What is Climate Change Doing to Our Skin?

Faced with the existential threat of climate crisis, skincare might not seem like a priority. True, it’s not up there with, say, avoiding a Mad Max-style drought dystopia — but dermatologists are increasingly concerned about how climate change will affect our skin. Misha Rosenbach, MD, Dermatology Residency Program Director at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology’s Expert Resource Group focusing on climate change, says, “We can focus on literally every organ and find things that can be attributable to climate change.” (And you know what your biggest organ is, don’t you?)

Here’s a rundown of what to expect — and how to adapt — when it comes to your skin. 

Weird weather patterns disrupt skin moisture levels 

Know how your skin acts up if you fly from balmy Miami to frigid Minneapolis in January? Get ready for more of that. While the planet is getting hotter overall, that doesn’t mean that every day will be warmer. Inconsistent, erratic weather (think: a stretch of 70-degree days in New York City in December) means wildly varying levels of moisture content in skin. To safeguard against the yo-yo effect, consider slathering on hyaluronic acid, a lightweight ingredient that locks moisture into skin seamlessly whether it’s cold, hot, raining, snowing… or it’s all of those things happening in one week.

Higher rates of UV exposure intensify photoaging

“We know that warm days are happening sooner in the year and lasting later into the year,” Dr. Rosenbach says. “Just from the simple fact of there being more ‘nice’ days — although there are also more unbearable days — people are outside more.” The issue is not just that our skin is exposed to more ultraviolet light, he notes, but that there’s some evidence that due to higher temperatures and a weakened ozone layer, some wavelengths of light may actually penetrate more deeply. 

All of this leads to a greater likelihood of photoaging and higher rates of skin cancer. Currently, one in five Americans develops some form of skin cancer by age 70, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Due to climate change, the World Health Organization estimates that by 2050, the U.S. population will see a 10% increase in skin cancer incidence. 

The usual advice applies: Avoid prolonged sun exposure, wear hats and long sleeves, and apply (and reapply) sunscreen with SPF 30. Lately, mineral sunscreen is having its moment in the, uh, sun — in part because they’re kinder to the environment and humans. You may have heard that Hawai’i is banning sunscreens made with two chemical ingredients, oxybenzone and octinoxate, due to the damage they cause to coral reefs. And there’s a growing amount of concern that these same ingredients, which are absorbed into the bloodstream, may disrupt the human endocrine system. Mineral formulas made with non-nano zinc oxide, however, provide broad-spectrum protection for skin and are ocean-friendly.

Pollution causes wrinkles (plus spots and irritation…)  

The more CO2 in the air, the dirtier it is, and polluted air is no friend to skin. A recent study of six air pollutants found that they generated free radicals, triggered inflammation, weakened the skin barrier, and interfered with your skin’s microflora. Another study found that ambient pollution was associated with premature aging in the form of more wrinkles and pigmented spots.

There’s also a growing body of evidence, Dr. Rosenbach says, suggesting a direct link between air pollution and skin irritation. “During last year’s forest fires in California, dermatologists saw a number of increased flare-ups of atopic dermatitis and eczema during that period of heavy air pollution,” he says. “People with these conditions have an impaired skin barrier, and these terrible chemicals come into contact with the skin and damage it.”  

Since we need to exist among air, the best way to bolster your skin’s defenses is through topical protection. Scientists know that fine particulate matter causes skin damage at the cellular level, so to shield skin from oxidative stress, apply antioxidants every morning. Barrier-supporting ingredients such as ceramides (lipids, or fats, that compose much of your skin) can help limit moisture loss and repair compromised skin.

Is it too late?

“People should not be overwhelmed, they should be hopeful,” Dr. Rosenbach says. “We have the science to understand what’s going on and we have the tools to fix this. We just need the impetus to change.” (He notes that outside of the United States, change is happening more quickly because science is not politicized.) So what can you do? To start, reduce your carbon footprint and use your voice to encourage others to do the same. After all, when it comes to the earth, we’ve all got skin in the game.