Air Pollution May Be Causing Your Eczema

2 min read

March 27, 2023 – New research shows that chemicals from car exhaust, wildfires, and cigarette smoke impair our skin’s ability to make healthy oil, making it more likely to get eczema. 

The finding points scientists toward how to better treat the skin ailment. There are now more than three times as many eczema cases as there were in the 1970s, and it now affects as many as 20% of children and 10% of adults.

"I think these authors are spot-on in recognizing that the incidence of allergic conditions is increasing concurrently with how different pollutants are increasing in our environment," said Denver-based pediatric allergist and immunologist Jessica Hui, MD, according to NBC News. "We're finally understanding more about why people are getting eczema."

Some people get eczema due to genetics, but the new research built on the previous understanding of how certain chemicals can trigger the eczema symptoms of severe itching, skin redness, and oozing or painful rashes. An experiment on mice showed that exposure to isocyanates -- chemicals that are often used in products like foam and car paint -- disrupted oil production that the skin needs to stay healthy.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health “found that when bacteria that live on healthy skin are exposed to isocyanate, they must adapt to survive,” the agency summarized in a news release. “When they adapt, these bacteria shift their metabolism away from making the lipids, or oils, that skin needs to stay healthy. This finding suggests that eczema may be treatable by replacing the modified skin bacteria with healthy bacteria.”

The study was published earlier this year in the journal Science Advances.

The chemicals also trigger a message to the brain that causes skin inflammation and itching, lead researcher Ian Myles, MD, told NBC News. Myles is also chief of the Epithelial Research Unit in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Laboratory of Clinical Immunology and Microbiology.

"So much of this is out of our control. I mean, you can't shut the highways down," he said of the environmental sources.

Previous research that explored attempting to restore healthy skin bacteria called Roseomonas mucosa to treat eczema symptoms had mixed results. The NIH says it has made the bacteria available “for commercial, non-therapeutic development … as a potentially beneficial probiotic.”