Last updated 03/22/2022
As wildfires have posed disasters on the west coast this summer we look at how this harms your skin. Not that being affected you would have time to think about your skin. Above all it does not and should not be first on your list smoke exposed skin.
Eventually after the crisis you may start to wonder about your skin. You are exposed to external factors like air pollution through the years and smoke can add to that equation. In addition I have seen and smelled the smoke here in Wisconsin. So it’s not only affecting the west coast.
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What are Wildfires?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) a wildfire is this unplanned fire. It burns in a natural location like a forest, grassland or prairie. Most importantly they can be caused by human activity, say a campfire.
As well as a natural occurrence like a tree being struck by lightning. These situations can take place anytime and anywhere. To sum up about 50% of wildfires on record the cause is unknown.
In addition due to climate change they are expected to increase and get worse. Very dry conditions like a drought along with high winds can raise the risk. Thus wildfires cause a lot of damage.
Smoke Adds Air Pollution
As wildfire smoke is released into the air it can hitch a ride and be transported thousands of miles. In short along with the smoke comes a harmful pollutant.
So pollution penetrates the cells causing disrupted gene transcription. Thus this triggers oxidative stress or leads to inflammation.
What is Particular Matter?
The Environmental Protection Agency explains it as a combination of solid particles and liquid droplets within the air. PM (aka particle pollution) could be dust, dirt, soot or smoke possibly seen with the naked eye. In addition PM can be very small in size making detection only visible by an electron microscope.
The Skin Barrier Function
An important role of the skin is to protect as a barrier. Typically it functions to keep pollutants out of your body. However oxidative damage to the skin makes the barrier weak. So more of these pollutants enter your skin and can find their way to the bloodstream causing more damage.
Smoke Exposed Skin Prevention
If at all possible the best prevention is to avoid the smoke. Staying out of the direct path for extended periods of time when the AQI is high if you are able to do so.
Wear clothing that covers skin. Long sleeves go a long way in protecting us. Face masks are good to help reduce the amount of particles you take in.
Smoke Exposed Skin Results
You may have noticed the smoke is quickly drying out your skin. This is because your skin is in over-time mode to replenish your new cells on the epidermis. As a result you may see skin aging signs and inflammation.
Pollutants from wildfire smoke can lead to oxidative free radicals in the skin. Now your skin can deal with some free radicals but the amount here is too much. In other words these oxidants attack the cellular DNA, the cell surface lipids and the skin’s proteins causing damage.
Due to PM oxidative stress can increase the MMP (matrix metalloprotein) proteins in the skin responsible for degrading collagen. Collagen keeps the skin firm and tight so reducing collagen leads to more skin wrinkling. So pollution can affect your microbiota this is the normal, beneficial bacteria present on your skin.
Symptoms on skin possibly related to wildfires:
- Irritated areas
- Itchy skin
- Eye irritation
- Dry skin
Thus wildfires can affect your skin by worsening a number of skin issues. And if you have a compromised skin barrier or sensitive skin you are prone to more flare-ups.
Recognizing skin conditions do affect your quality of life, social interactions and just how you feel in general is important.
Smoke Exposed Skin Aftercare
Although it’s not the only path to consider with your mental and physical recovery from this disaster it is self-care. Thus hopefully you feel a bit better.
With all the smoke particles landing on your skin, up your cleansing routine. You might consider packing along some cleansing pads in your purse or pocket. Most importantly these can remove grime that clogs pores during your day.
Don’t forget to wash your face before heading to bed. This removes the pollution from your day. However it can be personal preference how often you wash if your skin is dry. But always, always cleanse your face at the end of your day.
Bacteria, sweat and daily grime can collect on your skin and cause inflammation. For example, this exposure to soot and smoke now. Above all even more crucial cleanse each night.
Washing your face more may cause dry skin depending on your skin type. So use creams and lotions after cleansing.
Antioxidant Am & PM
I have discussed this before but this is essential with smoke exposure. Antioxidants are # 1 when it comes to stabilizing free radicals causing oxidative stress. So by adding these to your routine you’re assisting collagen amounts, limiting pigmentation and decreasing inflammation.
A morning application of antioxidants protects your skin from pollutants throughout your day. Pollution can rob your skin of vitamin C and vitamin E. For instance applying an antioxidant rich cream containing vitamin C and vitamin E can protect your skin barrier function.
Again applying at night an antioxidant can reverse some of that oxidative stress previously occurred. To sum up external pollution is out there all the time.
Certainly antioxidants can be included in your diet as well. In addition protecting your skin from the inside.
Drink Your Water!
Even though the smoke is producing a haze and blocking the sun its rays still penetrate. Certainly if you are outdoors don’t forget your sunscreen. Most importantly prevent sunburn which is more damage to your skin (don’t get me started).
Also you can reduce some oxidative stress from UV exposure. During this time it can be difficult to avoid the smoke exposure. But wearing sunscreen is in your control.
Because of wildfires reducing the air quality you may be indoors more. This can make you vitamin D deficient. Vitamin D is important for mental health, bone health and immune support. Therefore make a note to take vitamin D3 supplements at least 1000-2000 units every day.
If you don’t already have one you might consider purchasing an air filter or purifier. This will cleanse your air at home or at work. Moreover there are portable styles or HVAC filters to insert into a furnace or air conditioning unit.
Cover Up When Possible
If you reside on the west coast and you’re concerned about lingering soot cover your skin. When you are outdoors wear long sleeves and pants as the fabric protects. Meanwhile wearing your face mask has benefits (besides COVID-19).
An N95 mask would be the most effective. So as a physical barrier you could also opt to wear a face shield along with the mask when outdoors. Thus, this will provide some protection against the particulate matter you take in.
Strengthen Your Skin Barrier
You know with sensitive skin conditions like rosacea, eczema and psoriasis this smoke exposure triggers your compromised skin barrier. In short your skin craves nourishment to strengthen its skin barrier function.
Search for products containing:
- Aloe vera
- Colloidal oats
- Manuka honey
These ingredients support your skin by calming inflammation and providing healthy lipids.
If you are affected with severe irritation you should always consult your dermatologist. Certainly skin care isn’t your first concern during these times. But for aftercare once things settle down it can be comforting.
Wrapping it up
Due to the change in the climate wildfires are at an increase. They not only affect the area they burn in but the smoke can travel a long distance. So anyone anywhere can be affected.
Not only does the smoke from wildfires affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems but your skin as well. Many cases of eczema have been seen in California as a result. Above all your skin is the least of your worries until the wildfire crisis is over.
Mary is the founder of All About Our Skin. Former esthetician and CPC. Enjoys researching skincare and has been studying our skin for the past fifteen years.