What the New York City Subways Do to Your Skin

Author: Dr. Bobby Buka

dr. bobby buka subway and skin

When it comes to the New York subway system, everyone’s got a story, a complaint, a tear-their-hair-out frustration.

Fortunately, when it comes to skin health, riding the subway only presents a few potential problems.

First, there’s the extended time spent out of the sun. Underground train lines and the cars themselves don’t exactly present ideal environments for sunlight exposure, and the  accompanying ultraviolet radiation, needed to prompt the body into making Vitamin D.

Brief explanation: Vitamin D comes in two forms, D2 and D3. D2 comes from foods and D3 is created by the body when the skin is exposed to the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight.

As explained in this article about lack-of-sunlight, “Both are converted to 25-hydroxy vitamin D, which travels through the blood to the kidneys where it becomes calcitriol — a hormonally active form of vitamin D… that increases the level of calcium from the blood to the bone.”

In addition to helping keep your bones healthy, vitamin D has long been used for treating psoriasis, an immune-mediated disease that causes raised, red, scaly patches to appear on the skin. Vitamin D, when applied topically, actually prohibits the overgrowth of cells that accompanies psoriasis.

The hitch is that D2 is less well-utilized than D3, so daily exposure to the sun (in moderate amounts- as soon as your skin begins to turn pink or darken slightly you’ve overdone it!) is the best way to get your body to produce the D3 you need.

The second thing that the subway can do is generally aggravate the skin around your eyes and in your nose, especially if you have allergies.

How? Exposure to flying dust and debris and all things that cause allergies.

Who hasn’t teared up when a train whooshes past the station platform, kicking up all manner of irritants.  Dust allergy triggers include dust mites, mold, pollen, pet hair, fur and feathers.  One subway ride in New York can definitely expose you to all that, and more.

But, the really interesting thing is that the subway is as, if not more, affected by your skin as your skin is by the subway system.

A 2013 New York Times article discusses a microbial study, of the New York subway system, by Dr. Norman R. Pace. “The team identified no known human pathogens and found that about 5 percent of the microbial species (a fifth of those identifiable) probably came from human skin — our heels, heads and forearms, mostly.

“Every time you step down, you pressurize the air that’s in your shoe,” Dr. Pace said. “You stomp down, you squirt out a little warm air, carrying foot microbiology.” This so-called convective plume radiates from some 1.6 billion riders annually and disperses throughout the subway system. Skin-associated bacteria even showed up at the abandoned station downtown.”

So while your skin is affected by using the subway system, it also has a huge effect on that system!

One final note: remember that your skin is a great defensive barrier against diseases. Remember to wash your hands, frequently, if you are routinely exposed to the masses riding on mass transit.

Worried that your skin came into contact with something less-than-good while riding the subway? Consult with NYC’s most sought-after dermatologists; make an appointment with The Dermatology Specialists on ZocDoc today.