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How does pollution affect hair and what can you do to protect it?

Is your hair looking dull or oily for no reason? Pollution may be the cause. We explore its adverse effects on hair and the scalp and the best ways to prevent and manage the damage caused.

How does pollution affect hair and what can you do to protect it?

Hair is susceptible to an invisible threat that affects everyone and is all around us: pollution. As a rising concern, studies have shown that it has the ability to negatively affect your locks and the scalp, and can alter your hair’s appearance while causing subsequent harm(1). Here’s how.

Who does pollution mostly affect?

The most common form of pollution is airborne - think road traffic, industrial activities and smog. For this reason, if you’re living in a city or urban area, you have a higher risk of encountering pollution. But before you swear off city-living forever, remember that hair is susceptible to damaging aggressors whenever you’re outdoors and especially when exposed to UV rays- which have an adverse effect on the protein within hair(2). In severely polluted areas, a very high amount of particulate matter (which includes minute pieces of soot, dust and grime) along with smoke and other gaseous pollutants can be present and, as a result, harm hair.

pollution (in the form of fine particles such as aluminum, copper and iron) settles on the scalp, and causes damage and irritation

How does pollution affect hair and the scalp?

Pollution affects your locks in two ways- on the scalp and on the hair. Firstly, as pollution (in the form of fine particles such as aluminum, copper and iron(1)) settles on the scalp, it causes damage and irritation. This can manifest as an itchy scalp or as dryness (with skin conditions like dandruff and dermatitis appearing). And to make matters worse, it can also affect the quality and texture, weakening hair and leaving it vulnerable to split ends and breakage. Hair’s appearance can also change, becoming dull and brittle, while friction or static within hair can increase(3). All factors which mean bad news for your locks.

Secondly, studies concluded that pollution is visible in hair fiber, as it adheres to the hair and has a negative effect on its shine and softness. Further studies revealed that pollution goes even deeper, affecting the internal structure of hair(1). It should come as no surprise then that pollution is one of the main triggering factors of sensitive scalp, which can be related to hair loss(4). This occurs when the scalp is overwhelmed by an accumulation of certain heavy metals, which interfere with the hair cycle. And in case you needed further proof that pollution is bad for your hair, studies also suggest that those who experience balding or hair loss often have a higher concentration of lead, copper and cadmium (all associated with pollution) present in their hair follicles, and lower concentrations of zinc (which is responsible for hair growth), in comparison to those without hair loss(5).

What can you do to protect your hair from the effects of pollution?

While it’s impossible to guarantee that your hair won’t encounter pollution, there are methods you can take to prepare your locks. Follow these 5 steps below to ensure that you’re protecting your hair properly:

Use anti-pollution hair care products
Anti-pollution hair care products like the Dercos Nutrients Detox range contain ingredients that can remove pollutants from hair and prevent them from settling on the hair or scalp. They work to clean the scalp and fiber, making your locks feel lighter and look more voluminous. One of these ingredients is spirulina, which is an antioxidant-rich botanical. Another ingredient that helps to fight the effects of pollution is charcoal which has deep cleansing properties.

Adopt a ‘less is more’ approach to the number of products you use
Heavy-weight products like hair sprays, gels and thickening creams may keep your style in check, but they can also attract and trap pollution. Rather, go for minimally lightweight, multi-tasking products, and do a hair detox regularly.

Don’t wash hair too frequently
Washing your hair less to prevent pollution build-up may sound counterintuitive, however overwashing can result in dried out hair because it strips away your sebum- a natural oil that is good for your locks. If you’ve washed away this protective shield, your hair may be more susceptible to harm when exposed to pollution and UV rays. This is why you should wash your hair less to keep your sebum levels normal and functioning effectively. But fear not, there is an easy and effective measure that you can use in between washes to leave your locks feeling fresh and looking healthy: dry shampoo, especially one with anti-pollution ingredients like Dercos Nutrients Detox Dry Shampoo.

Hydrate your hair
Your hair can always benefit from hydration, and a moisturising product can counteract dry hair that looks frizzy and brittle. It’s important to use conditioner, masks and hair oils to replenish moisture and nutrients, and help make your hair smooth and light again.

Avoid heat
Using heating tools like hair dryers and straighteners can be harsh on your hair and further add to  damage. Don’t neglect using leave-in heat protection whenever you reach for your hair tools, and try to air-dry whenever it’s possible. Your locks will thank you for it.


1. Grosvenor, AJ. et al., 'Oxidative Modification in Human Hair: The Effect of the Levels of Cu (II) Ions, UV Exposure and Hair Pigmentation' in Photochemistry and Photobiology (2015) 10.1111/php.12537. [Accessible at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26451514]
2. Sebetić, K. 'UV damage of the hair' in Collegium Antropologicum (2008) 32.2 pp. 16365 [Accessible at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19138021]
3. Galliano, A. et al, 'Particulate matter adheres to human hair exposed to severe aerial pollution: consequences for certain hair surface properties.' in International Journal of Cosmetic Sciences (2017) 39.6 pp. 610-616 [Accessible at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28748540]
4. Misery, L. et al, 'Sensitive scalp: does this condition exist? An epidemiological study' in Contact Dermatitis (2008) pp. 58.4 [Accessible at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1600-0536.2007.01288.x]
5. Ching-Huang, L. et al, 'Androgenic Alopecia Is Associated with Less Dietary Soy, Higher Blood Vanadium and rs1160312 1 Polymorphism in Taiwanese Communities' in PLOS One (2013) 8.12 [Accessible at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3875420/]

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