Climate change is bad for your skin, and we should do revolutionary change about it.

Well, the rapid test says that I am now COVID-free, which is nice. My nose and sinuses aren’t back to normal yet – still some congestion and my voice resonates in my head as if I’ve got a cold. I also seem to just have less energy, which is annoying. All in all, it was unpleasant but far from unbearable, and I’m sure the vaccine helped with that.

When it comes to climate change and health, my focus has mostly been on stuff like the ways in which air pollution affects the cardiovascular system, with occasional mentions of how ecosystem collapse will likely lead to more zoonotic disease outbreaks. What I hadn’t really considered was how climate change looks to a dermatologist. Honestly, I don’t think about how the environment affects skin health in general, beyond solar radiation and things like poison ivy. I have encountered it when looking into the health impacts of flooding, but for some reason I haven’t felt a need to write about it, and that ends today. Sort of. It ends today because I came across some research on the ways in which extreme weather affects skin health:

The skin is a large, complex organ, and it serves as the body’s primary interface with the environment, playing key roles in sensory, thermoregulatory, barrier, and immunological functioning. As floods, wildfires, and extreme heat events increase in frequency and severity, they pose a significant threat to global dermatological health, as many skin diseases are climate sensitive. Investigators draw on an extensive review of published research to highlight the key dermatological manifestations initiated or exacerbated by these climatic events and also highlight the disproportionate impacts on marginalized and vulnerable populations. Their findings appear in The Journal of Climate Change and Healthpublished by Elsevier

“We wanted to provide dermatologists and other practitioners with a comprehensive overview of extreme weather-related skin disease as a foundation for patient education, implementation of early treatment interventions, and improved disease outcomes,” explained lead author Eva Rawlings Parker, MD, Department of Dermatology and the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, USA. “We were astounded by the shear breadth of impacts that extreme weather events have on skin disease and how profoundly climate change exacerbates inequality.”

In their review, Dr. Parker and her colleagues cite nearly 200 articles documenting the myriad impacts of extreme weather events on skin. Marcalee Alexander, MD, Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Climate Change and Health, noted, “This information is especially timely in light of traumatic events such as Hurricane Ian, which has led to increased infections due to flood and standing water exposures.”

Flooding, one of the most common natural disasters, is linked to traumatic wounds and bacterial and fungal infections of the skin. Contact dermatitis is another common consequence of flooding since flood water is often contaminated with pesticides, sewage, fertilizers, and chemicals. Exposure to wildfire smoke can trigger atopic dermatitis (eczema) in adults with no prior diagnosis, and it can trigger or exacerbate acne.

Because the skin plays a critical role in the regulation of body temperature, the effects of extended heat waves can be severe. The inability to properly cool during high heat events can lead to heat stroke and death, for example. Many chronic inflammatory dermatoses are exacerbated by heat as well. Infectious diseases can be seasonal, with heat and humidity increasing the risk of common cutaneous infections caused by bacterial, fungal, and viral pathogens. Less obvious, extreme heat events influence behavior. When temperatures are high, people may spend more time outdoors, increasing exposure to air pollution, UV radiation, and insects.

I think I’ve been ignoring skin problems partly because I’ve been fairly lucky in the kinds of skin ailments I’ve had, and partly because of the ways in which our culture has affected my brain (more on that later). Injuries don’t seem to count, in my head. As a kid I had an unpleasant encounter with a bunch of boiling water, and learned that burning large portions of your skin can be deadly. It’s clearly a vital organ, but it’s one that’s designed to handle treatment that would destroy any other organ in our body, so I think I take it for granted sometimes. I suppose the same can be said of other organs as well, but generally if there’s something detectable wrong with an internal organ, that’s a much worse sign than being able to detect a problem that’s only skin-deep.

But, of course, skin health is damned important. Leaving aside the way the skin itself can give us indications of more internal health problems, it’s also where we’re most exposed to external harm, we rely on our skin to keep the good stuff in, and the bad stuff out.

Skin ailments come with unique forms of misery. It’s difficult to not be aware of something wrong with your skin, and the mental toll of pain, itching, and dysmorphia that tends to come along with skin problems – especially chronic ones – is something that I think we should not underestimate. More than that, skin problems are visible. They’re there for other people to see, and so they can be harder to ignore. You can sometimes cover them up, but if there’s something wrong with your skin, having it in constant contact with cloth can be a problem all by itself.

There’s also a degree to which actively taking care of one’s skin is seen as an act of vanity. Certainly, most products surrounding skin care are aimed at appearance, and while a desire to be seen as attractive is an entirely valid part of the human experience, I think the Puritanical disdain for seeming like you care about your appearance is still running strong in our society, as is the misogynistic denigration of “feminine” activities like skin care.

I’m mentioning the social stuff because beyond the direct impact of any given health problem, I think it’s important to remember that stress – in addition to being an effect of all sorts of illness, also is a cause of ill health.

The news on climate change tends to be bad. The planet is going to keep getting more hostile and dangerous as the temperature rises, and so if we want life to get better for everyone – mere survival is not enough for me – then developing a more caring society is a key public health measure. Climate change is happening, and happening fast, but a lot of the pain and death we’re seeing because of it is still mostly because of social, political, and economic factors that make life unnecessarily hard for a large majority of humanity. I think that systemic cruelty is going to get worse as the temperature rises, unless we make some pretty big changes.

Thankfully, this report does not shy away from the ways in which societal conditions interact with skin health:

Dr. Parker and her colleagues observed that extreme weather events disproportionately affect marginalized and vulnerable populations and widen existing health disparities. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with mental health illness, racial/ethnic minorities, low-income individuals, and migrants are especially vulnerable to climate-related effects.

Black and Hispanic populations and lower income populations are more likely to live in areas at higher risk for flooding. These populations also have a greater incidence of skin disease and less access to care. Extreme heat is a frontline occupational hazard for manual laborers and migrant workers. Extreme weather events contribute to large-scale migration. Skin diseases are among the most commonly reported health concerns observed in migrants. Of particular concern is the spread of communicable and infectious diseases and vector-borne viruses. People experiencing homelessness are plagued by higher rates of highly morbid, climate-sensitive skin diseases.

As a reminder – there are more vacant houses and apartments than there are unhoused people, and the money most societies spend on “policing” houseless folks (also known as punishing them for being poor) far exceeds what it would cost to just guarantee safe housing for all. The same is true for the cost of privatized vs. universal healthcare. Things are likely to get worse as the temperature rises, but it’s important to remember that they don’t necessarily have to get worse. Climate change is increasing all sorts of health problems, but the degree to which people suffer because of those problems is almost always going to be determined by their place in the economic and political systems in which they live.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!


  1. says

    I can see why a sensible person in a position of power might see any jeopardy to the underpinning of the US economy as a horrible thing to be avoided, and taking meaningful action on housing would absolutely demolish the property and finance sectors, which have only been able to maintain an illusion of the possibility of indefinite growth through madcap shell games and complete con artistry.

    I can see that point of view enough that contemplating it briefly, in response to this post, I was asking myself, how do we transition the economy from its current structure to a new one without destroying it? Then I realized how foolish that was. It’s all bullshit, top to bottom. It must be destroyed. If we entered the triple depression madmax ‘pocalypse, many poor people’s lives would measurably improve.

    Yeah they’d be living off of unappealing small game and forage or garden food, yeah their health care options might get *slightly* worse, but the US poor are already so fucked that not having to pay rent would make this a huge improvement in their lives. The Man went and turned me into an anprim. I don’t even like anprims but I hate endless real estate bubbles a lot worse.

  2. K says

    Just a small comment: I live in a city that’s currently dealing with a problem with the homeless population–many of whom are dealing with addiction issues. The city tried giving them housing and many rejected it because it was too far away from their dealer.

  3. K says

    On the topic of skin and climate change: the city of San Jose (California) has rolled back their ban on “cruising”, which is a thing where ridiculously-modified cars parade up and down the streets for hours and hours. This not only causes a lot of pollution from the cars themselves (some from the 1950s through 1970s, when there were practically no pollution controls), but the cruising causes massive traffic jams where thousands of other cars sit in miles-long traffic backups just trying to get where they have to go. Public transportation really isn’t an option in San Jose, so everyone needs to drive on the roads for everything.

    Plenty of studies have come out that women exposed to constant pollution tend to give birth prematurely, and children growing up in constant pollution have learning disabilities and breathing problems such as asthma. It’s a mystery why San Jose voted to add even more pollution to their air.

  4. says

    @K – I’d like to see a source on the city giving housing and people rejecting it. Were there conditions on the housing? Did they require that people not use drugs? Did they have requirements for job hunting or stuff like that?

    It’s worth remembering that for someone who’s an addict, the drug in question is a physiological necessity. Telling them to go cold turkey can be like saying you have to pull out your own fingernails before you get housing. The whole point of a housing-first approach is that you provide housing that works with the current lifestyle of the people in question, and allows them to deal with their shit in a safe environment, rather than having to meet some arbitrary “moral” threshold before they deserve adequate shelter.

    And yeah, a lot of the western U.S. needs to be rebuilt if it’s ever going to be free of cars. Better access to trains and trolleys would help, but the sprawl is just a problem. Building denser cities with good transit between them would allow for re-wilding, or for building stuff like vertical farms where we currently have strip malls and parking lots.

    @GAS – I don’t think you’re accounting for the current distribution of small game and forage, and the distribution of people. If everything collapsed, most poor people would starve to death, or die from untreated water, even without climate change being a factor. Keep in mind that basically nobody knows how to survive that way – even people with training in survivalism have a pretty high likelihood of being unable to get enough to live on in survival settings.

    Whatever subsistence lifestyle that the survivors managed to scrape together *might* be better in some ways, but definitely much worse in others.

    That’s why my focus does tend to be on the “build the new world” end of things, because I think that we should be able to lay the foundations within society as it exists. Tearing down the current system is necessary, but that doesn’t mean reverting to some pre-industrial state and trying over. The temperature rise we’ve seen thus far, plus the warming we’re likely to see between now and whenever that collapse happens may be enough that feedback loops keep the warming going, albeit slower. That means unreliable weather patterns, which means famines would be much more likely than in the past.

    I get why the anprim idea appeals to some people, but it’s not a viable way forward for humanity, and getting there would require the kind of mass death that we’re trying to avoid, and that would make extinction very likely.

  5. says

    i’m not forgetting small game distribution – i was thinking of rats cats dogs raccoons opossums frogs fish pigeons songbirds ducks geese and seagulls as small game, which we have plenty of around here in a fairly paved over freeway city. but i suppose if literally everyone was fighting over them we might run out pretty quick.

    The intertangled housing / banking bubble tho. That could take us into Great Depression II any moment now. Could be ten years, could be happening while I type this. I don’t think we’re gonna make enough community gardens to beat that clock, somehow.

  6. brightmoon says

    Community gardens? If you try to plant one or even just put out some extra flower seeds you have in public housing, they’ll just dig it up . I’ve seen community gardens but you have to jump thru hoops to get permission for one

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *