Why anti-pollution skin care is so important

Anti-Pollution Skin Care

Get the lowdown on the invisible threat that’s damaging your skin

Beauty Crew Beauty Writer / August 14 2018

While we’ve all become pretty savvy regarding the need to protect our skin from the harmful effects of UVA and UVB damage, it turns out our skin has another nemesis that’s causing premature ageing as well as more serious health issues. According to a study published by the Lancet Journal, pollution in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink, was responsible for 16 per cent of premature deaths globally in 2015. It comes as no surprise then that the beauty industry is looking to tackle the damaging effects that pollution reaps on our skin. 

If you were to search ‘pollution’ on Adore Beauty alone, 173 products from a range of different brands pop up (and that number is constantly on the rise). So, with anti-pollution products becoming more ubiquitous every day, we thought we’d give you the lowdown on how they work, the key ingredients to look out for and the products we think you should incorporate into your skin care routine. 

Who is at risk of pollution exposure

If you thought pollution was only present in built-up, smoggy areas, think again. As it currently stands, the Health Effects Institute reports that more than 95 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to dangerous air. What makes the air we breathe potentially so harmful is the presence of contaminants and impurities. “This includes carbon monoxide from exhaust fumes, industrial smoke and chemical pollution that we are exposed to in the modern world on a daily basis,” explains Dr Steven Liew, founder and Medical Director at Shape Clinic in Sydney.

How pollution impacts skin

“Most people are aware of the consequences of high pollution, especially in regard to respiratory illnesses. Unfortunately, they are not aware of the impact that pollution has on the skin,” says Liew. “Pollution can block pores and has a profound effect on the functioning of the skin. Skin can become congested, dehydrated, irritated, and existing conditions such as redness, rosacea and eczema can become heightened”.

While it remains unclear how long it takes for pollution damage to show up on the skin, Liew notes, “we do know that when combined with UVA and UVB sun damage, long-term exposure to pollution has a cumulative effect on the skin. This degradation surfaces as premature ageing i.e. fine lines, wrinkles, redness, blotchiness and aggravated acne.” In a nutshell, “exposure to prolonged pollution can be just as detrimental as UVA/UVB damage,” says Liew. 

How pollution damage differs from sun damage

While both pollution and sun damage result in premature ageing, they cause damage in different ways. According to the founder of her own namesake skin care brand, Dr Barbara Sturm explains that “UVA and UVB rays penetrate the skin and reach the cells and their DNA directly, where they cause a ‘break’ of the disulphide bridges of the DNA. This then leads to cell damage, such as photo-ageing or skin cancer. The damaging process of pollution, however, is a bit different. Pollutants can attack the skin from the outside, destroying the natural skin barrier [by] causing it to break down. They can also get into the skin and lead to the development of free radicals, which harm the DNA of the cells and can cause anything from premature ageing to irritation and breakouts.”

Why there’s been such a rise in anti-pollution products

As we’ve already mentioned, the last few years have seen a proliferation of new skin care products that all promise to tackle the effects of pollution damage. Liew contributes this to a rise in research findings that have emerged in the last three to four years, which have highlighted just how damaging pollution can be on our skin, as well as our overall health. 

These days you can find pollution-fighting products within nearly all skin care categories. If you haven’t started using an anti-pollution product yet, these are some of our favourite serums: Rationale’s Antioxidant Lipid Concentrate, which works to protect against solar infrared radiation and free radical damage; SkinCeutical’s C E Ferulic, an antioxidant-rich serum that’s been clinically proven to protect against advanced environmental damage; and Dr Barbara Sturm’s Anti-Pollution Drops, which feature a blend of antioxidants that provide support against pollutants and protection from the ageing effects of blue light from digital devices.

Rationale Antioxidant Lipid Concentrate

SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic

Dr Barbara Sturm Anti-Pollution Drops

How anti-pollution skin care products work

According to Sturm, “the ideal anti-pollution product strengthens the skin barrier, creates a barrier between the skin and pollutants, neutralises and binds toxic heavy metals, helps the body eliminate said toxins and provides the cells with strong antioxidants to protect them from free radicals”. Not sure what free radicals are? Essentially, they’re unstable molecules that can cause premature ageing in the form of dull skin tone and a loss of collagen and elastin. If you want to know more, read up on exactly how free radicals cause damage

If you’re on the hunt for pollution-fighting products, Liew explains the best place to start is with products packed full of antioxidants, as they’re able to prevent oxidation and ‘mop up’ the free radicals that have a damaging effect on the skin. Three of our favourite moisturisers that do just that are Murad City Skin Overnight Detox Moisturiser, Lancôme Énergie de Vie Overnight Recovery Mask and Clinique Dramatically Different Hydrating Jelly.

Murad City Skin Overnight Detox Moisturiser

Lancôme Énergie de Vie Overnight Recovery Mask

Clinique Dramatically Different Hydrating Jelly

Should every product in your skin care routine fight pollution? 

Now that you’re aware of just how damaging pollution can be, we wouldn’t be surprised if you wanted to run out and purchase 10 different products that all focused on preventing environmental harm. Instead of sending your bank balance into cardiac arrest, Sturm notes that while your skin care routine should work to protect your skin from harmful pollutants, not every single product needs to be specifically targeted to do the job. “The focus should be to support your skin and have a healing routine that will provide the cells with everything they need to be able to withstand the challenges they face on a daily basis.” For instance, your skin should be thoroughly moisturised and protected with antibacterial and anti-inflammatory ingredients. Once you’ve got the bare bones of your routine down pat, you can then add targeted, antioxidant-rich products to combat the ageing effects of pollution. 

While serums tend to be the go-to product for defending the skin, purifying face masks can also work wonders as they help to rid the skin of potentially harmful impurities and build-up. Three of our favourites include O Cosmedics 3-in-1 Fruit Peel Mask, Cosmedix Detox Activated Charcoal Mask and Kiehl’s Cilantro and Orange Extract Pollutant Defending Masque.  

O Cosmedics 3-in-1 Fruit Peel Mask

Cosmedix Detox Activated Charcoal Mask

Kiehl’s Cilantro and Orange Extract Pollutant Defending Masque

The key pollution-fighting ingredients to look out for

Sturm notes the main ingredients to keep an eye out for when buying new skin care products are strong antioxidants, specifically purslane or cocoa seed extract. Additionally, Sturm says “certain ingredients such as alteromonas ferment extract are able to create a protective surface on the skin that acts like a net and stops pollutants from sticking, which therefore protects the cells from damage. Another is EDTA, an ingredient that neutralises toxic-heavy metals such as arsenic mercury, lead and cadmium, especially if taken as an oral supplement. Hyaluronic acid also supports and strengthens the skin barrier and is therefore not only protective, but also proactive when it comes to supporting your skin against negative environmental influences such as pollution.”

Three of our favourite products that include at least one of the above are Elizabeth Arden PREVAGE® City Smart with Sunscreens Hydrating Shield, Clarins Extra-Comfort Anti-Pollution Cleansing Cream and Mesoestetic Pollution Defense Ampoules.

Elizabeth Arden PREVAGE® City Smart with Sunscreens Hydrating Shield

Clarins Extra-Comfort Anti-Pollution Cleansing Cream

Mesoestetic Pollution Defense Ampoules

Looking to increase your skin care know-how? Then discover the top retinol myths you need to stop believing and find out six high-tech ways to get better skin, fast.

Do you use pollution-fighting products in your skin care routine? Share your favourites with us in the comments below.  

Main image credit: Sevak Babakhani

Kate has worked for BEAUTYcrew since early 2016, first as a contributor, before being named Beauty Writer in 2017. She loves picking the brains of the industry's top experts to get to the bottom of beauty's toughest questions. Bronze eyeshadow palettes are her weakness and she's forever on the hunt for the perfect nude nail polish to suit her fair skin. Her words can also be found in Men's Health magazine.