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Anti-pollution skincare: the final frontier in anti-ageing?

July 17th 2016 / Anna Hunter


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Forgive the dramatic headline, but increasingly poor global air quality means that shielding ourselves from smog is as crucial for our skin as it is for our lungs. Can a cream really help?

We’re officially living in smogville, whether you’re a city dweller or not. The UK has been breaching EU pollution limits consistently for the past five years, with London emerging as the most polluted city in Europe, which isn’t really surprising given that traffic choked Oxford Street breached hourly pollution limits over 1000 times last year (*slow clap*). In the case of London in particular, new mayor Sadiq Khan has made it one of his main objectives to achieve a ‘cleaner, greener London’, through establishing an Ultra Low Emission Zone, planting more trees in the capital and facilitating the use of electric cars and buses. Until then, if you’re a Londoner you’ll be putting up with an assault of particle pollution to your body on a daily basis, and the generally impure state of our air means that it’s a similar story whether you live in an urban or rural area.

Given that the skin is our largest organ, it’s highly susceptible to the ravages incurred by pollution, along with lungs, eyes and hearts. Cosmetic Dermatologists Dr Hilary Allan and Dr Mervyn Patterson of the Woodford Medical Clinic explain the principal issues for skin exposed to pollutants:

“Particle pollution, also known as particulate matter (PM), is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets. Some particles such as soot, dust and smoke are large and can be seen with the naked eye. Other particles are very small and can only be seen by an electron microscope. Scientists refer to these as polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and they arise from such things as coal fires or sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides emitted from power plants and automobiles, particularly diesel engines.”

“Scientists believe that PMs are covered on their surface by the smaller PAHs. These PAHs are lipophilic, meaning they dissolve in oil, and this is why they can penetrate through the outer layers of the skin.”

“The presence of PAHs in the skin alters the skin barrier and disrupts the connections between the surface cells. A healthy lipid ratio of the three key lipids, as well as strong bonds between our surface cells, are vital to protect us from daily attack from environmental agents. A weakened shield leaves the deeper skin layers vulnerable to attack.”

“Once into the skin's deeper tissue, PMs/PAHs cause oxidative stress triggering many pathways of unwanted chronic inflammation. It is chronic inflammation caused by traffic air pollution that leads to unwanted pigmentation and destruction of collagen with formation of wrinkles.”

“People with sensitive skin types (now estimated to be in excess of 50% of the UK population), as well as those suffering from inflammatory skin diseases such as eczema, are more susceptible to the effects of air pollution.”

In terms of skin health the focus has firmly and rightly been on sun protection over the past few decades, but experts are beginning to think that pollution has seriously sinister effects on our skin too, compromising our immune barrier and potentially contributing to DNA damage. A recent study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology involving groups of Chinese and caucasian German women linked exposure to a high level of pollutants to a 25% increase in dark spots on the skin, while senior scientists at Olay and L’Oréal have identified an increased incidence of patients reporting to hospital due to aggravated eczema, hives and other inflammatory skin conditions in areas of elevated pollution in both China and Mexico. Whether or not you suffer from a debilitating skin condition, Dr Patterson warns that the effects of pollution on our skin will become manifest at a much faster rate than ever previously imagined:

“Unless people do more to protect their skin, they will end up wearing the pollution on their faces in ten years time.”

Clearly age spots, wrinkles and rosacea aren’t on anyone’s agenda, but given that air quality control is clearly an impossible goal for most of us day to day, what can be done about detrimental molecules that are set on gatecrashing our epidermis (and beyond)? Staging a defensive attack is a good start. Lobbying the government is the next step, but while you’re doing that a little ‘skinsurance’ won’t hurt. Here are the latest and greatest skincare soldiers to the join the anti-pollution product army. If you can’t get your hands on them, just remember to keep your antioxidants close to help to neutralise the adverse effects of unstable pollution molecules (free radicals). Eat them, drink them, wear them; antioxidants are essential when it comes to slowing, and even preventing, skin damage. Team them with sunscreen and you’re sending a pretty clear message to potential invaders.

Elizabeth Arden Prevage® City Smart SPF 50 Hydrating Shield, £55


If you’re looking to throw the kitchen sink at pollution, not to mention UV rays, this is the product for you. With a patent pending anti-pollution complex comprising of an exclusive antioxidant blend (idebenone, green tea, thiotaine, ferulic acid and L-carnosine), City Smart aims to blast both oxygen and nitrogen based free radicals, with algae enzymes to strengthen skin against oxidative stress and reinforce the skin’s barrier. Developed in an environment that simulated a ‘hazardous’ level on the Air Quality Index Spectrum, tests proved that Arden’s anti-pollution technology imparted skin cells with five times the resilience against toxic nanoparticles versus unprotected cells. Incidentally, it’s also one of the most flattering, lightweight and easily absorbed SPF 50s I’ve tried. Smart indeed.

Année de Mamiel atmosphériques, from £50


If you prefer natural, holistic skincare solutions that take on both mental and dermatological stress, acupuncturist and Chinese medical expert Année should be on your radar. Her new atmosphériques collection includes a calming Cleansing Dew, Antioxidant Elixir and Daily Hydrating Nectar, all blended to help skin to combat and recover from oxidative damage. The oil textured cleanser eases away makeup and pollutants without further aggravating the skin barrier, while the tinted SPF 30 daily hydrator fortifies skin with botanical antioxidants, which can be topped up come nightfall with the potent, phytonutrient rich Antioxidant Elixir. Année’s background in aromatherapy shines through too; the essential oils within the range are well considered and designed to induce relaxation, which let’s be honest, is a rare state of being in hectic urban environments.

Indeed Labs Vitamin C24 Facial Creme, £24.99


As antioxidants go, vitamin C (otherwise known as L-ascorbic acid), is a key player, but seeing as the body doesn’t store it, and given that it’s very unstable in terms of its tendency to oxidise, it’s also elusive. Enter Indeed Labs, whose recent foray into the vitamin C sphere has resulted in a stabilized cream with a vitamin C concentration of 22% (FYI, that’s high). Combined with plumping hyaluronic acid to minimise the dehydrating effect of pollution particles, the potent vitamin C stimulates the skin’s natural repair processes, speeding up collagen production and over time reducing inflammation. Those with very sensitive skin may wish to tread carefully, however, as the tingle on application can be quite intense. All other skin types, build up your usage, or try mixing it with your usual moisturiser until your skin can deal. It’s also got a lot of silicone going on, in case that’s a detractor. Otherwise, all good in urban hoods.

REN Flash Defense Anti-Pollution Mist, £24


Of all of the anti-pollution cavalry, this one felt the most gimmicky, but then if exhaust fumes can cause skin so much misery, there’s no reason that a zinc, amino acid and biosaccharide gum ‘shield’ shouldn’t go some way to prevent evil little pore sized molecules from penetrating the skin. With antioxidant quercetin (I’m loving this in supplement form for hayfever too by the way) and cell supporting yeast extracts, it’s a quick and refreshing way to achieve a degree of peace of mind where pollution is concerned. It’s hard to tell whether or not it’s working; a checkup with Dr Hilary in circa ten years might reveal all. Until then, needs must.

Follow me on Anna on Instagram @annyhunter

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