How pollution is affecting your skin in a bad way

And the new formulas that will protect you

marie claire Contributor / July 25 2017

Anti-pollution skin care may not be a new concept, but increased attention on the poor air quality in countries like China and India, together with rising global contamination levels, have pushed it squarely into the spotlight. “We’re constantly learning about how higher levels of ‘ambient particulate matter’ affect our skin,” explains Elizabeth Arden’s consulting dermatologist Dr Dendy Engelman. And with the world’s population and industrialisation steadily increasing, this is more than a fleeting fad.

The harmful effects of pollution

“Air pollution is the next UV – traffic pollution is emerging as one of the most toxic substances for the skin,” says Belinda Besant, La Prairie’s Training Manager (other skin-damaging pollutants include particulate matter, smoke, surface ozone or smog, and nitrogen oxide gas from burning fuel).

Prolonged or repetitive exposure to pollution harms the skin in a myriad of ways: it can lead to a decrease in collagen levels, trigger inflammation, and tiny atmospheric particles can ignite melanocytes, with the cheeks and forehead often showing the first signs of hyperpigmentation.

“The pollutants we encounter every day are largely inescapable, and particulate matter can attach to the skin,” says Besant. As the skin barrier becomes weakened, it can take years to start seeing an effect – but it will happen.

"You cannot get away from your genetics, so be especially mindful of what you can control, which is environmental exposure."
Dr Dendy Engelman
Elizabeth Arden

Pollution damage control

Follow these skin care steps to fight the effects of pollution.

Cleanse: Do this
 as soon as you get home in the evening (diligent nightly cleansing is important because pollutants and toxins 
can easily get into pores, says Dr Engelman)
 and look for a cleanser “that removes impurities without stripping the skin of the natural oils that form a protective barrier”, suggests Besant. Try La Prairie Foam Cleanser.

Detox: Use an exfoliating cleanser like Dermalogica Daily Superfoliant a few times per week, or a mask like Sukin Anti-Pollution Facial Masque every week, to help remove the pollution particles and impurities that can lodge deep within the skin.

La Prairie Foam Cleanser

Dermalogica Daily Superfoliant

Sukin Anti-Pollution Facial Masque

Treat: An antioxidant serum with ingredients like green tea, idebenone (a powerful cellular and environmental stress protectant) and vitamin C all help neutralise free radical damage caused by pollution. We recommend Dr Dennis Gross C+ Collagen Vitamin C Serum.

Hydrate and protect: “Sunscreen shields against UV rays, not pollution, so combine your SPF with powerful antioxidants to strengthen the skin,” suggests
 Besant. An antioxidant moisturiser defends against environmental stressors during the day and counteracts free radical damage at night. Try Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart Hydrating Shield and Blithe Tundra Chaga Pressed Serum. Daily sunscreen is also imperative (Engelman prefers those with physical blockers, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as opposed to chemical SPF).

Dr Dennis Gross C+ Collagen Vitamin C Serum

Elizabeth Arden Prevage City Smart Hydrating Shield

Blithe Tundra Chaga Pressed Serum

Thinking of moving?

Don’t pack your bags yet: Australia boasts the least polluted urban areas, according to the World Health Organisation.

Countries with the most polluted urban areas:

1. Pakistan
2. Qatar

3. Afghanistan
4. Bangladesh
5. Egypt

Countries with the least polluted urban areas:

1. Australia

2. Brunei

3. New Zealand
4. Estonia

5. Finland

"Indoor pollution like infared, ambient lighting, and heat from smartphones and computers, can cause hyperpigmentation or worsen melasma."
Dr Dendy Engelman
Elizabeth Arden

How living in the city affects your skin

City living means increased exposure to pollution, and studies have shown that those in urban areas have more brown spots and wrinkles – but rural and coastal dwellers are also at risk. “Pollution levels are constantly changing, so even if it doesn’t seem like
 you have a high pollution level right now,
it can change drastically from day to day,” explains Dr Engelman. Regardless of your location, your skin is your first line of defence, so a strong and healthy barrier is important to help your largest organ do its job. 

3 more ways to defend your skin

#1 / “Anything that induces sweating, like saunas and exercise, can help detoxify the body from pollutants,” says Dr Engelman.

#2 / Eat antioxidant-rich foods like sweet potatoes, strawberries, and dark greens to boost your skin’s vitamin levels and help protect against pollutants.

#3 / Dermalogica’s website can help you find out the real-time skin pollution index
 in your area.


Want to know other ways you could be harming your complexion? These bad habits could be affecting your skin. 

For more skin care advice from marie claire, check out

Do you use any anti-pollution products in your skin care routine? Have you noticed an improvement since using them? Share with us below.

Main image credit: Edward Urrutia

A beauty editor and vitamin C fanatic who has worked across a range of print and digital publications, including Stellar, marie claire, Gritty Pretty and Badlands Journal.