I Live in One of the Most Polluted Cities in the World—Here’s How I Keep It from Wrecking My Skin

Photo: Getty Images/ Clovera
Living in Delhi, India—one of the most notorious cities in the world for air pollution—has made me all too aware of the importance of a skin-care routine that stands resilient against the onslaught of environmental aggressors. As I navigate the smog-filled streets, my commitment to maintaining healthy skin has become more than just a beauty ritual; it's a survival strategy.

In 2022, Delhi's average Air Quality Index (AQI) hovered just above 200—putting it squarely in the "poor" air quality category and solidifying its spot as the fifth most polluted city in the world. While pollution levels have improved over the past few years (Delhi has seen a decreasing number of "Severe+" air quality days since 2018), the air is still very much a problem for those of us who live here.

Not only does this type of pollution exposure present some significant health concerns, but it can also have a major impact on the skin—which is something I learned firsthand, and then started my journey toward learning how to combat it.

How pollution affects the skin

“The heavy particulate matter in the air causes a lot of harm to the skin and, of course, to the health of an individual," Deepali Bhardwaj, MD, a dermatologist, anti-allergy specialist, laser surgeon, and internationally trained aesthetician based in Delhi. "Early wrinkling, aging, pigmentation, dull skin, lack of shine and luster, and hair fall because of particulate matter sitting in the scalp, making the hair roots heavier, has been seen and documented in individuals exposed to bad air quality." She adds that the face, neck, arms, and feet are more prone to these issues, as they're the spots on your body that tend to get the most uncovered exposure to toxic air.

She also emphasizes the damaging effect of pollution on the eyes and the surrounding skin. “Another very harmful effect is dry eyes in many people," she says. They tend to scratch their eyes when dry, which causes additional dryness and  hyperpigmentation in the undereye area, leading to dark eye circles.”

Hacking my routine to combat pollution damage

My quest to combat pollution damage started about four years ago when I noticed my skin looking dull and lifeless. I saw the signs of premature aging and noticed dullness, aggravated skin conditions, inflammation, sensitivity, and dryness. I was also quite distraught with how clogged my pores were, so much so that they appeared as tiny bumps on my face. I had recently resigned from my workplace, which required me to commute long distances every day—I was done with that lifestyle. More than that, I was done with dealing with health and skin issues that had surfaced due to constant exposure to pollution and toxic air.

I knew it was time to take a more holistic approach to skin care—and avoiding that extra, commute-induced pollution exposure was just the start.

1. Start the day with a skin-protecting drink

My day begins with a simple yet potent concoction: A glass of warm water infused with turmeric and ginger.

The ancient elixir not only jumpstarts my metabolism, but also offers powerful antioxidant protection from the inside out. Turmeric, an anti-inflammatory, helps combat the free radicals that thrive in Delhi's polluted air, and ginger aids digestion and promotes detoxification.

This golden potion is my first line of defense against the environmental toxins that try to seep into my skin. It’s been about three years since I started following this morning ritual, and its effects on my skin have been very noticeable. I don't have blemishes anymore; my skin doesn’t break out (except occasionally around periods), and it exudes radiance.

2. Cleanse thoroughly

It shouldn't come as a surprise that washing your face is critical for defending against pollution damage (after all, you've gotta get that dirt off of your skin!), but you'll want to be sure you're doing it properly.

Though it may be tempting to reach for the most aggressive cleanser you can find in this situation, I've learned that gentle, non-stripping formulas are a better bet. Harsh, chemical-laden concoctions can further irritate skin that's already been angered by polluted air, so I've taken to washing my face with water or a gentle cleansing lotion—the goal is to thoroughly cleanse without stripping my complexion of its natural oils or compromising my skin barrier.

I like to wash my face in the shower, as the steam opens up my pores to loosen any dirt and grime trapped inside them to ensure I'm getting a deep clean (even without an actual cleanser).

3. Layer on antioxidants

Pollution causes free radical damage, which is the number one culprit behind a whole host of skin concerns including acne, wrinkles, and dark spots. Antioxidants work to gobble up those free radicals, which is why an antioxidant serum is a must-have in any pollution-fighting skin-care routine.

"Free radicals can be damaging to the body, affecting cells and DNA, and ultimately contributing to aging and disease. They're formed naturally in the body and through exposure to damaging factors in the environment," James Hammer, a Boston-based cosmetic chemist, previously told Well+Good. "Antioxidants in foods, supplements, and skin-care products can help to counter free radical activity."

Vitamin C is, of course, one of the heaviest-hitting antioxidant ingredients on the market, and fends off free radical damage while also brightening skin and minimizing discoloration (so not only does it protect against future skin issues, but it can also help you deal with the ones you've already got). Other antioxidant-rich ingredients include vitamin E, niacinamide, and green tea extract.

4. Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize

Polluted air wreaks havoc on your skin barrier, which makes it easier for environmental toxins to seep into your complexion. To combat this, it's important to fortify that barrier by any means possible—which means using a whole lot of moisturizer.

I opt for a lightweight, non-comedogenic moisturizer that contains two of the top barrier-strengthening ingredients: Ceramides, which make up the "mortar" that holds your skin cells together; and hyaluronic acid, which slurps moisture into the skin sponge-style.

For an even heavier-duty way to keep your skin barrier strong, opt for a barrier cream. These formulas are generally designed to protect against environmental stressors while also giving your complexion a hefty dose of hydration. “Medically speaking, they are used to reduce the harm that can come from chemicals, allergens, and other substances that may lead to skin irritation, breakdown, or infection," says Ifeoma Okoronkwo, MD, founder of Beyond Beauty by Dr. O.  "Cosmetically speaking, barrier creams tend to be associated with ‘locking in’ moisture or creating a ‘barrier’ between your skin and harsh elements.”

5. Exfoliate regularly

In a polluted environment, exfoliation is essential to remove dead skin cells and maintain skin clarity. Dr Bhardwaj swears by exfoliating skin twice weekly, and I couldn’t agree more. I use The Ordinary's AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution ($10), which contains alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids.

In addition to removing any pollution particles that may be lodged deeply into your skin (and preventing them from causing any damage), these chemical exfoliants melt away dead skin cells and promote cellular turnover to reveal fresh, radiant skin.

6. Use a detoxifying mask

Once a week, I treat my skin to a detoxifying session using Fuller's Earth clay, also known as Multani Mitti. This natural clay has been a skin-care secret passed down through generations, and is one of the perks of living in India. I mix it with rose water (and sometimes a pinch of turmeric powder) to form a paste and apply it to my face. Fuller's Earth works like a magnet, drawing out impurities and toxins from the skin. This ritual helps in keeping my pores unclogged and my skin free from the accumulated pollutants of the week.

7. Never leave home without SPF

Regardless of where you live, SPF should be a non-negotiable in your daily routine—but that goes double if you're in a heavily polluted city like Delhi. Not only does sunscreen provide broad-spectrum protection from the sun, but studies also show that wearing it regularly may help reverse skin damage as well. Dermatologists recommend opting for a zinc-infused formula, which will defend against UV rays while also creating a physical barrier between your skin and the environment. As I step out into the city each day wearing a powerful SPF, I do so with confidence, knowing that my skincare ritual is not just about aesthetics but about safeguarding my skin against the unseen battles waged by pollution.

In the chaotic whirlwind of Delhi's polluted air, my skincare routine is my sanctuary. It's not about succumbing to the environmental challenges but rather standing resilient against them. By embracing simplicity, opting for natural ingredients, and being consistent in my simple routine, I've found a way to nurture my skin's health.

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