too. Keep on top of it by logging on to www.airnow.gov.

• Breathe with ease indoors. Staying inside on a heavily polluted day will help—but only if the air inside is less polluted than outside. HEPA air filters will keep particulate matter to a minimum, but won’t do a thing for nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and other harmful gases. So keep your windows closed when outdoor pollution is at its worst, and when the air’s clearer, let your home air out to cut down on indoor toxins. Use our tips for clean indoor air.

• Mask the problem. Dr. Kao recommends breathing through a mask rated N-95 on days when pollution is at its worst, which may cut down on pollution-related headaches. Likewise, wearing long-sleeved shirts and sunglasses when you’re outdoors will keep particulate matter off your skin and out of your eyes.