This website uses cookies to improve your experience. Continue if you are OK with this or find out more in our Privacy Policy.


Pollution and pimples: why acne could be a postcode lottery

April 24th 2018 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment


Getty Images

It’s blamed for an increase in respiratory diseases and heart conditions, can cause premature ageing and pigmentation, and now it’s thought it’s implicated in acne. Here’s how air pollution could be prompting breakouts, and some good air vs. acne news

Stress, sleep deprivation, subsisting on mainly sugar and caffeine...the chaos of city living can take its toll on skin from many angles, and no doubt you’ve also heard tell of the less than welcome effects of pollution in terms of early onset wrinkles and age spots, but how about if it’s exacerbating your acne too? Before you pack your suitcase, let’s establish how those fumes can affect skin, and what you can do to protect yourself, short of upping sticks.

Acne and air pollution: the evidence

Anyone who’s arrived home to find black gunk in their orifices (apologies if you’re eating) after a day in London/Birmingham/ any urban conurbation will be aware of that grimy, slightly gross ‘shower me now’ city sensation, and scientists are increasingly of the opinion that air pollution could well be contributing to your oily t-zone and post-commute crop of chin zits. In a global review of the current evidence linking air pollution and a worsening of acne symptoms published last year in the journal Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology, scientists identified that cases of acne appear to be elevated in areas of high ambient air pollution, with flare-ups reported during periods of particularly poor air quality.

Unfortunately, as you might imagine, dirty air quality equals dirty skin.

While the link between pigment spot formation and pollution is now well known, there remains a lack of data on the exact correlation of pollution exposure and incidences of acne, but early studies seem to suggest that pollution has a particularly marked effect on sebum levels and inflammation. A Chinese study revealed that participants living in urban areas reported sebum levels twice as high as those living in less polluted areas, while a clinical study of skin changes associated with chronic exposure to environmental pollution in Mexico City also reported that sebum levels were raised in polluted areas. The same study recognised a reduction in the skin’s vitamin E and squalene levels, while a survey of dermatologists at an International Dermatology Conference in Beijing highlighted that 67 per cent of respondents agreed that acne prevalence increased with rising pollution levels. While research may be in its early stages, the harmful effects of pollution particles when it comes to aggravating acne is a phenomenon that most skin experts would recognise, as cosmetic chemist and founder of Skin Owl Annie Tevelin acknowledges:

“I live and work in LA and get asked whether pollution makes acne worse all of the time, due to the high levels of air and ozone pollution. Pollution weakens the skin's immunity and ability to fight off free radicals, and unfortunately, as you might imagine, dirty air quality equals dirty skin.”

Oxidative stress and inflammation provoked by pollution particles is thought to be at the root of the interaction of acne and poor air quality, with some studies suggesting that particulate matter can penetrate the outer layers of the skin (stratum corneum), provoking an inflammatory cascade that damages the skin’s natural defense capacity, depleting antioxidants and compromising the skin barrier. Add UV exposure to the mix and the skin’s natural lipid levels are disturbed further, while antioxidant vitamin E in particular is sapped. The result is skin that’s more susceptible to damage and more vulnerable to irritants, which, combined with the accumulation of dust, dirt, makeup, sebum and bacteria on skin that typifies city life, makes incidences of inflammatory acne all the more likely.

The anti-pollution acne plan

Alarming as the above might sound, you needn’t wear a helmet on the commute or move to a desert island (although...flexible working). Follow these clear city skin commandments, with a pep talk from former acne sufferer and Allies of Skin founder Nicolas Travis, whose Singapore based brand (Asia has the highest incidences of clinical acne in the world, with 30 per cent of women from the region suffering) only tests its formulas on acnegenic skin:

“Treating pollution damage needn’t be difficult. Prioritise products and ingredients that restore and strengthen the skin barrier such as niacinamide, ceramides and natural plant oils like rosehip. Antioxidants are your best allies- taking them internally and applying them externally would give the best results. Internally, consider taking a resveratrol supplement for superior antioxidant protection.

“Topically, your best bet is to use products with a cocktail of antioxidants - the more the better. Just as the body cannot survive on kale alone (praise be), the skin needs more than one antioxidant to thrive.”

Clean your face. Like, now.

Not that you shouldn’t wash your face if you live in the country of course, but city smog demands an especially structured cleaning rota, as celebrity facialist and Decléor skincare expert Nichola Joss stresses:

“Don’t wait to wash away the day’s pollution. As soon as you step through the front door, clean your skin. The longer that pollution and dirt stay on your skin, the worse the effects.

Double cleansing is the new norm, but don’t use the same cleanser for stage one and two. Begin with an oil based cleanser to break down pollution and cut through the build-up of grime, then use a cream cleanser to thoroughly cleanse and eliminate pollution particles that adhere to the skin.”

The kit: Decléor Micellar Cleansing Oil, £21 for 150ml, melts away surface pollutants and makeup, while Clinique City Block Purifying Charcoal Cleansing Gel, £19 for 100ml, gives excess sebum, bacteria and any lingering residue the heave-ho.



If you prefer a creamy consistency, try Murad Time Release Blemish Cleanser, £30, which gives clogged pores a seeing to thanks to exfoliating salicylic acid. Speaking of which…

Exfoliate, but don’t scrub

Your skin’s defences have already been weakened, so don’t give it a raw deal by roughing up the skin barrier further with an aggressive scrub. Instead, sweep away bacteria, dead skin cells and pollution particles with a BHA liquid exfoliant tailored to oily, acne prone skin.

The kit: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, £26 for 118ml, is our city-based team favourite for smoother, clearer skin, without the aggro.


Get your vitamin fix

This is Nicolas’ number one urban skin tip, and seeing as studies indicate that pollution particularly deprives skin of vitamins C and E, upping your doses could help to prevent all manner of skin damage, from blemishes to age spots.

The kit: Skin Owl Maqui Berry Beauty Drops PM, £79 for 60ml, provide a potent nocturnal antioxidant shot to help replenish your skin’s natural defences overnight. Nicolas’ own Allies of Skin 1A Overnight Mask, £87 for 50ml, is another nighttime antioxidant crusader, designed to undo the harmful effects of pollution, smoke, alcohol and stress (to a degree) by throwing a powerful blend of antioxidant plant oils, niacinamide and retinol at your city skin situation. It reportedly reduces acne lesions (the particularly volcanic genre of spot to you and I) by 67% over a period of 28 days, which is just as well considering the price point. Patch test if you’re got sensitive skin as this packs a punch.


Back up your skin barrier

It’s an urban jungle out there, so give your skin barrier a fighting chance at seeing off smog and preventing acne bacteria from settling in. If you’re using a retinol or taking medication such as roaccutane, preserving and reinforcing your skin’s natural lipids becomes even more vital. Look out for emollient squalene on skincare labels in particular, and cruise through our edit of the best moisturisers for oily skin.

The kit: Pestle & Mortar Hydrate, £38 for 50ml, is a lightweight hydrator that brings squalene and precious vitamin E to the party, alongside antioxidant pomegranate and green tea and the most hygienic packaging possible to prevent the spread of bacteria.


Don’t scrimp on SPF

The most basic of health and beauty rules, but UVA and UVB protection is non-negotiable for protecting skin from the elements and preventing both inflammation and DNA damage. Don’t venture into the city without it, and don’t go lower than SPF 20.

The kit: Ultrasun’s new Daily Face Fluid SPF50+ Brightening & Anti-Pollution, £28 for 40ml, shields skin from both UV and atmospheric damage- it reportedly intercepts 96 per cent of air pollution particles, preventing them from penetrating the skin barrier and thus inflaming acne. It’s lightweight, greaseproof and non-comedogenic and works a dream under makeup- I’ve been putting in to the test during the recent heatwave and barely noticed I’ve been wearing it, which is always a bonus where high SPF is concerned in particular. I can’t attest for exactly how it’s been rebounding pollution particles, but I haven’t suffered from breakouts of late, which is a boon in itself given that I live off of one of the most polluted roads in London, and let’s be honest, the sweaty climes aren’t kind to the excess sebum-prone. A* in that regard.


Get physical

Nichola Joss swears by a good rub down at the end of the day:

“I am known for my lymphatic drainage facials, but this is easy to do at home too. Daily facial massage works to remove toxins from deep within your pores leaving your skin hydrated, glowing and radiant. With an oil-based product, gently press either side of the face using all of the palm. Using pressure, sweep the palm up to the ears and down the neck. Repeat.”

Don’t have the energy? Put your face into someone else’s hands...

The treatment: Nichola has designed a tailored anti-pollution facial with Decléor to combat the adverse effects of pollution on the skin, playing on Nichola’s famed lymphatic drainage technique (Meghan Markle is a fan) to give dull, breakout-ravaged skin a thorough deep-cleanse and shot at cell renewal and recovery. The Hydra Floral Moisture Shield Anti-Pollution Facial, £75 for 75 minutes, will launch at the Decléor Boutique and Day Spa in May, and nationwide from June, and can be tailored to your individual skin types and concerns. That tenacious film of pollution doesn’t stand a chance against these therapist’s firm hands.

It’s not all bad news

While London remains one of the nine cities to breach the World Health Organisation's safe health levels for air quality, the capital’s air was deemed cleaner than it has been for ten years this January, and the past weekend’s London Marathon prompted an 89 per cent decrease in air pollution, owing to road closures and a resultant fall in harmful vehicle emissions. Clearly there’s a lot of progress to be made, and pedestrianising entire cities isn’t an option, but leaving our cars at home, using low emission public transport and making a fuss about filthy fumes to the government could help to clear both our toxic air and our complexions. Throw in a face mask for extra skin-pact.

You ultimate guide to anti-pollution skincare

Follow Anna on Twitter and Instagram

Join the conversation

Agile web development by Byte9