There is no question that air pollution poses a serious health danger. It exacerbates asthma, especially in children, and shortens lives. It’s also linked to diabetes, cognitive decline, and birth defects, as well as heart disease and stroke. The contamination comes from multiple sources, including cars, trains, airplanes, and power plants, which foul the air and heat up the planet.
There are a lot of good reasons to avoid dirty air. Here’s one more—air pollution may be hazardous to your hair.
“When the cells on the human scalp were exposed to common air pollutants created from burning fossil fuels, the proteins in the cells that are responsible for hair growth and hair retention were significantly reduced,” says Hyuk Chul Kwon, a scientist with the Future Science Research Centre, a lab owned by the Korean cosmetics company Coreana. “The more pollutants that the cells were exposed to, the bigger this impact seemed to be. Hair loss has become a concern for all of us.”
It’s still unclear how much air pollution contributes to hair loss, although it is evident that chemicals—chemotherapy, chlorine, hair dyes, straighteners and permanents—can damage and break hair. There also are numerous other well-established causes of balding, including genetics and hormones. Two-thirds of American men have some degree of hair loss by the time they turn 35, and women are not exempt—40% experience it by age 40.
The idea that air pollution contributes to hair loss may seem minor within the larger context of the serious dangers of tainted air. Yet going bald does not seem trivial to many of those who suffer from it. Witness the popularity of hair growth treatments, hair transplants, and comb-overs, which come in all sizes and in all colors, including orange.
While Kwon has not yet published the results of his research, he has presented his preliminary findings at the recent European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology Congress in Madrid.
Kwon, who says his company hopes to develop products to reduce hair loss, decided to look at hair’s relationship with air pollution after noticing that the air seemed dustier around Pusan in the Republic of Korea, where he lives.
“Fine dust particles are much smaller than hair,” he says. “I thought it might be related to hair loss, so I started research.”
His experiments looked solely at what happens when cells found on the scalp at the base of hair follicles are exposed to diesel exhaust. He did not study the hair follicles themselves. When he tested the cells 24 hours after exposure, they showed a significant reduction in the proteins needed for growing and maintaining hair.
Nicole Rogers, a dermatologist from Metairie, Louisiana, who specializes in hair restoration—and who was not involved in this study—says she thought the results “make sense in that we know other air pollutants, such as smoking, [contribute] to graying of hair.”
She notes, however, that numerous chemical processes are involved in hair growth beyond the ones Kwon studied, and she recommended further research, especially in animals such as mice, to examine the impact of pollution on hair.
Shani Francis, a dermatologist and hair loss researcher in Gurnee, Illinois, agrees, and points out that ultraviolet radiation also damages hair proteins as well as skin.
“We know our environment plays a role in overall hair and skin health,” says Francis, who also was not involved in Kwon’s research. “The cells he studied are likely key players in the regeneration of hair follicles, and I’m excited at all the new research that is evolving around this.”
Kwon agrees about the need for further research. He says there are no data yet that suggest the pollution in one city is more threatening to hair than any other, again stressing that more studies are needed to understand the extent that dirty air hastens hair loss. But Kwon urges people to take precautions—not just to protect their hair—but also to guard against air pollution.
“While it is difficult to escape ambient pollution, limiting time walking on busy streets, especially during rush hour, should help to reduce exposure,” Kwon says. “If you are exercising outdoors, try to do so in areas that are less polluted, and do not spend too much time waiting at traffic hotspots such as traffic lights.”
Oh, and for the record—Kwon himself has a full head of hair.
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.