Pollution may cause hair loss by ‘decreasing hair growth proteins’

Air pollution could make you BALD: Tiny pollutants emitted by car exhausts and industry ‘decrease crucial hair growth proteins’

  • Scientists studied particulate matter (PM), one of the main pollutants 
  • When hair follicles were exposed to PM, proteins were impaired 
  • It could lead to hair loss because the cells die and can’t retain hairs 

Pollution could be making your bald by decreasing levels of crucial proteins for hair growth, scientists fear.

For the first time, researchers have shown tiny toxic particles can damage chemical processes within cells that promote hair growth.

This ‘could lead to baldness’, the scientists claim. However, further trials are needed because their studies were on human cells in the lab.  

The work focused on common air pollutants known as particulate matter (PM), which are emitted by car exhausts, industry and household heating.

PM is at the centre of a public health storm, having been linked to serious problems including asthma, heart and lung disease.

But evidence of its effects on skin is still in its infancy – despite a growing market for anti-pollution cosmetics. 

Pollution could hair loss by decreasing the levels of crucial growth proteins, scientists say

The research was conducted by The Future Science Research Centre in the Republic of Korea, led by Hyuk Chul Kwon.

The team harvested cells from the human scalp at the base of hair follicles, known as dermal papilla cells (DPs).  

DPs sit at the base of a hair follicle, underneath the scalp, and work alongside skin surface cells to control the formation of the hair shaft. 

These cells are responsible for hair growth and hair retention and need proteins to to function.

The DPs were exposed to various concentrations of PM10, which are particles with a diameter of ten micrometres or smaller, including diesel and dust.

After 24 hours the researchers detected the levels of specific proteins in the cells using a scientific process known as western blotting.

The test can identify which proteins are present and in what quantities, depending on how they bind to specific antibodies.  


It is perfectly normal for people to lose small amounts of hair as it replenishes itself and, on average, people can shed between 50 and 100 hairs per day.

However, if people start to lose entire patches of hair or large amounts of it it can be more distressing and potentially a sign of something serious.

Pattern baldness is a common cause of hair loss as people grow older. At least half of men over the age of 50 will lose some of their hair just through the ageing process, according to the British Association of Dermatologists.

Women may lose their hair as they grow older, too.

Other, more concerning causes of hair loss include stress, cancer treatment such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, weight loss or an iron deficiency.

Most hair loss is temporary, however, and can be expected to grow back. 

Specific medical conditions which cause the hair to fall out include alopecia, a disorder of the immune system; an underactive or overactive thyroid; the skin condition lichen planus or Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer. 

People should visit their doctor if their hair starts to fall out in lumps, falls out suddenly, if their scalp itches or burns, and if hair loss is causing them severe stress.

Results showed the levels of beta-catenin had dropped, a protein which is responsible for triggering hair growth.

The study also revealed that the levels of three other proteins – cyclin D1, cyclin E and CDK2 – were decreased by PM10, which would affect both hair growth and retention.  

Dr Hyuk Chul Kwon said: ‘Our research explains the mode of action of air pollutants on human follicle dermal papilla cells, showing how the most common air pollutants lead to hair loss.

‘The results suggest that particulate matter may causes hair loss. 

‘It is therefore possible to hypothesise that at certain levels of exposure, this could lead to baldness. But further population-based research needs to be undertaken to confirm this. 

‘While the link between air pollution and serious diseases such as cancer, COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and CVD [cardiovascular disease] are well established there is little to no research on the effect of particular matter exposure on the human skin and hair in particular.’  

PM is made up of a mixture of solid particles and droplets found in the air that are so small they can be inhaled. 

PM2.5 are the smallest particles, with a diameter of 2.5 micrometres or smaller – finer than a human hair.

Both PM10 and PM2.5 are considered to be major pollutants, alongside nitrogen oxide, ammonia and sulphur dioxide. 

Almost 40 per cent of PM emissions that originate in the UK come from burning wood and coal in domestic open fires and solid fuel stoves. Some 16 per cent is from industrial combustion. 

PM has the ability to travel large distances. Therefore, what is emitted into the atmosphere in one country can end up in another.   

Experts have warned even low levels of exposure to pollution is dangerous, suggesting current air quality guidelines don’t protect public health. 

Outdoor air pollution is estimated to kill 4.2million people every year, according to The World Health Organization.

But the effects on the skin and hair are not as well established as disease burden.

The beauty industry is saturated with ‘anti-pollution’ products with claims of preventing premature ageing and lifeless hair. 

But the manufactures are generally referring to free radicals when they mention ‘pollution’.  

Free radicals are generated by smog, cigarette smoke and chemicals in the house. When there is an imbalance in the body, it can cause oxidative stress. 

Oxidative stress has been linked to ageing and other diseases because damage takes place in DNA and proteins. 

Dr Kapil Bhargava, a consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, said: ‘Pollutants seems to be exacerbating a number of skin conditions such as pigmentation or hair loss.

‘More and more evidence is emerging regarding pollution and the skin – pollutants will cause damage to skin cells by the formation of free radicals or other chemicals. 

‘However pollution specific conditions are not yet clearly defined.

‘Products to combat the pollution related changes are being widely sold but there is little evidence that they work to prevent the damage from pollution to the skin.’

The research was presented today at the 28th European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology Congress in Madrid and has not been published yet.



Carbon dioxide

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans. 

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 


What is particulate matter?

Particulate matter refers to tiny parts of solids or liquid materials in the air. 

Some are visible, such as dust, whereas others cannot be seen by the naked eye. 

Materials such as metals, microplastics, soil and chemicals can be in particulate matter.

Particulate matter (or PM) is described in micrometres. The two main ones mentioned in reports and studies are PM10 (less than 10 micrometres) and PM2.5 (less than 2.5 micrometres).

Air pollution comes from burning fossil fuels, cars, cement making and agriculture 

Scientists measure the rate of particulates in the air by cubic metre.

Particulate matter is sent into the air by a number of processes including burning fossil fuels, driving cars and steel making.

Why are particulates dangerous?

Particulates are dangerous because those less than 10 micrometres in diameter can get deep into your lungs, or even pass into your bloodstream. Particulates are found in higher concentrations in urban areas, particularly along main roads. 

Health impact

What sort of health problems can pollution cause?

According to the World Health Organization, a third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease can be linked to air pollution. 

Some of the effects of air pollution on the body are not understood, but pollution may increase inflammation which narrows the arteries leading to heart attacks or strokes. 

As well as this, almost one in 10 lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by air pollution. 

Particulates find their way into the lungs and get lodged there, causing inflammation and damage. As well as this, some chemicals in particulates that make their way into the body can cause cancer. 

Deaths from pollution 

Around seven million people die prematurely because of air pollution every year. Pollution can cause a number of issues including asthma attacks, strokes, various cancers and cardiovascular problems. 


Asthma triggers

Air pollution can cause problems for asthma sufferers for a number of reasons. Pollutants in traffic fumes can irritate the airways, and particulates can get into your lungs and throat and make these areas inflamed. 

Problems in pregnancy 

Women exposed to air pollution before getting pregnant are nearly 20 per cent more likely to have babies with birth defects, research suggested in January 2018.

Living within 3.1 miles (5km) of a highly-polluted area one month before conceiving makes women more likely to give birth to babies with defects such as cleft palates or lips, a study by University of Cincinnati found.

For every 0.01mg/m3 increase in fine air particles, birth defects rise by 19 per cent, the research adds. 

Previous research suggests this causes birth defects as a result of women suffering inflammation and ‘internal stress’. 

What is being done to tackle air pollution? 

Paris agreement on climate change

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. 

It hopes to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C (3.6ºF) ‘and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C (2.7°F)’.

Carbon neutral by 2050 

The UK government has announced plans to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. 

They plan to do this by planting more trees and by installing ‘carbon capture’ technology at the source of the pollution.

Some critics are worried that this first option will be used by the government to export its carbon offsetting to other countries.

International carbon credits let nations continue emitting carbon while paying for trees to be planted elsewhere, balancing out their emissions.

No new petrol or diesel vehicles by 2040

In 2017, the UK government announced the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2040. 

From around 2020, town halls will be allowed to levy extra charges on diesel drivers using the UK’s 81 most polluted routes if air quality fails to improve.

However,  MPs on the climate change committee have urged the government to bring the ban forward to 2030, as by then they will have an equivalent range and price.

The Paris Agreement, which was first signed in 2015, is an international agreement to control and limit climate change. Pictured: air pollution over Paris in 2019.

Norway’s electric car subsidies

The speedy electrification of Norway’s automotive fleet is attributed mainly to generous state subsidies. Electric cars are almost entirely exempt from the heavy taxes imposed on petrol and diesel cars, which makes them competitively priced.

A VW Golf with a standard combustion engine costs nearly 334,000 kroner (34,500 euros, $38,600), while its electric cousin the e-Golf costs 326,000 kroner thanks to a lower tax quotient. 

Criticisms of inaction on climate change

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said there is a ‘shocking’ lack of Government preparation for the risks to the country from climate change. 

The committee assessed 33 areas where the risks of climate change had to be addressed – from flood resilience of properties to impacts on farmland and supply chains – and found no real progress in any of them.

The UK is not prepared for 2°C of warming, the level at which countries have pledged to curb temperature rises, let alone a 4°C rise, which is possible if greenhouse gases are not cut globally, the committee said.

It added that cities need more green spaces to stop the urban ‘heat island’ effect, and to prevent floods by soaking up heavy rainfall. 

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