There was a time, right before I moved to the perpetual crowd that is New York City, when I was convinced that the pollution and grime would wreak havoc on my skin. I did my research on whether living in a congested city like New York could have detrimental effects on my dermis and invested in a product (or three) to help protect against harmful pollutants—but I was only thinking about my face.
Now, new research shows that air pollution has significant effects for another (and just as important, in my opinion) component of skin care: our scalps.
In the study, presented at the 28th EADV Congress in Madrid, researchers found that exposure to common air pollutants known as particulate matter (PM) is linked to hair loss in humans. By exposing hair follicle cells—known as human follicle dermal papilla cells (HFDPCs)—to various concentrations of particulate matter, they found that the presence of these air pollutants decreased levels of specific proteins called β-catenin, cyclin D1, cyclin E, and CDK2, all of which are responsible for hair growth and hair retention.
Although even the presence of PM alone was enough to decrease these proteins, the researchers also discovered that the greater the level of pollutants, the more these proteins would deplete. It makes sense, as air pollution is a form of oxidative stress, which research shows typically leads to hair aging (and hair loss, as a result).
While “particulate matter” might sound rather vague and intangible, the study categorizes the sources of PM as the burning of fossil fuels—including petrol, diesel, and other solid fuels such as coal, oil, and biomass, as well as other industrial activities such as building, mining, and the manufacturing of building materials like cement, ceramics, and bricks, meaning that construction site next door to your apartment might be contributing to way more than just a loud 8 a.m. wake-up call on the weekends.
Lead researcher Hyuk Chul Kwon, Ph.D., believes this research will have an impact on future studies regarding common air pollutants. “While the link between air pollution and serious diseases such as cancer, COPD, and CVD are well established, there is little to no research on the effect of particulate matter exposure on the human skin and hair in particular. Our research explains the mode of action of air pollutants on human follicle dermal papilla cells, showing how the most common air pollutants lead to hair loss,” he says.
Although consciously worrying about everyday air pollutants may do more harm than good (we know that chronic anxiety is detrimental to our health as well), it’s interesting for us to think about how the pollutants we might not be able to see have the potential for tangible, unfavorable conditions—such as hair loss.