A “good” hair day can be influenced by several factors: genes, your diet, hormones, the pH of your water, and, of course, the haircare products that you use. And, for those of us who live in popular areas like big cities, the pursuit of bouncy, healthy hair is that much harder when pollution settles onto our strands and scalp.
Meet the Experts
SheilaghMaguiness, M.D. is a board-certified dermatologist in Minneapolis and founder of Stryke Club
Pollution isn’t just bad for the planet, it also damages your skin and hair. “There are many different potential pollutants in the air, from particulate matter due to smog, smoke, and industrial waste, to organic pollutants, to nanoparticles,” says Sheilagh Maguiness, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Minneapolis and founder of Stryke Club. When it comes to skin, air pollution can cause everything from skin aging to inflammatory conditions like acne, eczema, and dermatitis. Your hair is not immune to these irritating effects. Pollutants can build up on your hair (and scalp) just like they do on your skin, explains Dr. Maguiness, and leave your hair feeling dull and grimy.
What kinds of pollution affect my hair?
We encounter two types of pollution on the daily: indoor pollution and outdoor pollution.
The former includes dust (and dust mites), smoke from a fireplace or cigarettes, mold, and pollen. You generally have more control over how these enter your home by avoiding smoking, getting regular chimney and HVAC maintenance, and using an air purifier.
But when you’re out and about in the world, it’s harder to control your exposure to outdoor pollutants and their harmful side effects. The most common are particulate matter from car exhaust and industrial smog, which can include harmful chemicals like sulfate, ammonia, and black carbon, according to the World Health Organization. Your exposure to this type of pollution varies depending on where you live, but no one is completely immune. A 2019 estimate shockingly shows that 99 percent of the world’s population lives in areas that do not meet the WHO’s air quality guidelines.
Pollutants can build up on your hair (and scalp) just like they do on your skin.
UV rays are also considered pollution. “Even though hair itself is not a living structure, it can still be adversely impacted by UV radiation,” says Dr. Maguiness. “Specifically, the hair can become brittle, lose its luster and fade its pigmentation due to the effect of UV radiation on the proteins and pigments comprising the hair shaft.” Melanin is naturally protective against these effects, so those with lighter hair are most susceptible to UV damage, she explains. “In addition, the skin on the scalp is also vulnerable to UV damage, and protecting the scalp from UV induced damage will reduce the long-term risk of skin cancer in this location,” Dr. Maguiness says. “All this means it pays to protect your hair and scalp from UV damage.” Opt for a specific UV-protecting hat when you go outdoors or use a powder-based sunscreen formulated for your scalp.
In short, all of the compounds you encounter indoors and outdoors can build up on your hair and scalp much the same way on your skin, which is a recipe for irritation. On your strands, pollution’s (literal) surface level effect is the buildup of dust and dirt. For example, you’ll notice it immediately if you’re around a bonfire. Using sticky styling products that grab ahold of particulate matter in the air can worsen this buildup. But pollution also damages your hair on a deeper level by free-radical damage to the keratin proteins that comprise the hair shaft, Dr. Maguiness explains, which can cause breakage and frizziness.
Then there’s the damage pollution does to your scalp. “These compounds can also build up on your scalp, making the skin more prone to irritation and inflammation and ultimately may exacerbate underlying skin diseases such as psoriasis or seborrhea,” Dr. Maguiness says.
How to protect your hair from pollution damage
One way to mitigate the effects of pollution damage on your hair is to wash it more frequently if you’ve been exposed (or you’re regularly exposed) to heavy pollution. If you’re sitting in front of a roaring fire or walking to work on a particularly smoggy day, washing your hair can remove the pollutant build-up. You can also monitor air quality using apps like Air Quality (you can also find this info in the weather app if you have an iPhone) — consider dedicating particularly bad air quality days as wash days or try to avoid activities outdoors.
You can also work products formulated explicitly to protect against pollution and free radicals into your haircare routine. “Antioxidant ingredients in your hair care may help prevent free radical damage. Ingredients to look for with these benefits include: vitamin C, vitamin A, selenium, vitamin E, and beta carotene,” says Dr. Maguiness. She recommends looking for leave-in conditioners or styling products with these pollution fighters to keep your hair protected throughout the day and between washes. And when your regular shampoo isn’t cutting it in the wash, Sunday Riley Clean Rinse Clarifying Scalp Serum is an AHA/BHA-infused treatment to eliminate product buildup and pollution with a restorative mix of glycolic and salicylic acid, niacinamide, rose clay, witch hazel, and zinc.
“Keep in mind, you can’t avoid pollution altogether,” Dr. Maguiness says, “and it will have an impact on skin and hair over time.” Prioritizing an anti-pollution haircare routine and “being mindful about both sun protection and free radical damage are two things we can do to combat this,” she says.
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