What to Do If Your Skin's Been Exposed to Wildfire Smoke
If you’ve been struggling with your skin throughout 2020, you're not alone. Not only are many of us dealing with the visible effects of elevated stress and mask-related irritation (it’s called maskne and it’s the worst), but now wildfire season has introduced a new skin-care challenge.
As wildfires rage up and down the West Coast, skin care may understandably be the very last thing on your mind — especially when homes and even lives are being lost. As someone who lives in Seattle and recently spent an entire week stuck indoors without air conditioning while the sky cast an eerie glow into our apartment, the gravity of the wildfires is not lost on me.
That being said, I am a beauty writer — and once the smoke cleared, I wondered if it had done any lasting harm to my skin. My face seemed dry and irritated and I had an unexpected breakout. If you’ve also been exposed to wildfire smoke and are fortunate enough to have the bandwidth to be worried about your skin’s health, we’ve compiled some helpful tips for you. (Although if you're noticing painful or prolonged skin irritation, your very first step should be to speak to a doctor.)
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Wildfire smoke is full of pollutants that can cause lasting damage to your skin. Dermatologist Y. Claire Chang from Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York explains why the smoke is so damaging: "Wildfires produce a large range of harmful air pollutants and noxious gases, including particulate matter, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals and ozone (O3), that can hurt the skin." But what exactly do all of those heavy metals do to your skin in the long run?
"Research has also shown that environmental pollutants cause significant harm to skin health, accelerating skin aging and skin cancers," says Chang. "Similar to air pollution, wildfire pollution can likely cause harm to the skin in the long-term." Chang lists DNA damage, increased pigmentation, and collagen degradation as some of the potential long-term results.
It can also cause a host of short-term problems. If you've ever been exposed to wildfire smoke and noticed your skin breaking out soon after, the smoke could have been the culprit.
As West Hollywood-based dermatologist Jason Emer says: "In the short term, the smoke can clog your pores due to soot and ash particles [which can lead] to acne outbreaks, blemishes, blackheads and increased oil production."
There’s more bad news. If you have sensitive skin or issues such as rosacea, you may be even more likely to notice a reaction. "Any pre-existing skin condition would also be likely to flare up from added irritation and inflammation," notes Jennifer MacGregor, a dermatologist at Union Square Dermatology in New York.
Flora Kim, a dermatologist in Dallas, agrees, saying that exposure can "exacerbate dryness and other skin conditions such as eczema, atopic dermatitis, [and] psoriasis."
I don't know about you, but I’m starting to sweat (and it’s not just because my apartment morphed into a sauna this week). Let’s move on to solutions.
The experts agree that the best way to protect your skin from wildfire smoke is to stay indoors as much as possible. And while you're stuck inside, Chang suggests using an air purifier to battle any smoke that makes its way indoors.
And if you must go outdoors? Both Chang and MacGregor caution you to cover up your skin as much as possible, such as with long sleeves and a mask (which you should be used to wearing anyway).
In addition to covering up, it's also more important than ever to rely on sunscreen. Just because you can’t see the sun’s rays through the smoke doesn’t mean you're safe from them.
Kim explains the importance of using sunscreen to battle smoke damage: "It is interesting to note that studies are showing synergy, and thus amplification of damage, when air pollution is combined with sunlight — specifically UVA rays."
When choosing a sunscreen, Kim suggests going for a mineral option with a high absorption of UVA rays: "Wide selection of UVA filter ingredients are unfortunately limited in the USA so choose those with physical sunscreens and high concentration of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — think double-digit percentages." We've rounded up a selection of sunscreens that fit that bill right here.
Sometimes exposure to wildfire smoke is unavoidable. Whether you’ve suffered prolonged exposure or simply had to walk the dog around the block, there are several steps you can take to help your skin recover — starting from the second you walk inside.
"Small combustion particles and semi-volatile compounds may pass through clothing and diffuse into skin," says Kim. So the first thing you should do when you get back inside is change into clean clothes.
After showering or washing your face, you can tailor your skin-care routine to achieve maximum recovery. The one skin-care ingredient that MacGregor, Emer, Kim and Chang all recommend? Antioxidants. "Topical antioxidants, like vitamin C and niacinamide, can reduce free radicals on the skin and have been shown in clinical studies to brighten the skin and stimulate collagen production," Chang says, suggesting SkinCeuticals CE Ferulic and EltaMD UV Clear as two good options. Emer’s own Emerage Skincare line includes Aox-C, a hydrating and soothing vitamin C serum.
Also, Kim points out that you can also check ingredient lists for hyaluronic acid, resveratrol, astaxanthin, black mulberry, bakuchiol, madecassic acid, and linolenic acid to get your antioxidant fix.
Regardless of which product you choose, if your skin has been exposed to wildfire smoke you’ll want to immediately incorporate an antioxidant into your skin-care routine so that you can start to repair the damage.
Finally, be sure to see a doctor if you notice any abnormal or prolonged skin irritation. "There are reports of poison ivy [and] poison oak getting into the air during fires and causing generalized rashes and even skin blistering to exposed skin," MacGregor warns. "Pain, rashes, redness, and blisters would be a reason to seek urgent medical attention."
So stay inside as much as possible, stay safe, and try to give your skin some extra TLC during this stressful and scary time.
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