Hubert Burda Media

Is skin truly safe from harm indoors?

Dirty air is all around you — yes, even when you thought you’re safe at home. 

The irony: We need air to survive, yet it can hurt our skin.

For some time now, we have known that outdoor pollution — hello, dust and exhaust fumes — can cause our skin to become drier more quickly. Pollutants also generate free radicals that are responsible for skin inflammation. When skin gets inflamed, it produces more pigment to protect itself but this shows up as unsightly dark spots. The domino effect then continues in the form of collagen degradation, sagging, wrinkles and a generally weakened skin system.

But most of us think that we are safe once we get home or somewhere indoors. After all, pollution belongs out there on the big bad streets, right? Wrong. Dr Calvin Chan, medical director of Calvin Chan Aesthetic & Laser Clinic, says indoor pollution can be as bad as, or even worse than, what you get outdoors because “contained or enclosed areas allow pollutants to build up more”. Also, an indoor environment can come with its own set of pollutants and it is a scarily long list.

“Indoor pollutants stick to household dust and can be trapped in stagnant air, such as cooking fumes, cigarette smoke, phthalates from building materials, plastics and chemicals released from household cleaning agents, chemicals released from personal hygiene products, fumes from paints and resins from walls or furniture,” Dr Chan explains, adding that environment agencies in the US and Australia have estimated indoor air contaminants to be five to 10 times worse than those outside.

Besides triggering health concerns including breathing problems and eye allergies, indoor pollution has a great impact on your skin. Dr Georgia Lee, medical director of TLC Lifestyle Practice, says this would depend on whether you have a pre-existing skin condition. For instance, those with a history of eczema would already have a defective skin barrier (the topmost layer that acts as your skin’s first line of defence) so they would be more vulnerable to indoor pollutants.

“Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from paints and varnishes can increase your skin’s inflammatory mediators, which then leads to dermatitis and eczema flare-ups. This is not uncommon in those who work in newly renovated offices and who complain about eye and lip irritation,” Dr Lee says. “Wood dust and dust mites can also cause such problems, especially on parts of the body that are not covered by clothing.”

Both doctors we spoke with recommend using antioxidant-rich skincare to limit the negative effects of pollution on skin. Dr Chan also advises the use of skin barrier-protecting skincare such as moisturisers that can help form a buffer between skin and potential irritants. Or go for the Customizable HydraFacial MD treatment, which comprises four steps of deep cleansing, exfoliation, extraction and infusion of an antioxidant-laden serum.

Dr Lee says the best bet is a regular regimen of oral vitamins C and E, as well as cleansing skin daily and thoroughly with activated charcoal cleansers. In products, she recommends looking out for ingredients including gingko biloba, ellagic acid and gluthathione. And if you can, add vacuum-assisted facials to dislodge pollutants and product build-up in pores.

As for day-to-day lifestyle habits, she says to minimise the use of household aerosols such as air fresheners and to stay out of rooms that have just undergone heavy-duty cleaning or polishing.

Says Dr Chan: “If you live close to a high traffic zone or during high PSI periods, run a high-capacity HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) air filter where you spend the most time at home. It can remove up to over 99 percent of airborne irritants including pollen and pet dander, and it doesn’t contribute to ozone levels — initial findings show that ozone can react with oils on skin to cause skin irritation.”

Does indoor pollution harm the quality of our hair too? Dr Chan says some recent studies have shown that people who move to polluted cities can suffer from sensitive scalp syndrome, which shows up in the form of itch, dandruff, oiliness and tingling. Apparently, this is the result of exposure to air pollutants such as dust, smoke and VOCs from household products. Also, traces of copper found in water pipes can lead to hair dullness and breakage, especially if your locks were already weakened by chemical treatments such as colouring and bleaching.


No, not with N95 masks but cleansers, serums, face oils and more

Kiehl’s Cilantro & Orange Extract Pollutant Defending Masque

This fights skin damage and also repairs skin with ingredients such as orange extract and cilantro seed oil from Eastern Europe. The latter is made up mainly of petroselinic acid, which is reported to speed up the healing of the skin barrier even after pollution damage.

DrGL Cleanser Lightening Plus (Face/Body)

Activated carbon in this is believed to cleanse pores of product build-up and pollutants. The formula also has hyaluronic acid to give skin a moisture boost.

Allies of Skin 1A All-Day Mask

Used under sunscreen and make-up, this leave-on treatment mask dubs itself an anti-pollution shield as it has moringa seed extract and 11 antioxidants.

Clarins UV Plus Anti-Pollution SPF50/PA++++

This sunscreen works in two ways: It protects skin from UV damage, and also has a cantaloupe melon plant extract and an anti-pollution complex to neutralise free radicals and prevent premature ageing.

Dr. Andrew Weil for Origins Barrier-Boosting Essence Oil

This is a powerhouse of antioxidants, including skin-soothing lady’s thistle and evening primrose, while camellia provides omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E. Apply two to three drops onto skin before or after moisturiser.

Dior One Essential Mist Lotion

Most face lotions are water-based and can only act on the skin surface without offering any in-depth detox help. This one has oil-in-water micro-droplets with a high-tech polymer to capture and remove pollutant particles on skin. Spray this mist on skin after cleansing in the morning and at night.


Elizabeth Arden Prevage Anti-Aging Daily Serum

One of the first few skincare products that focuses on antioxidants, this serum has idebenone, which is said to have the highest Environmental Protection Factor rating.

Clarisonic Smart Profile

Said to remove 30 times more pollution from skin than manual cleansing can, this product uses Smart Microchip technology to automatically adjust the timing and power level at the push of a button. You are also prompted when it is time to change the brush head.