Wildfire smoke is a form of air pollution. We’ve known for some time that wildfire smoke can cause lung and heart problems as well as scratchy eyes. But how does wildfire smoke affect your skin? Because of the increase in the number and severity of wildfires in the Western US, many science groups are now studying the effects of wildfire smoke more seriously.
A new study was based on patient visits to dermatologists in 2018 near the California Camp Fire. They found not only an increase in dermatology visits over previous years when there was no fire but there was an increased incidence of eczema, dermatitis and itching.
Wildfire smoke pollution contains a number of pollutants including volatile organic compounds, ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and particulate matter. Wildfire smoke contains particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. The main affect of these pollutants on the body is to overwhelm the antioxidant defense of the body.
Air Quality Terms
AQI – Air Quality Index. This is the EPA’s index for reporting air quality. It is based on five major air pollutants; ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. AQI values range from 1 to 500, with higher values indicating more air pollution. Air quality index value of 50 represents good air quality with some potential to affect public health, while an air quality index value over 300 represents hazardous air quality.
As I write this, the AQI in Longmont CO is 120, the primary pollutant listed as PM2.5, unhealthy for sensitive groups. Although several days ago it was higher. This is primarily due to PM traveling from wildfires in California. Last summer it was worse from wildfires that were very close to us.
PM – Particulate Matter. These are fine particles that are too small to see. They are categorized at less than 10 micrometers and less than 2.5 micrometers. Both can be inhaled, but the smaller, 2.5 micrometer diameter are more dangerous. Although you cannot see these, they scatter light causing the haze you see for very long distances. Particulate matter is a main type of urban pollution and in wildfire smoke.
Particulate matter can be inhaled, causing lung damage. It is also able to penetrate the skin, both across the epithelium and through follicles.
What do Wildfire pollutants do?
Overall, pollutants found in wildfire smoke cause oxidative free radicals in the skin. While the skin can deal with some free radicals, the amount here is more than the skin can defend itself from. These oxidants attack the cellular DNA, the cell surface lipids, and proteins in the skin causing damage. This result is accelerated skin aging and inflammation. Particulate matter can cause hyperpigmentation in the skin, increased wrinkles and an increased risk for skin cancer.
Oxidative stress caused by PM can increase the MMP (matrix metalloproteins) proteins in the skin that are responsible for degrading collagen fibers. Collagen fibers are the support system for skin so decreasing collagen fibers leads to increased skin wrinkling. Pollution can also affect the microbiota which is the normal, beneficial bacteria that reside on the skin.
The Skin Barrier Function
One of the most important roles of the skin is to serve as a barrier. Normally, it functions to keep pollutants out of the body to protect it. Oxidative damage to the skin however, weakens that barrier property which means more of these pollutants are able to enter the skin and possibly find their way to the bloodstream where more damage can be caused.
Tips to Decrease Skin Damage from Wildfire Smoke
Limit time spent outdoors when the AQI is high. We really hate to give that advice.
Wear clothing that covers skin. Long sleeves go a long way in protecting us. Face masks are good for more than just preventing the spread of COVID-19 virus, they can also help reduce the amount of particles inhaled.
Cleanse the Skin. Now more than ever it is important to wash your face, maybe more than just at night but also when you have been outside. This will remove some of the pollutants from the surface of the skin before they can cause damage. A two step cleanse with an oil cleanser followed by a milky cleanser can help.
Use emollients to protect the skin. Increased cleansing can dry the skin out requiring more frequent application of creams / lotions.
Use Antioxidants (topically and internally). Pollution can decrease the amount of vitamin C and vitamin E in the skin. Wildfire pollution also increases oxidative damage to the skin. Using an antioxidant rich cream with vitamin C and vitamin E can help protect the skin barrier function to protect the entire body from pollution that may enter the skin. Nutrition that includes foods high in antioxidants is also beneficial.
We hope that we don’t have to think about skin damage caused by wildfires, but with increasing incidence of fire, it is something we need to learn how to protect ourselves from even being many miles away from the fire itself. We also acknowledge and are saddened by those who have lost so much from wildfires.
Products We Recommend
Emollient and Antioxidant Rich Face Cream: Springtide Gold Face Cream.
Emollient and Antioxidant Rich Body Lotion: Mountain Mist.
Additional Reading on Wildfire Pollution
Fadadu, R.P., Grimes, B, Jewell, N.P, et. Al. Association of Wildfire Air Pollution and Health Care Use for Atopic Dermatitis. JAMA Dermatology, April 21, 2021. JAMA Dermatol. 2021;157(6):658-666. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2021.0179
University of California – San Francisco. “Wildfire smoke linked to skin disease.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 April 2021. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/04/210421124635.htm
Puri P, Nandar SK, Kathuria S, Ramesh V. Effects of air pollution on the skin: A review. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol 2017;83:415-423. https://ijdvl.com/effects-of-air-pollution-on-the-skin-a-review/
Ozone levels elevated in presence of wildfire smoke , January 25, 2016