The science behind protecting your skin against pollution

Pollution is everywhere around us – indoors and out – and scientists keep informing us that ‘toxic air’ is wreaking havoc on our skin.

Much has been written on the effects pollution has on our health – and it’s fairly alarming. Figures from the World Health Organization tell us over 90 per cent of the world’s children are inhaling toxic air daily and nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air

Pollution is also terrible for our skin. Our skin absorbs microscopic particles of soot, dust, smoke and acid floating around in the atmosphere - these can penetrate the skin barrier and dry skin out, cause hyperpigmentation or inflammation and break down collagen, accelerating the ageing process. You may even be familiar with the word for it (coined by South Koreans): polluaging.

“City dwellers in particular are exposed to higher levels of pollution from vehicle emissions. Traffic fumes contain skin-penetrating particles such as PM2.5, and these trigger damage in our skin cells by a process of ‘free radical formation and oxidative stress’,” explains Dr. Maria Roest, consultant dermatologist at the Lister Hospital (part of HCA Healthcare UK).

Our skin also faces a barrage of pollution threats due to the technology we use. Computer and mobile screens emit infrared and blue light – studies suggest that blue light contributes to oxidative stress. Translation? Our phones are also likely to be contributing to our skin’s premature ageing.

Brands are responding to these environmental stressors with a variety of anti-pollution products, which promise to protect and fortify the skin – and they're proving popular with consumers.

London department store Liberty reported a 73 per cent increase in searches for “anti-pollution skincare” in March 2019, and a 166 per cent spike in sales of anti-pollution beauty products. Cult Beauty’s extensive anti-pollution range currently features 130 products from brands like Verso, Caudalie and celeb favourite Dr. Barbara Sturm, whose Anti-Pollution Drops team hyaluronic acid with radish root and cocoa seed extracts to defend against blue light, and contain disodium EDTA, to remove heavy metals.

“There has been a surge in interest in pollution protective strategies,” Dr. Roest says. “Approaches include improving skin barrier function to prevent penetration (for example, applying a topical product such as a cream), taking oral antioxidants to combat pollution effects or applying topical products to mop up the ‘free-radical damage.’ Early studies report some formulations may improve the skin barrier function vs. pollution, but more research is needed.”

Anti-pollution ingredients can be found in everything from shampoo to sunscreen, which is still the most critical tool in our daily skincare regimen.

“UVA rays remain the single biggest factor in both ageing of the skin and dangerous cell mutation that can cause skin cancer, penetrating 90 per cent of cloud cover,” says skinSense and Ultrasun founder, Abi Cleeve. “Skin not adequately protected from UV is even less prepared to combat pollution, then pollution puts the skin on the back foot and the cycle perpetuates itself.”

Look out for a sunscreen with a high percentage of Ectoin. A known pollution-fighting enzyme, Ectoin protects skin from the effects of UVA damage and has anti-inflammatory and hydrating benefits to limit the impact of blue light.

For those who prefer plant-based skincare alternatives, you’re in luck. Bee Good founder, Simon Cavill, points out centuries-old natural ingredients like honey, antibacterial propolis and beeswax can help fight oxidative damage from free radicals and work as a skin barrier (essentially what the fancy anti-pollution products are doing, without the name).

“Propolis is filled with minerals such as magnesium, calcium and zinc, which are essential to rebuild damaged skin cells, as well as flavonoids such as quercetin, pinocembrin, and galangin, which fight against the damaging effects by oxidants, caused by pollution and UV rays from the sun,” he explains.

Our cities are getting more polluted, so it's a no brainer to have a few more anti-pollution essentials on your person.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Please see for more details. See more Smarter Thinking content here.


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